Washington and Oregon rarely feature in presidential races.
Neither state has voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, and neither President Donald Trump nor his Democratic rival Joe Biden is likely to campaign here this year.
But as demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism have continued across the country, the Pacific Northwest — the site of some of the country’s largest and most persistent protests — has taken on a narrative role in the national campaign even as it remains an electoral backwater.
The Trump campaign has seized on images of property destruction and violence from a small minority of protests, warning ominously that the clashes happening under his watch are a harbinger of what’s to come in “Joe Biden’s America.”
If you went to the president’s campaign home page last week, you wouldn’t have found a plan for defeating the coronavirus, or a plan for aiding the millions of people who’ve lost their jobs or the president’s second-term agenda.
Instead, you were greeted with a splash page, urging you to stand with Trump “AGAINST ANTIFA!”
Trump’s “law and order” campaign dates back, most famously, to Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in the 1968 presidential campaign when he appealed to white voters uneasy with the civil-rights movement and riots that erupted after the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.
A new paper from Omar Wasow, a Princeton political scientist, found that violent protests that summer caused a significant shift among white voters toward Republicans “and tipped the election.”
Jake Grumbach, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington, said there are several reasons to believe conditions are different this year.
This year’s protests are much more widespread and interracial, Grumbach said, whereas the 1968 riots were concentrated in heavily Black urban centers. And, Grumbach said, the racial justice movement and ceaseless cellphone videos of police brutality have quickly and dramatically shifted white public opinion.
“I think white people watching who are swing voters have more of a sense of how police brutality operates given all the videos,” Grumbach said. “When Colin Kaepernick first kneeled, it was very unpopular. Now it gets a majority of public opinion.”
Seattle and Portland, two of the country’s most Democratic cities — just 8% of Seattle voters chose Trump in 2016 — have become grist for the Republican president as he tries to turn what historians have called the largest protest movement in the country’s history into what many critics call a fear- and race-based campaign to appeal to white voters.
The Trump administration in the last two weeks has sought to strip federal funding from Seattle and other cities he labeled “anarchist jurisdictions” and moved to ban diversity training in the federal government and suggested such training in Seattle city government may be illegal. On his recent visit to Kenosha, Wisconsin, weeks after police there shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back, Trump was asked about systemic racism. He responded: “We should talk about the kind of violence we’ve seen in Portland and here and other places.”
In a speech in Michigan last week, he warned of a “resident of antifa” — an unorganized, leaderless anti-fascist movement with roots in Portland — moving in “next door” in the suburbs.
Trump sent federal agents to Portland this summer to quell protests and sent a similar team to wait on standby in Seattle. A new ad from Trump features a montage of protests, fires and violence before it shows a picture of Biden, kneeling in a church with several Black people and the text “Stop Joe Biden and his rioters.”
Trump is, in a sense, taking a cue from the Washington State Republican Party, which has long attempted to tie suburban and rural Democrats to their more progressive Seattle counterparts.
The state party’s first ad of 2020 features images of urban protests and fires contrasted with bucolic suburban scenes. “Our homes and businesses are no longer safe,” it says, flashing pictures of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who is not up for reelection this year, and Gov. Jay Inslee, who is.
“When we’ve seen violence in the forms of riots, in the forms of looting, in the images of burning police cars, those are really visceral images that have captured the country,” said Caleb Heimlich, chair of the Washington State Republican Party.
The Seattle City Council is pushing to defund the Seattle Police Department by as much as 50%, and similar efforts are underway in cities such as Minneapolis and New York. But Biden does not support defunding police and has instead proposed spending an additional $300 million on community policing while eliminating things like cash bail.
That hasn’t stopped Trump from falsely claiming that Biden supports defunding the police.
Biden has also repeatedly condemned violence in the protest movement, which, again, hasn’t stopped the Trump campaign from falsely claiming the opposite.
“I would argue this is typical politics of having a debate and highlighting what one party’s radical supporters are doing and then attempting to conflate that across the board,” Heimlich said. “The vice president has tried to distance himself from that, but there’s no question that that is his party.”
State Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski said the president’s campaign “is really fear and lies and stoking the fires of racism.”
“They’re clearly trying to go after what he’s saying are, quote, white housewives in the suburbs, unquote … that these horrible people of color are going to come to the neighborhoods and do violence. They’re failing to recognize that the suburbs are more diverse than ever,” she said.
And while Democrats in cities across the country push to cut funding to police departments, on the national level it’s the actions of Republicans could also lead to police cuts in the immediate future.
U.S. House Democrats in May passed a coronavirus relief bill that included more than $900 billion in funding for state and local governments that have seen tax revenues plummet due to the pandemic. Much of that money would to go preserving the jobs of local government employees, like police officers, who otherwise could be laid off.
The Republican-led U.S. Senate has not passed a coronavirus relief bill since the spring and its latest proposal, which did not clear a procedural hurdle last week, included no aid to state and local governments.
In Seattle, the only operating cuts to the Police Department budget this year are those identified before the protests, in response to pandemic revenue woes.
“It’s pure political rhetoric,” Durkan said of Trump’s attacks on Biden. “If you look nationally, President Trump’s actions or inactions on the economy have been the number one thing defunding police across America, because city after city after city now is in huge economic trouble and they’re having to cut budgets.”
Durkan, who vetoed the Seattle City Council’s attempt to make cuts to the police budget this year, said the conversation should be not about defunding police, but about how to reimagine policing, reassigning some of the police’s work to social and public-health workers.
“He knows that his path to reelection is blocked because of his ineffectiveness as president and he’s failed the nation on his response to COVID,” Durkan said. “His attempt to single out Democratic cities is very transparent and it’s completely a smoke screen to divert from his own failure of leadership.”
So far, Trump’s “law and order” message does not seem to be resonating. Biden maintains a consistent lead in polling averages. A CNN poll released last week had Biden leading by 7 points on who would better handle the criminal-justice system and by 6 points on who would keep Americans safe. Recent Fox News polls found Biden leading by 5 points on issues of policing and criminal justice in Wisconsin and Arizona, two crucial swing states.
Riall Johnson, a Seattle political consultant and activist, said the caricature Trump is painting of Biden is actually more appealing to him.
“Joe Biden has increased police funding every chance he’s gotten his entire career,” Johnson said. “Whoever this Joe Biden is that Trump keeps describing, that’s the Joe Biden that I would want to vote for, actually saying defund the police, yeah.”
“‘Law and order’ won it for Nixon, so why not follow the same plan as the last corrupt president?” Johnson said of Trump’s campaign. “It’s the same brute propaganda that’s always been in play in politics: ‘These rampaging Negroes are coming to your neighborhood.’ I don’t see why people can’t see the parallels of this,” he said.
“Black people have never been wrong on our own civil rights. Black people have marched and marched and marched and we’ve always been proven right,” Johnson said.