I fear President Donald Trump is winning the media war of images and narrative even as many of us in the mainstream media think he is only looking more and more dangerous to democracy and desperate to win reelection.
The most noticeable, cynical and, in a purely political sense, successful effort by Team Trump involves the way it has framed images of social protest. Nighttime street scenes of clashes between police and those protesting the deaths of Black men and women killed by law enforcement officers dominate popular culture and our media consciousness these days.
Turn on a cable news channel, and I guarantee you will see a scenario involving flash grenades, tear gas, armored vehicles and heavily armed officers in riot gear clashing with protesters in the streets of an American city. Minneapolis, Portland, Kenosha. Will your city be next? How about your suburb?
As Mr. Trump has embraced law and order in recent weeks as the central theme of his reelection effort, he has increasingly fanned the flames of ideological conflict driving those urban conflicts. He did it over the weekend via social media with a barrage of tweets attacking the mayor of Portland after a shooting in that city left one member of a right-wing group dead.
Members of that group called Patriot Prayer were among a caravan of about 600 vehicles filled with Mr. Trump’s supporters that drove into Portland Saturday where it was met by counterprotesters, according to the Associated Press. The president shared video of the caravan arriving in Portland with the caption “GREAT PATRIOTS!”.
On Tuesday, the president made sure clashes between social justice protesters and police in Kenosha stayed at the top of media consciousness with a visit to the Wisconsin city where marches and rallies have been taking place since Aug. 23 when police shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back while trying to arrest him. Mr. Blake remains hospitalized, paralyzed from the waist down, according to his family. Two protesters were killed on the street in Kenosha last week by a white 17-year-old shooter, Kyle Rittenhouse, whom Mr. Trump characterized as acting in self-defense.
Over the weekend, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, sent a letter to Mr. Trump asking him to “reconsider” the visit, writing, “I am concerned your presence will only hinder our healing.”
Mr. Trump came anyway, bringing the national spotlight with him. After meeting with law enforcement officials, he responded to a question about protesters wanting “structural change” by saying, “The people of Kenosha, want structural change, too. … They want law and order.”
So, why is this a winning media strategy for Mr. Trump in the 2020 election?
For one thing, while our screens are filled with images of conflict and panels of “experts” talking about that conflict, the media is not showing or talking so much about COVID-19 and Mr. Trump’s lack of leadership and compassion as more than 185,000 have died. The president wins every second the media is not talking about the continued lack of testing and all the lies he and his administration have told about the pandemic for six months. Instead of images of intubated victims lining the halls of intensive care wards and body bags being wheeled out of hospitals, the COVID story has been reduced primarily to statistics on TV: how many new cases, hospitalizations, deaths.
But the big political victory so far comes in the way Mr. Trump has managed to contextualize the images of conflict in the streets of America not as a reaction in part to the deeply-rooted racism that leads to Black men being killed by police, but rather as proof of anarchy and violence generated by the “radical” left and soon to spread into the suburbs. In doing so, the president has been selling a narrative that blames the conflict on Democratic leadership, which he characterizes as “weak.” He, meanwhile, is the strong “law and order” president.
Mr. Biden is finally taking Mr. Trump on. On Monday, he condemned the president for “stoking violence in our cities,” while reminding Mr. Trump that the violence is happening on his presidential Republican watch.
But Mr. Trump’s strategy has already found enough traction with his base to get the caravans of armed vigilantes rolling. The shooting has already started.
And Mr. Biden is now reacting to Mr. Trump instead of being the one who determines the images, narratives and rhetoric that will drive the conversation of this election.
That is not a winning strategy.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.