Trump’s cynical campaign stop in Kenosha

U.S. President Donald Trump stands in the colonnade as he is introduced to speak to March for Life participants and pro-life leaders in the Rose Garden at the White House on January 19, 2018 in Washington, DC. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump stands in the colonnade as he is introduced to speak to March for Life participants and pro-life leaders in the Rose Garden at the White House | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

During the first 37 minutes of a roundtable discussion with the police chief, sheriff, business owners and Republican politicians in Kenosha, President Donald Trump and the other speakers did not mention Jacob Blake, the man shot in the back seven times by a Kenosha police officer. Not until Trump invited local minister James Ward (whom the White House had earlier misidentified as the Blake family’s pastor), to give a prayer and say a few words, did Blake, who lies paralyzed in a Kenosha hospital, even come up.

“Kenosha has been ravaged by anti-police and anti-American riots and they have hit so hard,” Trump said as he kicked off the roundtable discussion.

”I really came today to thank law enforcement and to just really say that what they’ve done, it’s been incredible. It’s been really inspiring,” he added.

Trump blamed the “Democrat” mayor of Kenosha and governor of Wisconsin for not doing more to protect citizens. 

Trump addresses roundtable in Kenosha on Sept. 1 2020 (Screenshot)
Trump addresses roundtable in Kenosha on Sept. 1 2020 (Screenshot)

And he congratulated himself for stepping in and getting things in Kenosha under control, while scolding Gov. Tony Evers for not accepting his offer of National Guard troops sooner: “If they would have responded to the first call, it would have been a little different story,” Trump said, rewriting history, since Evers had already declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard before Trump urged him to do so. “But they did respond, which is better than some governors, frankly,” Trump added, patting himself on the back. “Once they responded, and once we took control of it, things went really well.”  

Since this was clearly a campaign event, the script was straightforward: things were bad before, but Trump had arrived and now Kenosha is in great shape. The Democrats are to blame for everything bad that happened. Republican politicians gave gushing tributes to their dear leader. Democrats representing the Democratic city of Kenosha were conspicuously absent.

Listening to Trump, you would never know that it was the Kenosha police shooting of Blake at point-blank range in front of his children as he tried to get into his car that triggered the unrest in the first place.

Nor would you suspect that the worst of the violence Trump congratulated himself for ending was committed by an ardent Trump supporter and Blue Lives Matter fan.

But most striking of all, as speaker after speaker addressed the need for “healing” in Kenosha, was the erasure of Kenosha’s Black community and their concerns about police violence and white terrorists, which they have been speaking out about, at mass rallies, for days.

Pressed by a reporter on whether he had anything at all to say to the Blake family — whom he did not bother to visit during his trip to Kenosha — about the pain they are going through and their questions about police misconduct — Trump responded, “Well, I feel terribly for anybody that goes through that.” But, he added, “I guess it’s under local investigation. … And I hope they come up with the right answer. It’s a complicated subject, to be honest with you.”

Police shootings of Black people are “complicated” in Trump World. So, apparently, is the murder of unnarmed citizens by vigilantes. Earlier, Trump defended Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who brought an AR-15 to the Kenosha protests and is accused of shooting two people dead. Trump said he probably shot them in self-defense.

Cracking down on protesters, on the other hand, is very simple. The problems in Portland, Trump  said, “could be solved in an hour” if only the mayor of that city and the governor of Oregon would let him send in federal troops. (Never mind that Trump tweeted his support for gun-toting “patriots” who drove a pickup truck into protesters in Portland over the weekend.)

At some point, Trump suggested ominously, he and Attorney General Bob Barr, who sat beside him during the Kenosha roundtable, might just send in troops whether Portland officials want them to or not.

Praising Wisconsin, and contrasting it with Oregon, Trump held up Kenosha as a model for the way state, federal and local law enforcement worked together to quell “violent mobs.” 

And then he segued to his campaign speech: ”To stop the political violence, we must also confront the radical ideology that includes this violence. Reckless, far-left politicians continue to push the destructive message that our nation and our law enforcement are oppressive or racist. They’ll throw out any word that comes to them. Actually, we must give far greater support to our law enforcement.”

