Donald Trump and his partisan wrecking crew jetted into Kenosha Tuesday on a political mission. That was no secret. The president spelled everything out in his acceptance speech at last week’s Republican National Convention, when he refused to mention the name of Jacob Blake—the 29-year-old Black man who was shot seven times in the back by a Kenosha police officer—but instead made the Wisconsin city a touchstone for a “law-and-order” rant about “mayhem in Democrat-run cities” and his fall campaign theme that “No one will be safe in Biden’s America.”
If Trump did not put too fine a point on it, then veteran Trump aide Kellyanne Conway surely did when the departing White House staffer said on the night of Trump’s incendiary speech, “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”
The strategy was laid out at the convention. And on Tuesday he implemented it with a trip to Kenosha that was low on sympathy and high on campaign rhetoric. He called the city’s Democratic mayor, John Antaramian, “very stupid” and claimed that he had seen a mob of “radical anarchists” trying to break into the mayor’s house—a lie that Antaramian quickly corrected, stating, “Nothing of the sort happened.” The president refused to answer questions about systemic racism, except to decry “reckless politicians [who] continue to push the destructive message that our nation and our law enforcement are oppressive or racist.”
Trump declared that “we have to condemn the dangerous anti-police rhetoric” in the middle of a city that has become an epicenter of the concern about policing in America since Sunday, August 23, when an officer with the police department Trump praised on Tuesday shot Blake in front of his three sons. That shooting was caught on a video that went viral and inspired immediate demonstrations. A call went out to militia groups to defend property in Kenosha and vigilantes showed up. Then, on Tuesday, August 25, a 17-year-old white gunman from Illinois shot and killed two men who were protesting against police brutality. Noting that in the 24 hours before the president’s arrival in Kenosha, Trump had been busy “spewing conspiracy theories, disparaging #Black LivesMatter, comparing police violence to golfing and defending right-wing vigilantes,” Congressional Progressive Caucus cochair Mark Pocan, a Democrat who grew up in the southeastern Wisconsin city, bluntly asserted on Tuesday morning that “yes, I do think he’s coming to Kenosha to spread hate.”
Nothing about Trump’s visit had to do with healing Kenosha. He did not come to condemn right-wing militias and vigilante violence. He did not come to talk about the need to end police violence and systemic racism. He did not make a sincere effort to meet with the Blake family. His mission was so transparent that Jacob Blake Sr. refused to meet with the president, saying, “I’m not going to play politics.”
But Trump was playing politics. Asked if he was “implying that this is a campaign stop,” Robert Costa, the moderator of PBS’s Washington Week, said, “I’m not implying it, I’m actually just stating it. This is a stop by the president of the United States during the campaign season—in the final 60 or so days before the election.”
A campaign stop was the last thing Kenosha was calling for this week. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, and Attorney General Josh Kaul, the state’s chief law enforcement officer, all asked the president to stay away. Kenosha’s mayor said it was the wrong time for the president to come, as did other local officials. Kenosha activists who really are concerned about healing the city organized a community event—distributing food, providing haircuts, and registering people to vote—as a counter to a presidential visit that was meant to divide them.
Kenosha did not need Trump on Tuesday.
But Trump needed Kenosha. Wisconsin is a swing state that could well tip the balance in the Electoral College this fall, and Kenosha is in a swing county. Trump won Wisconsin by barely 22,000 votes in 2016—“Wisconsin’s been very good to me,” he said during a Kenosha press event where he repeatedly referred to the 2020 election—and he desperately wants Kenosha and Wisconsin to be good to him in 2020.
But this is about more than Kenosha and Wisconsin. This is about the whole of the 2020 campaign for Trump, about strategies and tactics for November.
“They’re coming to shoot the commercial,” said Representative Gwen Moore, a Milwaukee Democrat who was born just north of Kenosha in another Lake Michigan shoreline community. Recalling the strategies used by previous Republican presidents to seek backlash votes, Moore described Trump’s Kenosha sojourn as “a page torn straight out of [Richard Nixon’s] playbook.”
In every sense, the visit was a commercial. Not a paid one, mind you; as always, Trump relies first and foremost on the political commodity known as “free media.” But don’t doubt that a more traditional commercial will air in the fall, as the president and his Republican allies mount the ugliest and most crudely divisive campaign in American history.
They think it will work. But the president’s political scheming is self-indicting.
Calling out Conway’s assessment that “the more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better,” Wisconsin Attorney General Kaul argued that the Trump campaign had revealed itself.
“A president should be coming to Kenosha—to help people, to listen, to condemn violence and vigilantism, and to lead. But we know that isn’t Donald Trump,” explained Kaul. “While Donald Trump has spoken about law and order, he has pardoned his allies, flouted the law, and spewed hate and division, day after day, from our highest office. He is a catalyst for chaos and a threat to the rule of law.”