The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s biggest argument is failing him. New polls explain why.

President Trump makes his way to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

During his recent ABC News town hall, President Trump exposed a core truth about his “law and order” campaign propaganda. “We have to allow the police to do their job,” Trump said. “We have to give them their mojo. We have to let them protect us.”

The barely disguised argument revealed here: One of the most pressing problems in American life is that the police are not permitted to be violent enough. Trump wants voters to believe we’re sliding into civil collapse and that “Democrat” squeamishness about unshackling state violence to crush unrest is the cause.

New polling from the New York Times and Siena College helps illustrate why this argument may be failing — and sheds light on a potential larger societal shift driving that failure.

The polling finds that Joe Biden is leading Trump in Arizona among likely voters by 49 percent to 40 percent; in North Carolina by 45 percent to 44 percent (a virtual tie); and in Maine by 55 percent to 38 percent.

The findings on unrest are instructive: In Arizona, Biden is trusted over Trump to handle “law and order” by 51 percent to 45 percent, a clear advantage. In North Carolina, those numbers are almost a tie — Trump is trusted by 48 percent to 46 percent. Biden has neutralized the issue in a red-leaning state Trump must win, which is striking.

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What’s more, in both states, majorities say that “racism in the criminal justice system” is a “bigger problem” than “riots in American cities.” In Arizona, voters say that by 51 percent to 43 percent, and in North Carolina by 51 percent to 41 percent.

Trump’s real position

Stripped down to its essence, Trump’s argument is that he is on the side of police, and Biden and Democrats are on the side of violence and criminality. You must choose one or the other.

In this false binary, choosing Trump — siding with police — means unfettering police so they can get their “mojo” back. Choosing Biden means siding with violence and criminality against police.

Biden’s real position, of course, is a balance — he favors far-reaching police reform to rein in brutality and eradicate systemic racism while also condemning violence. This, he believes, will serve the interests of civic peace — that is, the good of both police and communities.

Trump’s crude binary doesn’t allow for that balanced position to exist. The mental act of favoring police reform cannot coexist with a condemnation of violence. Favoring reform means you must be against police — you want to curb excessive police violence rather than unshackle it — and thus for criminality and violence.

But the rub is that this balanced position does exist in the minds of countless voters, likely even majorities.

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Biden’s balance

Indeed, if Biden is favored on “law and order,” even as large percentages say racism in the criminal justice system is a serious problem, perhaps many voters see getting this balance right itself as the linchpin of law and order, or more accurately, of the rule of law. In this telling, equality before the law is crucial to the foundation of civic order and indeed will place law enforcement on a firmer foundation of legitimacy.

More data confirms the point. Recent New York Times/Siena polling found that voters in Minnesota and Wisconsin — both states where violence has broken out — put Biden at parity or slightly above Trump to handle both violent crime and law and order, and a majority (51 percent to 42 percent) favor Biden to handle protests.

This is the case even though that same polling showed that many voters believe Biden hasn’t done enough to condemn violence. How can this be?

Well, that polling also showed that majorities in Minnesota and Wisconsin believe Trump has encouraged violence in America. Meanwhile, national polls have shown that majorities see Trump as making things worse, not better.

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The upshot: Whatever doubts persist about Biden, the balance he strikes is still seen as preferable to Trump’s false binary, which is seen as destructive, even deliberately so. Biden’s balance would be more effective in addressing the deep civic tensions and even the violence unleashed in the wake of police killings.

A deeper explanation

Political scientist Omar Wasow recently offered an explanation for all this. Wasow noted that during Richard Nixon’s 1968 “law and order” campaign, a supposed model for Trump’s, public sentiment was better classified as a tripartite set of opinions, as opposed to Trump’s binary.

In that scheme, Wasow noted, voters perceived the existence of an extreme position, the promise to “use all available force.” Nixon was seen as a moderate, between liberal Hubert Humphrey and segregationist George Wallace, who helped moderate Nixon’s position by being associated with the extreme one.

Wasow concluded that it’s plausible Biden is becoming the candidate of “safety,” even as Trump is becoming the Wallace-like extremist. As Jonathan Chait notes, Trump is the candidate of Wallace’s “vicious authoritarianism,” while Biden is “the one candidate opposed to violence in American cities across the board.”

After all, Trump’s position just is the exhortation to “use all available force.” Trump’s position at bottom is law and order without the rule of law, which really amounts to unshackled state and even vigilante violence, something Trump has actively encouraged, provided it’s waged by his people.

Trump flooded the airwaves with ads and staged a convention saturated with authoritarian agitprop depicting White America as under siege, and himself as the strongman who will give the police the “mojo” they need to crush the insurrectionists. Yet the Trump campaign this week suddenly pivoted away from this strategy. Maybe we now know why.

Read more:

Brian Klaas: American democracy can’t withstand four more years of Trump

Max Boot: Republicans — not Democrats — are the party controlled by extremists

Michael Gerson: Abortion isn’t the only issue on the presidential ballot

Paul Waldman: Trump can’t decide whom he should tell people to hate

The Post’s View: Trump is trying to cast doubt on an election he might lose