Urban Unrest and Presidential Politics

The politics of protests.

“Untitled_1.57.1” by Tony is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There has been a great deal of discussion, and there will no doubt be even more in the weeks to come, as to how urban unrest, especially in Portland, OR, and Kenosha, WI will influence national politics. We know that it has been, and will be, a major theme for the Trump re-election campaign. After all, Trump’s own inaugural address referenced US cities and crime, calling it an “American carnage” that he promised to fix. Indeed, he told us all in his 2016 acceptance speech that he “alone can fix” these problems. The adoption of a Nixonian “law and order” campaign is front and center, as are references to saving the suburbs from the urban onslaught of “Democrat-run cities.”

So, is this helping Trump/will it help Trump?

The reality that right now we don’t know. And while, yes, there has been some poll movement in a few recent polls (for example), the are too many confounding events taking places (such as the conventions) to be able to tease out exact causes at the moment.

What do we tend to know about things like the unrest we are seeing? First, we know that Republicans tend to poll better as the party of law and order than do Democrats. This could potentially help Trump. On the other hand, the unrest in question is taking place during the Trump administration, with precious little in the way of examples of him efficaciously dealing with the problem. That could help Biden.

Please note “could” as none of us know for sure. We can project fears and anxieties (or hopes, depending on one’s persuasion on these issues) but we lack hard evidence at the moment.

It is clear that a major Trump campaign theme will be protecting America from becoming like “Democrat-led cities” as well as promising to keep those urban types (whatever that might mean) from invading suburbia. I know this theme will appeal to a goodly number of his base. The question is: will it influence the vanishingly small number of persuadable voters?

For that matter, it is a mistake to assume that the result of these events will solely drive voters to the law and order side. The ongoing evidence of police brutality towards Black Americans, not to mention the ineptness of Trump to speak about, let alone address in a policy fashion, these deeply important issues will also influence some votes.

The reality of the Trump era is that none of this is likely to make a lot of actual difference. Despite any number of very dramatic events, his approval numbers remain remarkably steady. Indeed, there has been a little erosion in those numbers during the era of Covid-19 and BLM protests.

Could the killings in Kenosha and Portland move the needle in ways that previous dramatic events have? We shall see, but most of the numbers seem already baked in. I suppose Kenosha is more significant: will fear of more urban unrest lead to another Trump win in Wisconsin or will his failure to deal with any of these problems with any effectiveness whatsoever help Biden retake WI?

At the moment I think that anyone who has definitive answers to these questions is likely projecting their own preferences as, again, the actual amount of hard evidence is currently lacking.

FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, US Politics, , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. An Interested Party says:

    …as well as promising to keep those urban types (whatever that might mean) from invading suburbia.

    As Biden would say, c’mon man…we know exactly what Trump is talking about when he says “urban types”…

  2. becca says:

    I don’t think praising right wing violence and only condemning the left is a winning strategy to win over new supporters.

    Trump is relying on violence to win, which means he’ll do all he can to incite more, like going to Kenosha to dabble rouse.
    It should be a stark contrast that Biden condemns all violence, right and left.
    Trump wants a civil war to save his ass. I hope and pray he doesn’t get one.

  3. Modulo Myself says:

    Trump has a shot at an EC victory if the right-wing goes along with vigilantes and spree killers, and lets nature takes it course. The pathetic response by cops and militias to a 17 year old boy just showing up with an AR-15 is beyond anything imaginable. Those guys saw an actual child and were down with it. This is like some divorced dad refusing to lock his gun cabinet when his son shows up for one night of overnights. Their world is bleak, and if Trump wins, it’s because the sociopathic racist core of the GOP was just too much to overcome in shithole white places like Wisconsin and Michigan.

  4. Modulo Myself says:

    Another way of putting it–Trump will not win on law and order, whatever that means. He’ll win because white voters who flocked to him and excused everything he did because they were the real victims need desperately to tell black people that they have no right to feel angry about anything. Laughing at poor people who think they have the right not to be shot in the back seven times while unarmed is what gets Trump voters going. Trump gets this, and as he and they look more terrible and indefensible in the next two months, he’s gonna use it.

  5. Jay L Gischer says:

    I wonder sometimes whether people won’t just get tired of it. Maintaining anger takes energy, quite a lot of it. When will people want to sigh and relax?

  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    The simplest, easiest to understand argument is if what trump claims is true, why hasn’t he shown leadership to stop it. Dems need to beat that into the ground. Of course being Dems they’ll likely make in unintelligible to anyone without a Ph.d in sociology.

