Even simply considered on their own merits, each of the ads is a bit odd.
One shared by the president’s social media team concludes by juxtaposing an image of Biden kneeling in front of a group of Black men with a call to “stop Joe Biden and his rioters.”
CNN’s Daniel Dale quickly identified the photo of Biden: it was taken at a church in Delaware following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd’s death, which occurred after a police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes, kicked off protests in late May that have flared up sporadically since.
The other new ad, shared by the president, juxtaposes a chant at a rally disparaging the United States with footage of Biden saying, “your fellow citizens, for exercising their right to peacefully protest.” It’s underscored with the bass-heavy whooom sound that is apparently mandated for action films.
It ends with an odd warning.
“Only you can stop this new normal,” the ad says, over a background of flames. The screen turns white and red text appears: “A vote for President Trump is a vote for Law & Order.”
At the risk of stating the obvious, if violence is normal now, it is not Biden’s fault, given that Biden is not currently the president. We’ve been over this before, but just so you know.
More bizarre, though, is that Biden quote. You probably noticed that it’s obviously an excerpt of some longer statement, given the phrasing. And so it is. It’s extracted from a speech Biden gave to a conference held by the National Guard Association, in which Biden criticized Trump’s stating that National Guard soldiers should be used to “dominate” Guard members’ fellow citizens, “for exercising their right to peacefully protest.”
In other words, Trump’s ad is using Biden’s criticism of Trump for his heavy-handed approach to protests.
On the same day Trump told state governors to “dominate” protests, the federal government forcefully cleared a group of peaceful protesters near the White House so that the president could have his photo taken at a nearby church.
Trump and his allies, of course, have repeatedly insisted that the crackdown in Lafayette Square on June 1 was necessary because of the unruliness of the assembled crowd. Which brings us back to the overarching theme of both the new ads and Trump’s recent campaign: that “protests” and “violence” are equivalent.
Biden has repeatedly differentiated between the two. His own campaign produced an ad excerpting a recent speech in which he condemns violent acts and looting that have at times accompanied peaceful protests.
“I want to make it absolutely clear,” Biden says in the spot: “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”
This is an important distinction to consider when Trump makes statements like this one.
In fact, the vast majority of protests have been peaceful, as data collected by the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project make clear. ACLED shared data from the beginning of the protests in May through Sept. 5 with The Post, allowing us to visualize how the protests have evolved.
We can sort the protests and violent interactions into three rough categories: peaceful protests, rioting or incidents of violence accompanying protests, and incidents of violence that targeted protesters. These categories are a bit awkward, conflating incidents of looting with protests at which violence erupts on one end and grouping violent attacks on protesters with law enforcement crackdowns on peaceful protests on the other.
Overall, though, two clear patterns emerge: The number of protests has faded since June, and the vast majority have been accompanied by no acts of violence.
If we look at violent incidents as a percentage of all actions collected by ACLED, the overwhelming peacefulness of the incidents stands out.
Some states have seen larger percentages of violent incidents than others. Oregon, for example, where ongoing protests in Portland have been accompanied by altercations with law enforcement and violence, has seen the highest density of non-peaceful incidents. Even there, though, nearly three-quarters of actions since late May have been peaceful, according to ACLED’s data.
Despite the Trump campaign’s focus on violence, it’s obvious that protests have faded significantly since May. Protests are still occurring, providing fodder for Trump’s campaign and his allies who host shows in Fox News’s prime-time spots. But any sense of turmoil or uprising accompanying the thousands of protests at the end of May has receded.
In other words, the Trump campaign’s effort to spur fear in the electorate is misleading in an impressively broad number of ways. The protests, far from being the “new normal,” have waned. The heavy majority of those protests didn’t involve violence anyway. And any incidents of violence are definitionally ones that are occurring under President Trump, making it hard to understand the argument that Americans must support Trump to prevent similar incidents.
As movie trailers, though, the new ads certainly are exciting.