Friday, September 11, 2020

BTRTN: Is Trump's "Law and Order" Message Working? How Should Biden Respond?

A number of BTRTN readers have asked us whether we think Donald Trump’s “law and order” message is working. Could it get Trump re-elected? Steve discusses the threat it poses, but his conclusion is that it will only work if the Democrats allow it to happen.

Is Donald Trump’s “law and order” message a winning strategy? Is it working? Could it tip the balance and result in his re-election?

On the one hand, there is not a black and white answer… and yet there is also a completely black and white answer. Let us explain. 

Here’s the bad news: at the most basic level, Trump’s “law and order” messaging has already been working.

Until the shattering headlines about Bob Woodward’s new book, Trump’s “law and order” campaign had already substantially shifted the focus of the national dialog away from Trump’s appalling handling of the coronavirus and the resultant moribund state of the economy. Make no mistake: Trump is willing to take huge gambles with his messaging strategy in order to change the focus of media attention away from the topic he knows to be toxic to his re-election. Anything that stops America from talking about COVID-19 is a winner in Donald Trump’s playbook.
It’s that simple: if Trump can shift the essential dialog about this election to any other topic than a straight referendum on his own performance as President, that’s a big win for him. 

And if he can frame the "law and order" issue the way he wants to -- as an issue of Democratic/Progressive weakness in the face of violent minorities, rather than a question of civil rights and justice in law enforcement, he might actually have a chance to win. The Democrats cannot allow this to happen. 

Quite apart from serving as a vital diversion, there is a second reason the “law and order” message is effective for Trump. Good communications strategists will tell you that the key to a winning ad campaign – be it for deodorant, an SUV, or a political candidate – is to find one clear, singular, and important message and stick with it… build your entire communications program around it.

It is particularly important for the Trump campaign to identify such a singular theme, as the candidate himself is undisciplined, reactive, and eager to respond to the new topic of the day.  Trump’s modus operandi for strategic messaging has always been trial and error. He will take a gamble on a message and stick with it long enough to find out if it has traction. This methodology should not be dismissed out of hand as undisciplined or sophomoric: Trump treats his MAGA rallies as gigantic focus groups, testing the power of different topics and themes by the intensity of the crowd response. Indeed, “we will build a wall and Mexico will pay for it” became ever more central to Trump’s 2016 campaign by virtue of how big a crowd reaction Trump got every time he said it.

Back in April and May, Trump felt he was benefiting from daily coronavirus briefings, and then dropped them like a stone when he realized that they were hurting him. His fleeting return to task force briefings in July was rapidly aborted, and he moved on to voter fraud, which had some salience and remains a secondary theme of his campaign. 

But the murder of George Floyd and the rapid growth of the Black Lives Matter movement gave Trump the opening he needed to create the necessary diversion from his own record as president.

As BLM protests swelled in huge numbers across the nation, Trump intentionally conflated the entire BLM movement with the actions of a microscopic minority whose actions were not peaceful. Trump proceeded to then align BLM with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, scorning Joe Biden as a tool of a radical left that was bent on “defunding the police.”  In a final flourish, Trump aggressively threatened that the BLM activists and their radical left Democratic enablers would work hand in glove to “destroy the suburbs.” This was clearly a last-ditch effort for Trump to stem the flight of the white female suburban voters who helped him win the Presidency in 2016… but who are abandoning him in 2020.

Whether you find it despicable or not – and, by the way, it is -- Trump executed a deft propaganda tactic. He employed the power of “synecdoche,” which refers to a figure of speech in which the “part stands for the whole.” 

In this case, Trump – and Fox News – choose to intentionally associate the entire Black Lives Matter movement with the most extreme visual examples of violent clashes and the relatively small instances of looting. Nationally, over 60% of Americans support the goals of the BLM movement, and the overwhelming majority of BLM marches and protests in the past three months have been peaceful marches in small towns and cities all across America. But Trump used synecdoche to make the part stand for the whole – the violence in a few cities is portrayed as the overt intent of the Black Lives Matter movement. Trump referred to “Black Lives Matter” as a “symbol of hate.”

Trump, having thus stoked fear that BLM is an wild, out-of-control mob determined to create broad scale anarchy, raced to embrace the side of law enforcement, arguing that the police who defend our cities and towns against rampant lawlessness are the “victims,” not the defenseless Black men who are choked to death and shot in the back for what are consistently modest infractions. 

