Trump has been hoping for months to shift the election battle against Democrat Joe Biden from a referendum on his widely panned coronavirus pandemic response, to what he sees as far more comfortable territory of law and order.
And in the Wisconsin city of Kenosha, in upheaval since a white police officer shot 29-year-old African American Jacob Blake in front of his three young sons, the Republican found his mark.
“These are not acts of peaceful protest but really domestic terror,” Trump said after touring damaged areas of the city, describing multiple nights of angry demonstrations last week that left two people dead.
Crowds lined the barricaded streets where the president’s motorcade passed, with Trump supporters on one side and Black Lives Matter protestors on the other, yelling at one another from a distance and in sometimes tense face-to-face encounters.
“Thank you for saving our town,” read the sign of one supporter along the road. “Not my president,” read another.
Under heavy security that blocked off the road, Trump visited a burnt-out store where he told the owners “we’ll help you rebuild.”
“These gentlemen did a fantastic job,” he said, in reference to law enforcement units that quelled the violent protests.
“This is a great area, a great state,” Trump said, adding later that his administration was committing at least $47 million to Wisconsin law enforcement, small businesses and public safety programs.
“We’ll get Kenosha back in shape,” he said.
Trump had suggested in Washington that a meeting with the Blake family was possible during his high-profile trip, but it did not materialize.
– ‘They choke’ –
A microcosm of the racial and ideological tensions of the Trump era, Kenosha has seen Black Lives Matter protests, riots, and the arrival of armed, white vigilantes, culminating in an incident in which a 17-year-old militia enthusiast, Kyle Rittenhouse, allegedly shot dead two people and badly injured another.
Democrats and police-reform advocates view Kenosha as a symbol of institutional racism.
They see Rittenhouse, a Trump supporter, as emblematic of right-wing militias that are increasingly brazen about brandishing weaponry in political settings.
Trump, however, came with a different priority: countering what he has repeatedly described as the “anarchy” in Democratic-led cities.
Trump has refused to condemn the growing presence of armed vigilantes on the streets, calling the alleged killings by Rittenhouse “an interesting situation.”
“We have to condemn the dangerous anti-police rhetoric,” he said at a command centre set up in a Kenosha high school.
In an interview Monday, Trump likened police officers who err when making split-second decisions to golfers who “choke” under pressure.
“Shooting the guy in the back many times. I mean, couldn’t you have done something different?” he said. “But they choke. Just like in a golf tournament, they miss a three-foot putt.”
– Fanning ‘flames’ –
Wisconsin’s governor and Kenosha’s mayor, both Democrats, had urged Trump not to visit but he ignored their pleas — and Biden has accused him of deliberately fomenting violence for political gain.
“Trump failed once again to meet the moment, refusing to utter the words that Wisconsinites and Americans across the country needed to hear today from the president: a condemnation of violence of all kinds, no matter who commits it,” the Biden campaign said in a statement after the visit.
“Trump cannot bring himself to condemn the violence that he himself is stoking,” the statement added. “We must come together to reject the chaos Trump has inflamed.”
Trump for his part accuses Biden of weakness in addressing violent protests in cities such as Kenosha and Portland, Oregon, seeking to paint the Democrat as incapable of controlling the party’s left-wing.
Trump’s visit came as new protests were planned in Los Angeles following the fatal shooting by sheriff’s deputies of a black man, identified as 29-year-old Dijon Kizzee, after a violent altercation.
Last week’s unrest in Kenosha rekindled a months-long surge of protest against police violence and racism, unleashed by the death of an unarmed African American, George Floyd, at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
Watching from her front porch as police closed nearby streets in Kenosha, resident Nicole Populorum took issue with Trump’s statement that he saved her city from burning down by deploying the National Guard.
“The community came together, so for him to say if it wasn’t for him there would be no Kenosha is ignorant and insulting,” Populorum said.