Here is the real reason Trump came to Kenosha County, where his margin of victory in 2016 was a mere 238 votes. Republicans have been focused like a laser on this blue-collar, former manufacturing hub in the Midwest for some time. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, Republican Congressman Bryan Steil, former Trump chief of staff and Republican Party chair Reince Priebus all came to kiss the ring and offer effusive thanks to Trump for making Kenosha safe again.

Never mind the promises Trump made to bring back manufacturing jobs in this town that lost a Chrysler plant and swallowed Trump’s pie-in-the-sky claims about thousands of new jobs that would supposedly be created at the ill-fated FoxConn plant. Never mind his bungling response to a pandemic that is still getting worse (there was not a mask in sight during the roundtable discussion).

The crisis in Kenosha came at just the right time for Trump’s re-election campaign. Forget the collapsing economy, COVID-19, and the colossal mess America is in. Law and Order! Back the Badge! Up with white people! Down with thugs!

Steil, whom Trump praised for being the first to call him and seek his help defending the innocent citizens of Kenosha against angry, violent mobs, delivered more or less the same speech about terrified constituents and police under attack that he gave the other night on Fox News. Except in the Fox News version, B-roll was playing of protesters speaking at a Kenosha rally. None of them were throwing projectiles at the police, as Steil described, but as the camera zoomed in on animated Black faces speaking at a microphone, you got the point: White America is under attack! Send in the vigilantes and the militarized police!

The rawness of this most racially polarizing of campaigns is so in-your-face, you would think it would make Republicans blush.

Nope. 

One after another they offered their effusive thanks to Trump for saving Kenosha from the criminals and looters.

As Barr sat smugly beside him, Trump promised $1 million for local law enforcement and millions more for tough-on-crime prosecutors and an all-out war on progressive reforms aimed at reducing mass incarceration, like ending cash bail. He even got in a plug for the wall on the U.S./Mexico border, which he claimed had ended illegal immigration, is almost done and will be finished “very soon.”

Who is buying this stuff?

That Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric makes no one safer does not matter to Trump any more than it matters to him that FoxConn is a bust and Chrysler is not coming back. 

 

It’s political theater of the most cynical type.

It makes you wonder if the people who go along with it are as venal as Trump is or just plain dumb. Take Ron Johnson, who declared, apparently without thinking of either George Floyd or Jacob Blake: “You always hear Minnesota nice?  I say Wisconsin, even nicer. It’s true. I mean, we are nice people.” 

“The vast majority of people abhor and do not support” protests of police, Johnson said, adding, “I don’t want law enforcement to be dispirited at all because the vast majority of Americans are for you, and the vast majority of Wisconsinites.”

It’s as if the whole, long summer of anguish over videos of police violence against Black people, like the pandemic, simply did not exist.

In answer to reporters’ questions, Trump doubled down on his position that there is no such thing as “systemic racism.” Asked about massive, nationwide peaceful protests, he batted away the question, denying that there was any such thing.

“We really just keep getting back to the opposite subject. We should talk about the kind of violence that we’ve seen in Portland and here and other places. It’s tremendous violence.” Trump said.

Trump's roundtable discussion in Kenosha, with Pastor James Ward (far right).
Trump’s roundtable discussion in Kenosha, with Pastor James Ward (far right) screenshot.

Finally, 37 minutes and 19 seconds into the program, after Pastor Ward offered a prayer to Jesus and all the white men gathered around the table bowed their heads. Ward, who appeared to be there to give the Trump campaign the thinnest veneer of diversity and civility, added a note completely at odds with the rest of the conversation:

“We certainly pray for Jacob’s continued healing,” he said, mentioning Blake’s name for the first time, “and we pray for peace.”

“But I just want to offer to you, Mr. President, that Jesus himself says Blessed are the Peacemakers,” Ward continued. “And we want to help be of service to you and to our nation of having these conversations of how do we rebuild the foundations of spirituality and morality.”

Good luck with that.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.