Civil unrest and the election.

Plus, a question about Black Lives Matter.
Isaac Saul Aug 31, 2020
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum. You can read Tangle for free, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

The political implications of the civil unrest, a question about Black Lives Matter and an important story about COVID-19 on college campuses.

RCP averages show the race tightening up in battleground states.

Quick hits.

  1. New details of the Jacob Blake shooting were released by police over the weekend, just a day after local authorities came under fire for having Blake — who is currently paralyzed from the waist down — shackled to his hospital bed because he had an arrest warrant stemming from charges of third-degree sexual assault, criminal trespass and disorderly conduct. A police union representing the officers said Blake “strongly resisted arrest, fighting with officers, putting one in a headlock and ignoring orders to drop a knife that he held in his left hand.” The union also said two officers on-scene deployed tasers during the struggle, attempting to use non-lethal force first. Witnesses and Blake’s attorney contend he was breaking up a fight between two women when officers arrived, and that the police are trying to justify use of excessive force. The woman who filed the assault charges against Blake and called 911 before he was shot criticized the police. “You shot him numerous times, for no reason,” she said. “It didn’t take all that.”
  2. A group of New York City public housing tenants who shot a video bashing Mayor Bill de Blasio and newly minted Americans who were filmed in a naturalization ceremony said they didn’t know the footage would be used during the Republican National Convention. "I am not a Trump supporter," one told The New York Times. "I am a first-generation Honduran." Some of the participants in the ceremony, which aired during the RNC, said they didn’t know they would be used but didn’t mind and were even excited about the newfound fame. The Trump campaign’s communications director Tim Murtaugh said "All interview subjects were fully aware of the purpose of the interviews… They gave verbal consent on video tape."
  3. Business owners and investors in Minneapolis whose properties were destroyed during civil unrest say the insurance payouts are not enough to bring their businesses back. Some family-owned businesses have been “stunned to discover that the money it would collect from its insurance company for demolition won’t come close to the actual costs of doing the job,” The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports. “Most policies limit reimbursement to $25,000 to $50,000, but contractors have been submitting bids of $200,000 to $300,000. In many cases, the price of the work is not much lower than the actual value of the property, records show.”
  4. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) is under fire after posting a video that altered the words of a disabled activist to make it appear as if Joe Biden endorsed defunding the police. Scalise posted the video of Ady Barkan, who has ALS, but the edited clip changed the words Barkan said (Barkan uses a computerized voice to communicate since he lost his ability to speak). Backlash was swift and loud when it became clear the video was doctored, but Scalise initially refused to remove it. He later took it down, apologized and said the video “shouldn’t have been edited.”
  5. The Chairman of one of Congress’s most important committees is in a tight race to hold onto his seat. Democrat House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-MA) has been in office for over thirty years, but now he’s facing a tough challenge from the left in Alex B. Morse, a local mayor endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the primary, which takes place on Tuesday. Neal could be the latest in a slew of longstanding Democrats to lose in hotly contested races to more progressive challengers. “A loss by Neal in the closely fought race would send shock waves through Capitol Hill, putting every longtime incumbent on notice that none of them is safe,” The Washington Post reports.
  6. BONUS: The New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi, known for her ability to recreate stories after parsing documents and records, just published one of the most in-depth retellings of the night Breonna Taylor was killed by police in her apartment. Callimachi dissects everything about the police shooting, from the reckless nature of the officers’ actions to the relationship Taylor had with a drug dealer the police were monitoring. “The fumbled raid that resulted in the young woman’s death was paradoxically set in motion by an attempt at police reform,” Callimachi writes. It’s a must-read.

What D.C. is talking about.

How civil unrest will change the election. Over the weekend, civil unrest continued in a few cities across America. In Portland, Oregon, a caravan of Trump supporters and far-right groups drove into the city to clash with Antifa and left-wing protesters, exchanging volleys of paintball shots and throwing objects at each other. One man, who was wearing the insignia on his hat for the far-right Patriot Prayer group, was shot and killed. The details of the shooting are still not known, but police say they are investigating a self-proclaimed anti-fascist who has been attending Black Lives Matter protests in Portland since June.

