During the interview, she was asked about a comment from former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. “This is very much characteristic of living in Donald Trump’s America,” Buttigieg said on the network on Wednesday, “and I think we’re going to see more and more of it as long as he’s in charge.”
“Nobody is going to buy that,” Conway said. “We know that these are Democratically led cities and most with Democratic governors."
“Why is that important?” she continued. “Because the Republican president, Donald Trump, doesn't look at this as a partisan issue. He's trying to send federal reinforcements in. And you've got these governors saying, oh, no. They're putting their pride in their politics ahead of public safety."
That alone is revealing. Because eruptions of violence can be blamed on Democrats, the White House throws up its hands. That’s not only because it allows Trump to shunt away criticism but also because it allows him to make the point he wants to make: Democrats, like his general election opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, allow violence to happen. In an out-of-character move, Trump is happy to present himself as powerless here specifically because he thinks it reinforces weakness on the part of his opponents.
Don’t believe me? Allow Conway to make that point.
“There was a quote today from a restaurateur in Wisconsin, saying, ‘Are you protesters trying to get Donald Trump reelected?’ ” Conway said. “He knows, full stop, and I guess Mayor Pete knows, full stop, that the more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”
The better it is, indeed! But let’s stop for a moment and consider what’s happening.
After several incidents in which Black men or women died or were injured at the hands of law enforcement, protests began in a number of cities. In May and June, the protests were near universal. More recently, they’ve been more centered in areas where the incidents happened, such as Atlanta or Kenosha, Wis.
At those protests, there is often a lot of anger. At times, that has led to acts of vandalism or violence by a minority of participants. At times, there have been looting or assaults. Elected leaders are forced to find a balance between allowing protesters to exercise their First Amendment rights and constraining illegal behavior. Often, law enforcement refrains from cracking down on minor offenses like some fights or vandalism to avoid confrontation with the crowd; after all, the focus of the protesters’ anger is law enforcement itself. Sometimes, law enforcement has confronted protesters, resulting in an escalation of events.
When Trump dispatched federal law enforcement to Portland, Ore., that occurred regularly. The federal officers approached the protesters aggressively, and things escalated. That doesn’t mean that violence and unrest were always a function of the federal presence. But the federal incursion obviously served to amplify tensions. That, of course, is one reason mayors and governors are loath to seek federal assistance: It risks making the violence worse.
An administration official who spoke with The Washington Post at the time of the deployments in Portland made clear that the White House didn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing, that the White House had wanted to amplify tension in cities for some time.
“It was about getting viral online content,” an official told The Post. Content depicting tension between police and protesters in cities has been a staple of Trump campaign advertising for months.
In 2014, then-private citizen Trump opined that riots and looting would break out across the country because of “weak leadership in Washington.” Now, he frames such incidents as being a function not of fumbling in Washington but in city halls and statehouses. This raises an obvious counterfactual: What if Biden won and there was unrest in a city with a Republican mayor? Would Trump’s approach be the same?
Here’s where the Trump-Conway argument overlaps with demographics. Places in which more Black people live are more likely for obvious reasons to have incidents in which Black people are injured or killed by police. We can similarly assume that places with more Black residents are more likely to be home to more robust Black Lives Matter protests in general. And places with large Black populations tend to be large cities, which tend to be led by Democrats. That makes it much more likely that a place where a protest devolves into violence will have a leader at some level who isn’t a member of Trump’s party.
The reasons cities are more heavily Democratic are complex. One reason is the recent migration of younger, more liberal Americans to cities, often to attend college and stay afterward. Another is that cities tend to be less densely White in the first place, and non-White Americans tend to be more heavily Democratic. That Black Americans identify as Democrats by a more than 8 to 1 margin also means that, in Republican-heavy cities, there’s less of a political price for Republican elected officials to use a heavy hand in dealing with protests. No mayor wants vandalism and violence, but mayors who don’t care as much about the protesters’ votes may be less concerned about shutting protests down quickly based on a few bad actors.
So this is the dynamic. Trump is unconcerned about violence erupting in places where he can use the incidents to cast Democrats in a negative light, which includes most large cities. That it means he’s arguing that Biden’s presidency would lead to the sort of violence already being seen during Trump’s presidency — Buttigieg’s point — isn’t contradictory in his or many of his supporters’ eyes. The Democrats are letting that happen, not him. It’s a tidy little argument: Washington is powerless against violence because Democrats let it happen, and if a Democrat is elected president, he’ll be responsible for more violence.
Buttigieg’s prediction that this would continue “as long as Trump’s in charge” is probably incorrect. It’s obviously the case that Trump’s approach to the unrest is a function of the looming presidential contest. He does this every time there’s an election coming up. In 2014, he warned about the spread of Ebola. In 2016, he warned about immigrants and terrorism. In 2018, immigrants again, dispatching soldiers to the border to deal with families seeking asylum from dangerous countries in Central America.
Then, too, he embraced a forceful response. At the time, the Department of Homeland Security was led by Kirstjen Nielsen. Trump had mulled firing her — but his opinion of her improved when the department used tear gas to repel migrants approaching the border.
Much of the recent rhetoric against cities has been boosted by a heavy focus on violence and riots on Fox News and Fox Business. Since protests emerged in late May, Fox News has mentioned one of those two terms in an average of 2.3 percent of its coverage on any given day.
It has been omnipresent at the Republican convention, as well. It’s a certainty that Trump will mention the subject on Thursday night. His campaign has made clear that the president will discuss the subject and, with some irony, that “the reaction cannot be to escalate violence."
That “violence” and “protests” are often blurred in the rhetoric is itself intentional. On Wednesday, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson defended the actions of the 17-year-old charged with homicide in the shooting deaths of two protesters.
“How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” Carlson declared. “Everyone could see what was happening in Kenosha. It was getting crazier by the hour. Watch this scene from last night.”
The scene he showed? Protesters chanting “kill the police” and saying “death to America” while burning one of those miniature American flags. According to Carlson, it's perfectly reasonable to respond to the uncontrollable violence and danger of people saying things by approving of armed teenagers shooting protesters in the head.
Conway similarly suggested that the protests in Kenosha were simply uncontrollable.
“We're so far beyond peaceful protest,” she said on “Fox and Friends” on Thursday. “And this is why the president and the vice president last night are making a strong case for public safety."
Then a warning: “This could come to your own neighborhood, obviously."
Unless you reelect President Trump, in which case the violence that is happening under Trump won’t happen. It’s as simple as that.