The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump campaign warns that a Biden presidency could be as dangerous and violent as Trump’s

The ad from President Trump’s reelection campaign echoes one produced five years ago by the fervently pro-Trump cable network One America News. We see a phone, sitting on a desk at a police precinct. A caller seeking help instead gets a voice mail: the department, defunded, can’t assist the community. Over and over, an emotionless set of options for reporting violent crime is juxtaposed with footage of violence, looting, turmoil.

At the end of the ad comes a warning for the viewer. This is the America that former vice president Joe Biden wants, it claims, superimposing the face of the probable Democratic presidential nominee over video footage of burning dumpsters.

“You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” it warns.

Ominous. Certainly not what Americans want to see. Except … all of those stark images from the ad were captured around the country in late May. Meaning that while they’re used to argue that America won’t be safe under Biden, they actually depict instability under Trump.

The first image, for example, is from the evening a Minneapolis police precinct was burned — which, of course, happened while Trump was president.

Then a shot of a liquor store ablaze across the street on the same night.

An image of a window being smashed at a bankruptcy court in Grand Rapids, Mich., on May 30.

A snippet of police and protesters scuffling in New York’s Union Square — a weird thing to include given that the premise of the ad is that police aren’t actually responding to crises.

The next snippet has a similar problem, showing protesters and police interrupting a guy breaking apart a D.C. sidewalk with a hammer.

After a shot of a looter climbing in a window, the ad gets to the point: Biden’s supporters — though not Biden, it bears noting — support defunding police departments. Then an additional point: Violent crime has exploded.

The source for that claim is an ABC News report from June 24, according to the ad. Specifically, this one, which is not actually a determination that violent crime has “exploded” but, instead, a report on research conducted by a nonprofit organization of police executives that made the determination that violent crime had increased. The article was headlined, “Why some police officials believe crime is on the rise in US cities.”

What’s important to note is that the police executives cited don’t think this increase is a function of defunding the police. Instead, they cite the coronavirus pandemic, which closed courts and prompted the release of some non-violent offenders to curtail the spread of the virus.

After all, the movement to defund the police is only about a month old and there’s been almost no actual change in how police departments are funded as a result. While the ad explicitly tries to promote the idea that defunding the police means that police won’t be available to handle violent incidents, most Americans understand that the slogan in the way its advocates intend: it promotes changing how police departments operate.

The ad concludes with that Inglorious-Basterds-esque shot of Biden’s face floating above fire — fires set in Minneapolis on May 29, while Donald Trump was president of the United States.

This is worth parsing in part because of its flaws as an argument. (For example, conservative commentator Erick Erickson, who supports Trump, mocked the use of Trump-era violence to impugn a hypothetical Biden administration.) But it’s also worth parsing because it makes clear how Trump’s approach to crime hasn’t changed in four years, despite all of his tough talk as a candidate in 2016. Then, he demanded — and promised — action from the federal government to address rising crime rates in cities run by Democrats. Now, he demands that the Democrats running those cities ask him for help before he does anything.

He did so on Thursday night, during a conversation with Fox New’s Sean Hannity.

“New York City is not recognizable,” he said. “Crime is way up. Shootings are way up. Murder is way up. It’s just unbelievable. Chicago. What’s going on in Chicago? And we are looking at it very seriously because we’re going to have to do something.”

“You know,” he continued, “we’re really supposed to be asked to come in and help, the federal government — and we have the greatest people in the world and we can solve it — but we’re supposed to be asked, so the mayor or the governor of Illinois should be asking, but they don’t want to ask.”

Four years ago this month, he stood on the stage at the Republican convention in Cleveland and presented that relationship in different terms.

“The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end,” he said then. “Beginning on January 20th, 2017, safety will be restored.”

At another point he insisted that “nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” He did not mention that one would first have to ask him to fix it.

It’s certainly fair to point out that Trump’s 2016 rhetoric was a bit simplistic, as was his rhetoric for months and years prior in which he blamed various problems on former president Barack Obama. But, then, even to Hannity he still claimed that he might just somehow swoop in anyway.

“We’re ready to act,” he said. “And at some point, we may have to act anyway. We may have to do it sooner rather than later.”

So, in summary, President Trump’s position is that crime in the United States is rising, which is a function of Joe Biden’s allies and which, under Joe Biden, could rise to the levels seen under Trump — and that Trump could fix this very easily if he were asked to, or if he wanted to, which he might soon.

Or more succinctly: it’s not his fault but it could get worse and through his omnipotence he could fix it, but he hasn’t.