The shooting, on the heels of the violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has only poured gasoline on the implications of the protests for the election. President Trump “lavished praise” on his supporters who drove into Portland, calling them “GREAT PATRIOTS,” saying “the big backlash going on in Portland cannot be unexpected” and criticizing Joe Biden, who he says needs to  support sending the National Guard into cities facing civil unrest. Biden returned fire, saying Trump is “recklessly encouraging violence” and “I condemn violence of every kind by anyone, whether on the left or the right… And I challenge Donald Trump to do the same.”

Civil unrest — from peaceful protests to rioting and violence — has set off a larger debate about how these events will impact the 2020 election. A Marquette Law School poll of registered voters in Wisconsin found support for the Black Lives Matter movement dropped 13 points from June to August, before the shooting of Jacob Blake and the subsequent protests in Kenosha. Other national and state polls show the race tightening in battleground states, and pollsters are once again sounding the alarm that many key battleground polls are not accurately representing the Trump bloc of voters.

In response, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are hitting the road. The president plans to head to Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday, despite the Wisconsin governor asking him to reconsider. Joe Biden says he is heading to Pittsburgh today, and is to travel to several battleground states to continue campaigning in early September.


Agreed.

Both the left and right seem to agree that if the story becomes about law and order, it will benefit Trump. There is strong disagreement about who is to blame for the unrest, though, and also about how to quell it. There also seems to be a growing consensus that President Trump’s planned trips to cities engulfed in protest will not help calm things down (i.e. both the Democratic governor of Wisconsin and the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board have suggested Trump should stay out of Kenosha).


What the right is saying.

Biden better watch out. In his weekly newsletter The Dish, Andrew Sullivan said that Democrats have walked right into the trap of making the 2020 election about law and order. Sullivan expressed a level of support for Black Lives Matter and attempts to “interrogate the sins of the past.”

"But here’s one thing I have absolutely no conflict about. Rioting and lawlessness is evil,” Sullivan wrote. “And any civil authority that permits, condones or dismisses violence, looting and mayhem in the streets disqualifies itself from any legitimacy. This comes first. If one party supports everything I believe in but doesn’t believe in maintaining law and order all the time and everywhere, I’ll back a party that does. In that sense, I’m a one-issue voter, because without order, there is no room for any other issue.”

In a Wall Street Journal editorial board piece, the paper recounted instances of Black Lives Matter followers shouting down people walking into their hotels after the president accepted his Republican nomination, surrounding and screaming at Sen. Rand Paul, and following Florida Rep. Brian Mast, who “who walks slowly with prosthetic legs,” while demanding he answer how he feels about police killing Black people.

“This is ugly stuff, and it couldn’t have done more to validate the GOP convention theme that the left wants to stifle and punish anyone who won’t bow before its demands,” the board wrote. “Americans who see these and other scenes of BLM censure and harassment will rightly conclude that they could be the next targets. If this continues, Democrats may be surprised again this year on Election Night.”

After the shooting in Portland this weekend, the board published another editorial — this one insisting the majority of fault lay with Portland mayor Ted Wheeler but also conceding that the president could do more to help. “Mr. Trump would help Portland and his own political cause more if he called for calm on all sides,” the paper wrote. “That includes his supporters who rolled into Portland for a counter-protest on Saturday… Mr. Trump should tell his supporters to stay away from Portland, Kenosha, Wis., and other cities where rioters reign.”

In City Journal, Nate Hochman argued that the back-to-back conventions have given Americans a clear and distinct choice between two parties and how they will address civil unrest happening across the country.

The Democratic convention “was noticeably silent about the riots and the rising violence in cities across the country—which polls show the majority of Americans now rate as ‘very important’ to their vote in the 2020 election—while praising Black Lives Matter and emphasizing the imperative of policing reform,” Hochman wrote. “The Democratic Party has largely adopted the urban progressivism that enabled the recent violence. The party’s rhetoric on race and criminal justice increasingly seems derived from campus radicalism, not a meaningful understanding of how law enforcement interacts with urban communities.”

Hochman argued that the conventions showed two fundamentally different countries. “One is a fundamentally decent place, where liberty and justice, while imperfectly distributed, can be extended to all with sensible reforms. The other is a racist country that can be saved only by pursuing a radically transformative political program that, in effect, begins America anew. In November, voters will have to choose one or the other.”


What the left is saying.

