They don’t want you to see these events as they are — largely a sign of people exercising their fundamental rights in our democracy, with mostly peaceful protests registering profound and legitimate abhorrence at continued systemic racism and police violence, and demanding reform. They want you to see the protesters, not police brutality, as the real threat.
They’re losing the argument, as a new batch of polls confirms. How and why they’re losing it sheds light on the ugly reality of what they’re really trying to accomplish, and on why it’s heartening that it’s failing.
A new ABC News/Ipsos poll finds that Trump’s standing on the protests is in the toilet: Only 32 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the response to the death of George Floyd, who died under the knee of a white officer. Sixty-six percent disapprove.
The ABC News poll also finds that 74 percent think Floyd’s death is a “sign of broader problems in the treatment of African Americans by police.”
Tellingly, this represents a huge increase: In 2014, after two other high-profile deaths of African American men at the hands of police, only 43 percent of Americans said those instances pointed to a broader problem. That’s according to another ABC News poll at the time.
Meanwhile, a CBS poll this week also finds that a majority of Americans, 57 percent, now think police are more likely to use deadly force against a black person than against a white person. That’s up from 43 percent in 2016.
And earlier this week, a Monmouth poll found that 57 percent believe police in a dangerous situation are more likely to use excessive force against blacks. It also found that 57 percent say the anger leading to protests is “fully justified.” And a combined 54 percent say protesters’ actions are either partly justified (37 percent) or fully justified (17 percent).
Take all this together, and it’s reasonable to suggest majorities hold a nuanced view of what’s happening: More Americans than ever recognize systemic racism and police brutality as intertwined societal problems. Majorities see the protests as rooted in legitimate grievances and see much protest activity, though not outbreaks of violence, as understandable.
Trump and Cotton do not want majorities to see what’s happening this way.
Bottomless bad faith
Trump keeps threatening to escalate force against the violence — vowing to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to send troops into U.S. cities, while claiming we’re under attack from “domestic terror.”
And Cotton, in his widely criticized op-ed piece, claimed “rioters have plunged many American cities into anarchy." He called for troops to be sent in, on the grounds that “one thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.”
Both Trump and Cotton, of course, mouth words of respect for the legitimacy of peaceful protests. Cotton claims he finds it “revolting” that anyone would conflate rioters with “peaceful, law-abiding protesters,” while admiring his glinting halo in the mirror.
But to pretend that the story ends here — to pretend their arguments aren’t deliberately conceived to create a profoundly distorting impression of these protests, while giving themselves plausible deniability for doing so — is to allow bad faith in argumentation to triumph.
Cotton spends the first three paragraphs of his op-ed depicting a dangerous threat to the country in extraordinarily lurid terms. He does so in a “slippery and dishonest" manner, as Michelle Goldberg demonstrates, badly inflating the proportion of violence endured by police, relative to that suffered by protesters.
Cotton also badly downplays the fact that many governors oppose Trump sending in the military and/or have condemned Trump’s call for more “toughness” on the grounds that this will make the situation worse.
This omission allows Cotton to get away with pretending the opposition resides only in “chic salons” and to frame his position as the “law and order” one. That’s harder to get away with when governors themselves don’t think what Trump and Cotton want will serve that purpose, and/or think it will exacerbate tensions.
Getting real about their arguments
Proportionality in argumentation matters. Yes, Cotton piously claims to respect law-abiding protesters. But the sum total of his arguments are designed to create a propagandistic impression, i.e., that the current state of affairs is so awash in chaos and violence that calling in the military is merited.
This is how Cotton wants the overall situation to be perceived. We are not obliged to pretend not to understand what Cotton is really up to here.
Similarly, Trump justifies his threat of more force by claiming we are under assault from “domestic terrorists,” language Cotton has also used. But this is an utterly baseless claim. It, too, is designed to mislead the country about the true nature of the moment.
And so are outbursts like this:
And yet, approval of Trump’s handling of the situation keeps sinking, even as majorities see the protests in a positive light and as rooted in legitimate criticisms of real and acknowledged societal problems.
Trump and Cotton won’t level with you about what they’re actually trying to accomplish with their arguments. But majorities simply refuse to see the protests as they hope. Their efforts are failing badly.
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