Trump tried to use Kenosha to pitch law and order to suburbs. But his message isn’t breaking through

In the suburbs of a city embroiled in protest, Richard Hall finds little enthusiasm for president’s divisive message

Thursday 03 September 2020 08:05
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Donald Trump tours an area affected by civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on 1 September 2020
Donald Trump tours an area affected by civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on 1 September 2020
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The aptly named suburb of Pleasant Prairie wraps itself tightly around the southern end of Kenosha. It takes just a few minutes to drive here from the centre of the city. The transition from the boarded-up shops of downtown to the neatly manicured lawns and wide open spaces is jarring.

It may be quiet today, but this unassuming idyll has the gaze of a thousand pollsters fixed upon it. Suburbs like this, in crucial swing states like Wisconsin, have become a key battleground in this year’s presidential election.

The violent protests in Kenosha last month, sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, coincided with a decisive shift in Donald Trump’s campaign to focus on law and order. The president used the rubble-strewn streets as a backdrop for his new message: Without him, chaos would reign, he argued.

And yet, even after weeks of focused messaging, after the violent scenes in Kenosha, and his marquee visit, there is little sign that the message is breaking through in suburbia.

“There’s nothing he can do to fix the problem,” says Nicole O’Doniel, a 35-year-old mother who grew up in Pleasant Prairie and recently purchased a home there.

“I can’t look at his message and think it’s going to be positive after the last four years. I don’t want to repeat that. I’d rather give somebody else a chance. You know, I can’t see it being worse.”

The protests that followed the shooting of Mr Blake shook Kenosha and its surrounds. After days of clashes between police and demonstrators, marked by looting and destruction, an armed vigilante from out of town shot two protesters to death.

The killings were tragedy piled upon tragedy. Local leaders asked Mr Trump not to visit in order to give the city time to heal. But the president has come to see the kind of destruction and civil strife in places like Kenosha and across the country in Portland as central to his campaign.

“To stop the political violence, we must also confront the radical ideology that includes this violence,” he said at a roundtable discussion on community safety during his visit.

The suburbs of Kenosha were a necessary target for the president’s campaign. Mr Trump won all four of Pleasant Prairie’s voting precincts in 2016, and took the county overall by fewer than 250 votes. But the Democrats made sweeping gains in suburban areas in the 2018 midterms. Today, Mr Biden is outperforming Hillary Clinton in the same areas, and outpolling Trump with suburban women by two to one.

Trump supporters and anti-racism protesters clash over president’s Kenosha visit

For Mr Trump to aim his message at suburbs that may have been impacted by the violence made sense, and it struck a chord with some. Dan Cox, a 56-year-old plumber, travelled from the small town of Libertyville, some 30 miles south of Kenosha, to show his support during Trump’s visit on Tuesday.

“Currently there seems to be a lot of downplaying of what’s happening in places like Kenosha. What I’m seeing here is not protesting. It is violence, it is mayhem. It is burning and looting,” he said.

But although Trump’s messaging is finding a sympathetic ear among his supporters, there is little evidence that it is reversing the momentum he has lost since 2016. A number of polls taken after the Kenosha unrest and released this week tell the same story.

A Fox News poll of likely voters in Wisconsin found that Mr Biden was trusted over Mr Trump on policing and criminal justice by a margin of five points, 47 to 42.

A Quinnipiac University poll found that 50 per cent of likely voters said having Trump as president made them feel less safe, while 35 per cent said it made them feel more safe.

Undercutting the Trump campaign’s messaging even further, a nationwide Reuters poll found that most Americans do not see crime as a major concern. Just 8 per cent of Americans felt that crime was a top priority, and 62 per cent said crime was not increasing in their communities.

Cars burned during recent protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (Richard Hall / The Independent )

By contrast, a whopping 78 per cent were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the coronavirus. That is a view reflected even here. Eighty-one-year-old Harry Kitzman lives in a suburb of neighbouring Racine, just 30 miles away, in a place called Mount Pleasant.

“He’s trying to bring attention away from the coronavirus,” he says through a mask as he enters a local Walmart. “He’s got blood on his hands. Tens of thousands of people have died needlessly. He has to go.”

Mr Kitzman opposes Trump even as he has tired of the protests for racial justice.

“It’s time to stop. If they are causing damage they should be prosecuted,” he says. But he adds: “I am 1000 per cent against Trump. He’s a mean vindictive man. He thinks he’s on his reality show.”

Former vice president Joe Biden touches down in Kenosha on Thursday to make an alternative pitch to Trump’s. Mr Biden has been critical of violent protests, but pitched himself as a healer.

“Vice President Biden will hold a community meeting in Kenosha to bring together Americans to heal and address the challenges we face,” his campaign said in a release.

Not everyone is excited for Biden, either.

“I don’t feel either of them are doing anything sincerely,” says Ms O’Doniel. “I think Kenosha needs to be focusing on rebuilding and not worrying about who is coming through town.

“It’s causing more division. Instead of coming together, they’re starting to bicker over the election stuff.”

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