  7. EddieInCA says:

    We are about to get another Covid slap in the face as the weather cools down and people are forced inside. We might be at 250,000 deaths by the 1st week of November.

    I’m looking forward to the debates, when Joe says “You said it was one person coming from China.” “You said it was 15 cases soon going down to zero.” “You said it would disappear, like a miracle.”

    How would Trump respond? Deny he said those things? Seriously. How would he respond?

  8. Scott F. says:

    Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has the Democratic script for the coming weeks:

    And now you’re attacking democratic mayors in the very institutions of democracy that have served this nation well since its founding. Then do you seriously wonder, Mr. President, why this is the first time in decades that America has seen this level of violence? It’s you who have created the hate and the division.

  9. Gustopher says:

    Democrats need to push a narrative on this of right-wing militia-wannabes coming into the cities to cause trouble, taking protests with property damage and escalating the situation to where further lives are being lost.

    If the image people think of is blacks smashing windows, Trump is strengthened.

    If the image people think of is police attacking a wall of moms, Trump is weakened.

    And if the image people think of is Nazis marching in the street with guns and people dying, while Trump praises the Nazis… Trump loses. I hope.

  10. Pat says:

    @An Interested Party: what party freed the slaves?@An Interested Party:

  11. Raoul says:

    The “caravan” did not work in 2018 and this will not work in 2020. People have grown wise to Trump. Nevertheless, columnists like today’s Will and Parker are not providing a public service by giving in to the issue of some credence. Want to ameliorate the situation? Arrest cops who shoot people in the back. Fire policemen who allow vigilantes in their midst. Protect property using the National Guard. Here is a dirty little secret- some cities have violent parts and they always have. The issue is obviously been politicized and it is time the media reported it as such. To put things in perspective – more people have died due to COVID than 15 years of murder.

  12. Lounsbury says:


    If the image people think of is blacks smashing windows, Trump is strengthened.

    If the image people think of is police attacking a wall of moms, Trump is weakened.

    The analytical data based summary done by Vox from historical experience would tend to support this.

    In general uncontrolled violence, looting, arson that appears to come from the Left / Urban (black, brown or white) is by the historical experience a loser for the Democrats.

    The anti-Trump protestors should be careful not to fight the battle that Trump wants them to fight. His baiting and provocation are classic attempts to try to draw the opposition by provocation into fighting on favourable terrain.

    Wall of Moms and peaceful, organised and disciplined protests (but better voter organising really, protest theatre should not be mistaken for an end in itself, a rather common mistake on the Left, in view of the long-term sustained underperformance in voting rates), changes the terrain to one favourable. However emotionally satisfying in a indisciplined reactive way it is to confront the Trump fraction it is the classic tactical error of being drawn out to fight on the other side’s terrain, rather than forcing Trump to fight on your favourable terrain.
    He wants chaos as it evens his odds (which is to say he is too indisciplined to fight a disciplined battle so he has always liked pulling people into chaos as evening to chance odds).


    The “caravan” did not work in 2018 and this will not work in 2020.

    The caravans also did not show up.

    Actual real arson and looting however is another matter and rather foolish to compare the two.

    Threat of arson and looting but not actually occuring would be comparable.

  13. @An Interested Party: That was supposed to be a snide aside. I know exactly what it means.

  14. mattbernius says:

    In terms of how protests and violence are interpreted, a “timely” political cartoon surfaced over the weekend from an Atlanta newspaper. Run at some point during the civil rights movement, it’s a reminder that even though folks today praise Dr King as the model for how folks should protest if they want political change, in his day he was presented as encouraging violent protests/riots.

    Here’s a tweet from his daughter with the cartoon:

    A cartoon from the 1960s.Because my father and his nonviolent strategy were so beloved by America and the white power structure before he was assassinated… pic.twitter.com/rYFErWOo1u— Be A King (@BerniceKing) August 30, 2020

  15. Lounsbury says:


    n his day he was presented as encouraging violent protests/riots.

    That is rather neither here nor there.

    Of course his opposition would try to paint him as such, that was the rhetorical space

    Examples of such are neither surprising nor particularly informative.

    What is informative is the extent to which the rhetorical gambit paid off (and when it did).

    Ability to make the charge stick is the data point one needs, not the mere fact it was tried.

  16. DrDaveT says:


    what party freed the slaves?

    A party that no longer exists. Why do you ask?