This week CNN’s Don Lemon finally made an observation that should have been obvious three months ago but somehow wasn’t: Democrats might want to stop encouraging rioters and looters in American cities. Not because they were hurting people, or risking wider political violence, or undermining public morale, or making cities uglier, but rather because it turns out nihilistic violence isn’t popular.
Lemon’s remarks were quickly seized upon by the right as the gift that they were. It is not often that your political opponent openly admits to cynically evaluating an issue — not based on right or wrong, but on the RealClearPolitics polling average. The left has gambled that uncontrolled violence and destruction could be spun as mostly-benevolent ‘uprisings’ against the Trump administration. Now, they worry the gamble is backfiring. Lemon repeated his call on Friday and sure enough Joe Biden is now expected to give a big speech against the violence on Monday. This invites more critical conservative commentary: Biden is only changing his tune because of the polls, they’ll say.
But a politician who ‘doesn’t care about the polls’ is either electorally doomed or a Bay Area Democrat. And while the right may make whatever political hay it wants to from Lemon’s frankness, it’s also true to say that, in the horrid year that has been 2020, Republicans have often been no better. On the riots, conservatives have routinely used the same thinking as liberals. Three months ago, an anonymous Republican told Politico that the national rioting spree was ‘a gold mine’ for President Trump. Just last month, American Enterprise Institute fellow Marc Thiessen entertained the idea that ‘Maybe President Trump shouldn’t save Democrat-run cities’ from rioting.
President Trump seemed to consider the idea. In the first week of rioting, rather than respond immediately, Trump pestered mayors on Twitter, seemingly so he could then blame them for anything bad:
Get tough Democrat Mayors and Governors. These people are ANARCHISTS. Call in our National Guard NOW. The World is watching and laughing at you and Sleepy Joe. Is this what America wants? NO!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2020
Law & Order in Philadelphia, NOW! They are looting stores. Call in our great National Guard like they FINALLY did (thank you President Trump) last night in Minneapolis. Is this what voters want with Sleepy Joe? All Dems!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2020
The truth, then, is that neither party really cares about law and order. They only care about winning the next election. That amounts to a monstrous failure in leadership.
Since the riots began, Trump administration has moved with molasses-like speed in response to one crisis after another. Whether it was antifa in Portland, statue smashers in Washington, DC, or the creators of CHOP in Seattle, the federal government has typically acted belatedly, if at all, giving the widespread perception that even the most violent rioters are getting away with everything. The result is predictable: riots have continued, endlessly. The Republican convention has done much to highlight the chaos Democrats have egged on; it cannot highlight President Trump’s role in stopping the chaos, because he has not and does not seem to have seriously tried.
The traditional proverb is that all politics is local. But in 2020, all politics is online. Crucial decisions, affecting tens of millions of ordinary lives, are being made solely as gambits in a high-stakes national election whose battles are being fought on Twitter, YouTube, and cable TV. The actual act of governing has fallen by the wayside as strategists calculate whether it’s worth letting downtown Minneapolis burn, because it will produce viral videos illustrating Democratic incompetence.
You start to wonder why any of these politicians want to win elections in the first place. The stock answer is ‘power’, but what power is there in simply hoping one’s side benefits slightly more from uncontrolled chaos?
Deliberately allowing deadly riots to flourish ought to be unthinkable. Rioting and looting are much worse than the individual acts of assault, robbery and arson that make them up. They are assaults on the basic elements of civilization. Far from being a cry of the powerless, riots allow predators to victimize the weak and vulnerable.
Stopping predators, and protecting the helpless, is what governments exist to do. But now, instead of being a given, this basic function is being toggled off and on like a light switch, based on how political factions think it will sway the national electorate. Success is not evaluated in terms of arrests, or lives and businesses saved, but on spin. It’s a terrifying development, one that shows both sides are treating the 2020 election. Instead of trying to sway the country’s future, Democrats and Republicans are fighting to decide who will be king of the ashes.