In Trump’s world, the suburban vigilantes who wave and shoot guns at protestors are defending their property and their second amendment rights against the hordes. This allows him to justify calling out Federal law enforcement into cities, knowing that the increasing presence of military personnel is likely to create still more confrontation. Trump has thus created a vicious cycle in which he justifies ever increased use of military action, which spawns more violence, which further justifies his “law and order” message. 

Stated most simply, Trump is attempting to make the phrase “Black Lives Matter” stand for a perversely inverted concept… that white lives are being threatened.
But is it working?

Defined only by the narrow objective of “changing the topic,” the answer so far has been yes. Until Woodward's audio tapes appeared, the constant drone of death, sickness, and economic ruin from the coronavirus had indeed been bumped out of the A-bloc on cable news channels by the bellicose race-baiting coming out of the White House. That mission is being accomplished. The Democrats are allowing that to happen. 

But how about on the real question: will “law and order” help him get re-elected? 

And this is where we have to question to wisdom of Trump’s move: the topic that he is changing to may be, in the long run, far more problematic for his re-election than even the coronavirus.  

Here’s why.

When the history is written about the Trump presidency, future authors are likely to point to one statistic as defining: Trump’s approval rating has been chiseled in marble in the low 40s for three years. No matter what he does, he is unable to improve his approval rating, and no matter what he does, he does not alienate his supporters. 

Consider: according to Gallup, George W. Bush’s approval rating soared to as high at 90% in the days following 9/11, and sank to an unfathomably anemic 25% during the economic meltdown of 2008. That’s a range of 65 percentage points from high to low, and shows an almost limitless elasticity to Bush’s appeal. A full 65% of Americans were willing and able to change their opinion about Bush as President based on his performance. Heck, in the days immediately after 9/11 when he launched a spirited defense of the Muslim mosque in lower Manhattan, even I liked him.

Barack Obama, too, elicited a wide range of emotional reaction and a clear capacity to change minds. His approval ratings were never lower than 38% and were as high at 69%... an “elasticity range” of 31 percentage points. 

Now consider this: the highest approval rating Donald Trump has ever received in the Gallop poll is 49%. The low point was 35%. Trump has lived for his entire presidency with a 14 point range. Even more shocking: the Gallup Organization conducted 134 measures of Trump’s approval dating from his inauguration week in 2017 until the most recent measure recorded for the two-week period from July 30 to August 12, 2020. Of those 134 measures, Donald Trump’s approval rating fell into a seven point range from 38% to 45% 104 times

The inescapable interpretation: no matter what Trump did or does -- Charlottesville, separating immigrant children from their parents, sucking up to Putin, impeachment, utter failure in crisis management of COVID-19, race-baiting response to BLM – his approval and disapproval ratings never budge, certainly never anything near the range of opinion given to Bush or Obama. There is virtually no “undecided vote” left to persuade.

Both parties therefore know that the path to victory is to do the best job of getting the most people in their base to cast ballots. It is as simple as that.

And this is where Donald Trump’s decision to focus his re-election campaign on vilifying the BLM movement begins to appear to be a very questionable strategy. Yes, inflaming the fears and preying on the racism of his base could indeed cause more Trump voters to turn out. But it could also be that Trump’s racist strategy is the precise messaging that turns the Democratic base out in record numbers… and there are more Democrats than Republicans

This is where the question that has no “black and white answer” suddenly has an answer that is very “black and white.”

Consider this: it’s mathematical fact that in almost every election of the 21st Century, a mere 55% of U.S. adults actually vote. But when Barack Obama’s nomination galvanized higher voter turn-out in the African American community in 2008, the percentage of voters increased to 58%. There are literally millions and millions of voters in that 3%... more than enough to shift the outcome in close swing state races. Obama won his elections handily because of the massive infusion of incremental Democratic voters than he inspired.

So Donald Trump’s messaging strategy of demonizing the BLM movement could well have the unintended consequence of dramatically increasing Black voter turn-out, swelling the number of voters in support of Joe Biden. That is to say: the “best message” Trump can come up with to fire up his base may well be the worst message to use when measured by its impact on voter turn-out in both parties. 

Make no mistake: Trump will stick with it. He lives inside the conservative bubble, and the Sean Hannitys of the world will applaud wildly every time Trump sides with the white officers in a town where a Black man was murdered by the police. Trump supporters seem to be most excited by messages that appear to trigger blue state and liberal media outrage. Trump evaluates all this feedback from inside his media bubble, and he appears to have concluded that he is playing is strongest hand by going after BLM.

But at a certain point, the “best hand he can play” may simply be playing into Joe Biden’s hand. 

The final question, therefore, is what this all means for Joe Biden.

What messages should Biden and the Democrats be centering his campaign on in the final run-up to the election? How does Joe Biden most effectively counter Trump’s “Law and Order” message?