There’s a legitimate concern — and also blame toward Trump. David Axelrod, the Democratic political consultant, warned Democrats that attention shifting from COVID-19 to “law and order” would only help Trump’s election chances. "The timing of unrest in Kenosha has been a gift to him in that project."

In The Washington Post, James Downie criticized Trump for his planned trip to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Downie pointed out that Trump’s plan is to “survey” the damage from the riots and meet with law enforcement, but he has no plans (and has not reached out) to meet Jacob Blake’s family.

“Usually when a president visits a town hit by a natural disaster or civil unrest, the goal is to show sympathy for the victims and commitment to help the area recover,” Downie wrote. “Sometimes President Trump shares that ideal, as he appeared to during his tour of areas hit by Hurricane Laura. But with this president, old standards of decency often get tossed out the window: What was once a matter of signaling sympathy with every citizen’s pain is now about sending a message to the people who like him.”

Jennifer Rubin contends that Trump is the one who has repeatedly incited violence — from encouraging police not to be “too nice” with suspects to his top advisor admitting that the more violence there is on the streets, the better it is for him. She also hammered the news media for not holding Trump accountable to condemning police excesses.

“Instead, they amplify Trump’s demand that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden do something about the violence,” she wrote. “Biden’s weak-kneed supporters (playing into Trump’s hands) blame Biden for not denouncing violence — which Biden has repeatedly done. That in turn generates a spate of ‘Democrats worried violence hurts Biden’ articles. The media focus on the same few incidents of violence drowns out reports (mostly in print, rarely on TV news) explaining White instigators’ role in these events. (When the role of White provocateurs does make the news, there is rarely video to accompany the brief reference to White agitators.) And you wonder how Trump gets away with rabid race-baiting?”

In a satirical op-ed, Alexandra Petri made “the perfectly logical case” for supporting Donald Trump. “To make America great again, again, you must vote for Donald Trump!” she wrote. “If you think things are bad now under Donald Trump, vote for Donald Trump, who will fix things. The chaos will continue unless you vote for Donald Trump, who will bring needed change by serving another term as president. Any bad things happening now were sent by Joe Biden, from the future. Do not be fooled by the fact that they are happening in the present, when Donald Trump is president. They are not happening now; they are a preview of what will happen when Joe Biden is president.”


My take.

Last week, the one of most controversial things I wrote about Kenosha was this: “But people burning down businesses or brawling with police in Kenosha are not interested in reform. They’re not interested in justice or advancing a cause or making changes that will benefit the communities that are hurting right now. If they are, they seem hellbent on destroying their own credibility and setting their own cause back a decade.”

A few readers interpreted this to mean that I believe rioting has had no historical significance in driving change or felt as if I was insisting the Black community simply accept the status quo that they’ve been handed. Neither of these things is true. As I said on Thursday, if you want order there must be more progress — and we need more progress. I also agree there are historical examples aplenty of civil unrest, like what we’re seeing in Kenosha, that have led to positive change.

At the same time, though, there’s very little evidence that activist leaders on the ground in Kenosha and Portland have been encouraging, supporting or otherwise accepting the rioting on the ground. As is typically the case for either side, the folks inciting violence and rioting are a tiny minority of the larger groups as a whole. Kenosha activists have repeatedly and clearly denounced the rioting. So has Jacob Blake’s family. And so has Joe Biden. In criticizing the actions of those who are rioting and looting, I’m taking my cues from the activists who have been invested in this work in Kenosha and elsewhere for a long time — many of whom say they understand this will damage their cause.

What I also stand by in that writing, or what requires no throat-clearing, is that these instances of rioting and looting will almost certainly help Trump in 2020. You can make historical comparisons to the late 60s or the Los Angeles riots and draw conclusions about how civil unrest had a long-term positive impact. But I’m talking about the impact these riots are going to have on this presidential race, this upcoming election and the impact on police reform and police accountability in the coming years. Andrew Sullivan’s writing at the top of this newsletter is a great example; he’s someone who generally loathes Trump but is now left writing favorably about Trump’s messaging on law and order.

My belief here is also based on two conclusions. First, I believe Democrats have better policy ideas on reforming the police — both at the local and federal levels. It’s not just about racial bias, it’s about the fact that police in America have become militarized, are too seldom held accountable for bad actions and are far worse at de-escalating situations than police in other countries are. That doesn’t mean “all cops are bastards” or all police are bad people. They aren’t. It just means we need more change and better instruction. I’ve made this case before, and once you’re working from that position, if you are interested in police reform, then the upcoming election carries a lot more weight.

