The good news for America is that Donald Trump is crashing his presidency the same way he bankrupted casinos, with recent polls showing him significantly trailing Joe Biden. His own advisers reportedly say that his internal numbers are “brutal.”
The bad news for America – potentially – is that Trump may have found a life preserver to which he can cling, and perhaps slow his risk of being swept away.
Here’s what Trump said the other day in Maine: “(Protestors) are saying ‘defund the police.’ Defund. Think of it. When I saw it, I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘They say, ‘We don’t want to have any police.’ You don’t want any police?”
“Defund the police” – formerly a cri de coeur in certain activist and academic circles; now painted on a street near the White House – is a bold slogan that’s potential grist for Trumpist demagoguery. Perhaps Trump’s efforts will ultimately fail, given his horrific performance in office, but Biden and the Democrats may need to be careful nonetheless, lest they be tarred as “soft on crime” – one of the GOP’s more durable smear tactics.
When lawmakers start talking about “defunding” a program, it generally means reducing the program’s money to zero.
But “defund the police” is not about magically abolishing all police.
As Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza said Sunday on Meet the Press, it’s about shifting priorities: “When we talk about defunding the police, what we’re saying is, invest in the resources that our communities need…What we do need is increased funding for housing, we need increased funding for education, we need increased funding for the quality-of-life communities that are over-policed and over-surveilled.”
But fortunately for Trump and his enablers, a three-word slogan can be twisted and caricatured and exaggerated and distorted all kinds of ways, for the purpose of freaking people out. Hence this Trump tweet, posted Sunday: “Sleepy Joe Biden and the Radical Left Democrats want to ‘DEFUND THE POLICE’. I want great and well paid LAW ENFORCEMENT. I want LAW & ORDER!” And this one: “Not only will Sleepy Joe Biden DEFUND THE POLICE, but he will DEFUND OUR MILITARY!”
Naturally, Trump is lying – Biden is opposed to defunding the police and the military – but Trump may have some room to maneuver.
He can demand that Biden denounce the slogan and endorse our men and women in blue. If Biden does denounce the slogan, maybe he’d alienate progressives in his ranks. Alternatively, if he stands with the activists, maybe he’d tick off the majority of Americans – 71 percent – who support their local police departments.
As a slogan, “defund the police” is ripe for right-wing political mischief. Even though it’s generally about shifting some money from police (especially the purchase of military hardware) to a community’s basic human needs, Trump and his enablers will say it’s all about abolishing the police. Monday on MSNBC, the Rev. Al Sharpton admitted that “the slogan may be misleading without interpretation.”
Which means that, politically speaking, is not a good slogan. Not if you have to keep explaining it.
But here’s a good attempt to explain it, courtesy of Georgetown University law professor (and police reform expert) Christy Lopez:
“For most proponents, ‘defunding the police’ does not mean zeroing out budgets for public safety, and police abolition does not mean that police will disappear overnight – or perhaps ever. Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. It means investing more in mental-health care and housing, and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs…It means recognizing that criminalizing addiction and poverty, making 10 million arrests per year and mass incarceration have not provided the public safety we want and never will.”
In all likelihood, Biden will stay broadly within those parameters. At this point – amidst a pandemic, an economic depression, and widespread civic unrest – the burden is on a failed, lawless president to leverage “law and order” to his benefit. And that’s the good news.
Opinion contributor Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at DickPolman.net. His work appears on Mondays on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Email him at [email protected].