If there is a concern about the Biden campaign at this point, it is a fear that Democrats may once again read polling data and decide that they have enough of a lead that they should not take any major risks. It was this type of thinking that led Hillary Clinton to make Tim Kaine her VP candidate, a pleasant milquetoast who brought nothing to the ticket beyond the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm.  

Still more specifically: Joe Biden’s strengths are his calm demeanor, his vast experience, and his instinct to unify rather than divide. The concern is that at a time when a very pugnacious Trump is shouting, insulting, and overtly triggering violence, Biden’s softer voice could look weak. 

But here is the one thing I know for certain: Biden and the Democrats must not allow Donald Trump to define the debate from now until November. And they certainly cannot allow Donald Trump to make the 2020 election a referendum on whether or not Joe Biden, BLM, and the radical left want to defund the police. It is time to re-assert control over the essential debate. 

How should the Democrats reframe the essential debate in the 2020 election?

There are simple steps that the Democrats need to take, and to take on far more boldly than they have to date. These are not complicated communications challenges, none of this is rocket science. But it is work that needs to be done.
First and foremost, Biden must make this election a referendum on Donald Trump. 

Incumbent Presidents must be forced to run on their record, as Ronald Reagan so effectively did to Jimmy Carter in asking the simple question, “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” The Democrats must return the debate to the task of forcing Donald Trump to defend his record in office: his colossal mismanagement of the coronavirus, and how that ongoing failure will continue to crater the economy. Sure, throw in separating immigrant children from their parents, calling fallen soldiers “losers,” impeachment, and Charlottesville, but the overriding, singular point is this: a record high of 75% of citizens believe that America is “on the wrong track.” And Donald Trump is responsible for that number. Making this election a referendum on Trump is job #1 – and that is Joe Biden’s role. 

Nothing has made this point more clearly than the stunning revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book, which carries the added weight of actual audio tape of Trump acknowledging that he intentionally downplayed the gravity of what he already knew about the coronavirus. These tapes are a smoking arsenal of confessions to incompetence, indifference, and ignorance on Trump’s part in the handling of the coronavirus. Woodward has put Trump back on his heels, back on defense on the most catastrophic issue of a failed Presidency. And suddenly the coronavirus is once again the lead story. 

That is what Biden must do: every time Trump tries to talk about “law and order,” the Democrats should point out that Trump is only trying to change the topic from the humiliation of his failures in handling the coronavirus.

Biden must make the issue of this election the simple question posed by Reagan 40 years ago: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

Second, let Biden’s surrogates call Trump’s “law and order” initiative for what it is: a shameless effort to demonize Black Americans for the purpose of scaring up white suburban female voters. I would love to see Kamala Harris take this issue on as her own. It would be powerful to have her prosecute the case that Donald Trump is a cowardly manipulator who would openly pit White America against Black America for his own political advantage. Give Kamala Harris the job of galvanizing the vote among the minority groups that are not welcome in Donald Trump’s vision of the Great White Suburbs. 

The Democrats must not allow Trump to make the election about “law and order,” but they sure as hell should not let Trump’s assertions go unchallenged for the racist provocations they are. The Democrats must absolutely continue to push that we as a nation examine and fix the problems that result in the deaths of Black men at the hands of law enforcement. This is the correct way to frame the issue that Trump wants to call "law and order." The election will be won by the party that does the better job of turning out its base, and Trump’s attempt to use “law and order” to stimulate his own base should be correctly recast by the Democrats... and used to bring out the Democratic base in droves.

Third: Let Joe Biden stay above the fray, striking his authentic tones of unity, healing, and decency. But the surrogates and down-ballot candidates need to compensate for Biden’s Presidential tone by becoming far more aggressive overall, more combative. They need to develop a killer instinct. 

“Build Back Better” is a perfectly workable and logical tag line, but it is a pocket knife in a sword duel. It’s all well and good to promise what you intend to accomplish, but it is equally important to paint the incumbent as a failure. Two different jobs, two different messages. 

The Democrats, as a Party, need to figure out how re-brand Trump. They need to develop a unified attack strategy that is concerted, organized, and calculated to destroy. I’d like to see the Democrats find a label for Trump that can be used as a go-to mantra to explain his every failure. Perhaps the Democrats brand Donald Trump as “The Great Divider,” as this captures his most heinous quality: his constant need to push Americans into different corners and warring factions on every single issue.

