As a new wave of unrest breaks out, some commentators have cracked open their well-worn pundit handbooks and recited a trusty old trope: Violence simply must help the “law and order” candidate. It cannot be any other way, because the handbook says so: Violence must beget backlash — a craving for the candidate vowing “strength.”

But what if a public backlash is brewing against what President Trump is doing? What if many voters see Trump’s exploitation of the situation as part of the problem, and are recoiling from that? If so, this could challenge the conventional pundit playbook, and prompt a revisiting of how cycles of racial nationalism and attempts at reconciliation play out in our politics.

New polling suggests this possibility. A CNN poll finds that 58 percent of Americans say Trump’s response to the protests has been “more harmful,” while only 33 percent say it’s “more helpful.”

That 58 percent is down a smidgen from 65 percent in June. But that’s not surprising: Trump just monopolized the airwaves for a week with undiluted authoritarian agitprop that depicted White America under siege amid full-scale civil collapse, while deifying himself as our strongman savior.

In that context, the fact that a solid majority sees Trump making the problem worse is striking. And a new ABC/Ipsos poll underscores the point with some surprising findings:

  • 55 percent of Americans say what Trump has said about protests “makes the situation worse,” while 42 percent say either that it has had little effect (29 percent) or has made things better (13 percent).
  • 55 percent say Joe Biden would do a better job keeping the country safe, versus only 42 percent who say the same about Trump.
  • 59 percent say Biden would do a better job handling the protests, versus 39 percent for Trump.
  • 64 percent say Biden would do more to unite Americans rather than divide them, versus 33 percent for Trump.
  • 59 percent say Biden would do a better job reducing violence in the country, versus 39 percent for Trump.

All this suggests large numbers of voters may be linking uniting the country on the one hand with keeping the country safe, reducing violence and handling protests well on the other. Meanwhile, those large numbers may be drawing a link between further dividing the country on one hand and handling protests badly, making things worse, and making us less safe on the other.

“It’s pretty clear that a majority of Americans think he’s contributing in a negative way to what’s happening,” Chris Jackson, the polling director at Ipsos, told me.

Trump, of course, claims he’s not being permitted to make things better: Democratic officials in “anarchist jurisdictions” won’t let him “fix” things with overwhelming force, which he could do in “approximately 15 minutes,” he tells us.

But what if the very idea that the only answer is overwhelming force — with little regard to the nuances and complexities of balancing public safety against civil liberties, peaceful assembly and the need to listen to the protest movement’s critique of societal ills — is itself being rejected by majorities?

Betting on a ‘Third Reconstruction’

When Trump traveled to Kenosha, Wis., he presided over scenes of destruction as if touring a war zone. By contrast, when Biden went on Thursday, he met with the family of police shooting victim Jacob Blake, and placed racist police brutality squarely in the context of our “original sin” of slavery, while recommitting to “fighting for racial equality.”

In a way, the fundamental difference between Trump and Biden is over the source of legitimacy of the state’s monopolization of violence or, indeed, over the degree to which it must be placed on a foundation of perceived legitimacy at all.

While Trump pays lip service to peaceful protests, he constantly conflates them with violent leftists he says are destroying the very possibility of civil society. This justifies the constant threat of unshackled state violence to put down the unrest.

Meanwhile, Trump has little to say about the very abuses of state violence that spawned the protests. Indeed, he has encouraged them, and has even tacitly encouraged extralegal vigilante action confronting protesters. His convention celebrated a White couple for waving guns at peaceful racial justice protesters.

Gary Gerstle, the author of a terrific history of U.S. racial nationalism, tells me this draws on a long tradition of treating “racial peace” as fundamentally unattainable in America. Instead, Gerstle notes, this requires a willingness to escalate to a war footing, in which we White Americans are prepped to respond to militant demands for change with “our own militancy, legal and extralegal.”

By contrast, Biden is betting on a “Third Reconstruction.” Major attempts to revise the “racial order” were made after the Civil War and amid the civil rights movement — triggering furious backlashes — and we might be on the cusp of another.

You can see hints at this in support for protesters’ underlying critiques of systemic racism. This is Biden’s view: Far-reaching reform will strengthen the underlying justification for law enforcement, broadening the possibilities for civil society and making it stronger.

By insisting that protesters must have a seat at the table, Biden is betting that majority support is there for another reconstruction, Gerstle says, just as majorities came to support civil rights after Jim Crow.

“When a majority is thinking that Trump is part of the problem, it is indicative that a Third Reconstruction may be underway — a multiracial movement of Blacks and Whites to put America’s racial house in order,” Gerstle tells me.

This could always prove overly optimistic, as Gerstle himself notes. And Trump could still win in other ways. But all signs right now suggest that this cultural moment is causing this particular strategy to fall apart on him.

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