Second, the rioting will galvanize Trump’s base further and will be successfully used to leverage a campaign of fear against Democrats — which means the odds of Trump and Republicans down the ballot winning in 2020 go up and the odds of any lasting police reform in the next five years go down. If you can’t see this by now I don’t know what you’re watching, but I promise you that the images of stores ablaze and police cars being trashed are not going to help Joe Biden (unless he pulls off some masterful politics he hasn’t shown himself capable of yet). That’s why I say anyone interested in reform and also participating in rioting is damaging their own cause — or not genuinely interested in it in the first place.

The politics of fear are extremely powerful. Right now, Trump is flooding the airwaves with nothing but fear despite this all happening as he’s president. Images of burning cities, clashes with police, and mobs surrounding Republican politicians or diners to shout them down, are all over primetime television and on the front pages of local newspapers. Joe Biden’s repeated denunciations of violence have, bizarrely, gone unreported — and are often not elevated. That’s left him in the precarious position of trying to avoid the kind of blowback I got for my writing last week, and of trying to reach the more moderate Democrat or Independent voter he needs with the comparatively unexciting messaging of unity and calm.

Finally, it strikes me how bizarre this moment is in American history. Amidst civil unrest, amidst mass protesting across the country, the president is not viewed as someone who will help the situation by showing up on the ground or visiting the cities immersed in conflict. Instead, he’s almost universally viewed as someone whose presence will make things worse. In more sane times the country as a whole might reflect on this reality and wonder if it’s disqualifying for someone striving to hold the highest office in the land, but in this moment it appears that the antagonism of an already distressed citizenry is precisely the point.


Fun note.

We’re 65 days from the election. 62 days ago, the lead story in Tangle was about the “state of the presidential race.” COVID-19 was surging in red states and Trump was underwater. I wrote that Democrats were cautiously optimistic, that Republicans were eager for a change of plans, that calls for police reform were at an all-time high, and we were all waiting for clues on who Biden would pick for his running mate. In other words: a lot can change in 65 days. And a lot still will.


Your questions, answered.

Reminder: if you want to ask a question, all you have to do is reply to this email and write in.

Q: Why do you think the Democratic party is explicitly saying "Black Lives Matter" but not spending much time mentioning police brutality or police reform? How can they justify saying “Black Lives Matter” while not adopting some of the core tenets that the movement is associated with?  What do they think "Black Lives Matter" translates to in the minds of voters?

— Claire, Denver, CO

Tangle: I think Democrats understand Black Lives Matter for what it really is: an expression that means many different things to many different people. Which, as a political bludgeon, is quite useful.

The writer Jacob Siegel wrote that “Black Lives Matter is a movement that makes its core doctrinal claim a value that no decent person can object to. It asserts that, not merely formal legal acknowledgment, but full human dignity and consideration has been uniquely robbed from Black Americans throughout the country’s history.” But he has also described the term as a shifting Rubix Cube, one that is constantly rotating and leaves anyone trying to attack the movement or the expression, facing a rebuttal for an argument they weren’t making.

Again, politically, this is valuable. A politician can utter “Black Lives Matter” and build a campaign around this movement, as many politicians on the left are right now. For some of them, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Black Lives Matter also means tearing down our concept of police and rebuilding it. In some cases, it means making serious cuts to our police budgets and using that money to fund social services (i.e. “Defund the police”). For the Joe Biden Democrat, Black Lives Matter is about Black Lives Mattering. It’s about the law treating Black Americans equally and it’s about reforming systems that produce racially disparate outcomes. It may well also be an empty platitude (not because Joe Biden doesn’t care about Black lives, but because he has fundamentally different ideas for how to fix this problem than many of the activists leading the Black Lives Matter movement).

Another way to look at it is this: when you say “Black Lives Matter,” Democrats — and even most independents — are likely to hear what they want to hear. The people furthest left on the spectrum will hear BLM and think of defunding the police. Your run of the mill Democrat will probably hear “equality” and think of the Civil Rights movement. Your moderate or independent voter will think, well, of course Black Lives Matter. What’s so complicated about that?