“Dividing” is Trump’s default action: in virtually every critical moment of his Presidency, he foments hatred and confrontation. It is not just between red states and blue states or conservatives vs progressives, but also between the “good white cops” and the “horrendous black looters,” and between his loyal sycophants and everyone who opposes him. He brands dead soldiers as losers, women as nasty, Blacks as looters, Mexicans as rapists, impoverished countries as shitholes, and Democrats as radicals who hate America and are determined to destroy it. Yes, “the great divider.” Repeat at every opportunity and it will stick.

And I would go still one step further. 

If the Democrats truly had the type of killer instinct they need in the final run up to the election, they would prey on the fact that Donald Trump has the attention span of a gnat and cannot resist counter-punching when attacked. This argues for a tactical television campaign designed solely to drive Trump crazy and render him ever more unhinged and distracted in the final weeks before the election.

I would set creative people to work developing television commercials designed to tap into the gushing aorta of character liabilities, deep personal insecurities, vulnerable psychological fault lines, and vengeful impulsiveness that define this very damaged human being. Donald Trump is a shallow, transparent man whose insecurities can be mapped more precisely than a GPS route to Disneyworld. For heaven’s sake, Dems, take out a rusty nail and scrape away at the corroded nerve endings of a brittle, frightened, lonely, abandoned, and emotionally traumatized man who is still haunted by big time “Daddy” issues. 

Nothing made Donald Trump go berserk more than the way Barack Obama humiliated him as a laughing stock of a reality tv show host during the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. Study the tape, Dems.  Paste Trump as the weak, cowardly, draft-dodging baby that he is, and watch him melt down into dysfunction. Trump cannot resist engaging when he is challenged… make him talk about the very issues that give him the greatest fear and insecurity. Yes, talk about Mary Trump’s mashed potatoes. Find the vein of terror at failure and humiliation that drives his being, and cut it open in thirty second increments blared across every cable news channel in the D.C. broadcast area. 

Of this I am certain: he cannot handle humiliation, and it will leave him unhinged, rattled, and distracted at just the moment he needs to be closing the sale. 

Yes, the Democrats need to step it up. Big time.

Because the answer to the question of the day is an emphatic yes: Donald Trump’s “Law and Order” campaign has the potential to do damage to Joe Biden.  But only if Biden and the Democrats let it. If the Democrats are smart, they will relentlessly communicate the shameless racism of Trump’s message, and turn it back on him. They must call out his ugly racist instincts and use Trump's own despicable accusations about the BLM movement to raise Black voter turn-out to levels not witnessed since the election of Barack Obama. 

Yes, Biden is up in the polls now, but only now are Americans finally paying close attention to this race. It is vital that the Democrats do not interpret the poll numbers as reason to lay low and try to run out the clock. 

It is essential that they go on offense, holding Trump accountable for his record, slamming his racist tactics for what they are, doing everything they can to put Trump on the defensive for his record. 

Labor Day is over. It is time to begin the final fight in earnest, with no holding back. Democrats must recognize that the Trump campaign will come blazing with every cheap dirty trick in the books, fighting with no holds barred.

Particularly choke holds. 

This much is certain: Donald Trump is a craven, destructive, despotic disaster for the United States. He must be beaten.

And that much is most certainly a black and white issue.  

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  1. Trump's BLM argument has two other weaknesses, in my opinion.

    First, there have been BLM demonstrations throughout the country. And most have not included violence. In one analysis,
    "Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) published the report that analyzed more than 7,750 BLM demonstrations in all 50 states and Washington D.C. that took place since George Floyd’s death – between May 26 and August 22.

    The report found that more than 2,400 locations reported peaceful protests, while fewer than 220 reported “violent demonstrations.”

    That 9 in 10 ratio of peaceful events leaves a large number of people seeing their local demonstrations without violence.

    Second, Trump focusing on BLM, "crime in the streets," and the like is being handled with the usual skill and precision of the Trump Organization -- which is to say, not much. So far, they've been shown to be using video or photos of foreign sites, manipulated images of domestic sites, and not having an answer when people ask about the violence of the right trying to delegitimize the BLM demonstrations.

    In short -- it doesn't seem likely to do anything except spin up the opinions of those who already on the Trump Train.

  2. Thanks for writing. I think I made the first point in saying "As BLM protests swelled in huge numbers across the nation, Trump intentionally conflated the entire BLM movement with the actions of a microscopic minority whose actions were not peaceful." The article in totality seeks to make the point that Trump's entire intent is indeed to spin up the opinions of those were already on the train" -- that is what turning out the base is all about. The point we were making is that choosing BLM as the issue to use to motivate his base may have the ironic effect of motivating the Democratic base to turn out in even greater numbers. Thanks again.


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