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10 June 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 1:17pm

How will the US protests affect Donald Trump’s re-election bid?

There is no reason to assume that the US president will be able to turn the protests to his political advantage. 

By Emily Tamkin

As the US is now within six months of the next presidential election, and as the incumbent is among the most polarising leaders in American history, pundits and politicians alike are asking themselves: what do the protests against police brutality and systematic violence mean for Donald Trump?

On the surface, one could say that the protests are positive for Trump and negative for Joe Biden, his Democratic opponent. Trump can now campaign on law and order, while Democrats call for police defunding, something that will repel suburban white women. “History suggests that Republicans benefit from street violence, whereas Democrats gain from peaceful protests”, the Economist argued this week.

But this reading overlooks three points.

The first is that, contrary to the belief of many, most US voters support the protests and believe the police are in need of reform, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll – including 76 per cent of independents and 53 per cent of Republicans. Even among those who believe the protests were mostly violent (which includes 42 per cent of independents), 53 per cent support the demonstrations. And 61 per cent of respondents said they disapproved of Trump’s handling of the protests. 

Added to this, 69 per cent of Americans said that George Floyd’s killing is part of a broader problem, and not an isolated incident. As the Washington Post has noted, in a similar poll from 2014 after the killing of Michael Brown Jr in Ferguson, Missouri, only 43 per cent took this view. Furthermore, the recent survey showed that half of Americans want a president who can address racial divisions as opposed to 37 per cent who want a president capable of using law enforcement to restore security. Trump may be believable as the candidate most likely to use the law to keep a semblance of peace, but voters may find it harder to imagine the man who tweeted that the protesters were “THUGS” achieving national racial harmony. 

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The second point is that, though activists are demanding police cuts, the person at the top of the ticket – that is, Joe Biden – does not support police defunding. Trump can, of course, suggest  that the Democrats and Biden are controlled by the radical left, but activists cannot force Biden to endorse a policy he doesn’t support. Similar questions were raised over calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or Ice, in advance of the 2018 midterms – the election in which the Democrats took back the House of Representatives. None of this is to say that the party shouldn’t embrace calls to defund the police or abolish Ice. It’s to say that, if the fear is Democrats will lose elections, this warning ignores the politics of the most high-profile Democrat. 

And the third point is that these protests are happening against the backdrop of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and a recession that has pushed up unemployment to its highest level since the Great Depression (13.3 per cent) and imperilled living standards. History may suggest that Republicans benefit from street violence but it also suggests that candidates win or lose based in part on the economy – and the US’s is particularly dismal at the moment. The President has begun to boast of an economic recovery, and he can certainly tweet that there is one, but he cannot unilaterally will it into existence. 

And there is a fourth point, too, which is this: the truth is that we don’t know what happens next. Despite everything written above, these events may, somehow, benefit Trump. It could be that his handling of the next six months wins people, or that the disproportionate Electoral College and voter suppression, or some combination of the two, puts him back in the White House for four more years.

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We don’t know how this moment will play out. We’ve had pandemics before, we’ve had recessions before, and we’ve had mass protests before, but we’ve never had a recession and protests during a pandemic before. We’re in uncharted waters. We won’t know when we’ll reach land until we finally get there.