But criticizing police brutality is different. Campaigning on an issue like reforming the police is something that is much less politically palatable to much of the country, and requires much more detailed explanation. How will you reform it? By defunding it? Pulling cops out of neighborhoods? Vilifying police officers? Replacing cops with therapists? From a political perspective, this brings up a whole new slate of problems that many politicians are, frankly, not very interested in or equipped to navigate.

Polling reflects this. As mentioned at the top of this newsletter, Black Lives Matter has lost significant ground in Wisconsin since June, with approval for the movement dropping 13 points. This is likely due to Republicans’ increased focus on demonizing the movement (the poll took place before the Jacob Blake unrest, so I’ll be curious to see how that impacts it going forward). Still, though, in Wisconsin, the approval for the Black Lives Matter movement was overall positive. Via the report: “In June 59 percent were favorable and 27 percent were unfavorable. In August favorable views declined though a plurality held favorable views, 49 percent favorable to 37 percent unfavorable.”

Compare that to the report’s findings on defunding the police: Large majorities oppose calls to defund the police. In June a bare majority (51 percent) of Black or Hispanic respondents supported defunding but this reversed in August with a larger majority opposed. In no region of the state does a majority support defunding and no partisan group has majority support.”

However, there’s an interesting nugget: reforming police and increasing accountability has 81% support, with clear majorities holding across racial, geographical and political divides. This begs the question: why wouldn’t Democrats focus on that talking point (increasing political accountability)? And the answer is: they are.

Biden has tried desperately to make accountability a focal point of the conversation and Kamala Harris is almost certainly going to hammer certain accountability reforms going forward. But the moment they open up the door to changing how policing works, they are going to run into the very real attack lines it opens them up to. Nobody is going to argue that Black Lives Don’t Matter, but plenty of people will argue that reforming the police will make us all less safe — an argument that’s a lot trickier to navigate.


A story that matters.

College reopening plans are crumbling across the country as administrators try to take drastic measures to keep students on campus while keeping them away from large group settings. The nearly 2,000 college campuses across the country that are trying to reopen are “finding that it's nearly impossible to prevent outbreaks when you bring together thousands of undergraduates who've been starved of social contact all summer,” Axios reports. Previous polls showed college students were willing to stay away from parties in exchange for being allowed back on campus. But now that they’re there, those plans are falling apart. The University of Alabama has had 600 positive COVID-19 cases in one week. UNC Chapel Hill sent students home after outbreaks at dorms and frat houses. Notre Dame is already retreating to remote learning. Northeastern, Purdue, Syracuse and UConn are issuing harsh penalties to students who are partying, but are not having much success in slowing the gatherings down.


Numbers.

  • 5 million. The number of first-time gun buyers in 2020, according to The Firearm Industry Trade Association.
  • 24.6 million. The number of people who watched Biden’s acceptance speech.
  • 23.8 million. The number of people who watched Trump’s acceptance speech.
  • 36%. The percentage of Americans who think the Trump Administration should send federal agents to deal with protests in other cities.
  • 44%. The percentage of Americans who think the Trump Administration should not send federal agents to deal with protests in other cities.
  • 72%. The percentage of Denmark’s citizens who think their country is now more united than before the coronavirus outbreak, the highest of any country polled.
  • 18%. The percentage of U.S. citizens who think their country is now more united than before the coronavirus outbreak, the lowest of any country polled.
  • 54-40. Joe Biden’s lead among voters in the suburbs before the Democratic and Republican conventions.
  • 50-42. Joe Biden’s lead among voters in the suburbs after the Democratic and Republican conventions.

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Have a nice day.

Most financial news related to the pandemic has been all doom and gloom, but the Associated Press is reporting that many Americans are doing better now than they were pre-COVID-19. “A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that 45% of Americans say they’re setting aside more money than usual,” AP reports. “Twenty-six percent are paying down debt faster than they were before the coronavirus pandemic. In total, about half of Americans say they’ve either saved more or paid down debt since the outbreak began.” The mix of a major federal stimulus package and health fears that have kept Americans from eating out, traveling or shopping in retail stores has left millions of people in a better financial situation than they were five months ago. “The findings shed light on a persistent riddle of a global pandemic in which a weakened economy has somehow spared most U.S. families from the worst of the financial toll.”

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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