WASHINGTON – Apocalyptic images of blazing buildings and window-smashing protesters pop on the TV screen as a caller to a 911 emergency line reaches voicemail. The computer offers to take reports of rapes, murders or home invasions, adding, “Our estimated wait time is five days.”
The 30-second ad by President Donald Trump's reelection campaign ends with “You won't be safe in Joe Biden's America” emblazoned across a flickering hellscape. It blames a push by progressive activists to defund the police as “violent crime has exploded.”
With recent shootings that have killed children and dozens of others in cities with large Black populations like New York, Atlanta and Chicago, the GOP is trying to play offense, ominously. Ads like Trump’s and other Republican messaging insinuate that the rare looting and violence that marred largely peaceful social justice protests are spreading and foretell a wave of mayhem that they claim Democrats would abet with anti-police policies.
Trump emphasized that menacing theme at the White House Thursday, calling proponents of defunding the police “crazy.” Telling a visiting group of Hispanic Americans that many immigrants had fled dangerous countries, Trump added, “They know what happens when the police cannot protect the innocent, when the rule of law is destroyed.”
Democrats call the GOP drive an obvious diversion from issues they say voters care most about: the coronavirus pandemic that Trump has failed to control, the economic shutdown, recession-level unemployment, racial justice and health care.
They say Biden, the party's presumptive presidential nominee, has a well-honed moderate record that makes Republican efforts to cast him as a radical fruitless. And they say the GOP is fanning the flames of racism, preying on white suburbanites worried that televised scenes of burning buildings mean their neighborhoods are next.
“It’s not even subtle. We’re well beyond dog whistle,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic consultant.
The GOP spearhead comes with polls showing that Trump’s reelection and Republican control of the Senate may be in jeopardy in November’s voting. It also follows weeks of protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and during a period that’s seen Trump call the phrase “Black Lives Matter” a “symbol of hate,” defend Confederate commanders and retweet a supporter yelling, ”White power!”
Biden supports overhauling police practices and budgets but has repeatedly disavowed calls for defunding the police, as have most congressional Democrats. Republicans often suggest the term means that proponents want to abolish entire departments — and some far-left Democrats do — but most in the party consider it a call to shift some police resources to social welfare and other agencies.
Biden aides say it's a fantasy to cast the former vice president as seeking to dismantle police departments or ready to heed those who would. “Donald Trump is a chronic liar" who is “desperate to run against a fictitious opponent instead of Joe Biden," said Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates.
Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh called it “ridiculous” for Democrats to say the GOP tactic is racist.
“All Americans, no matter who they are or where they live, should be concerned about the anarchists and lawless mobs roaming the streets with the tacit approval of Joe Biden and the Democrats,” Murtaugh said.
Republican strategists say the issue will help woo suburban voters, a pivotal bloc that’s abandoned Trump over his caustic divisiveness. “They want to be able to call 911 and know someone’s coming,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president of the centrist Republican Main Street Coalition.
But they also acknowledge that the tactic is designed to reorient what's so far been a difficult campaign season. “It gets us away from a referendum on the president, and more to a contest between the two parties,” said GOP consultant Robert Blizzard.
Experts say there is scant evidence to connect the protests or activists' calls to defund the police to recent urban shootings. But in one of the few congressional races where Republicans have pressed the issue, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., has done just that.
Loeffler, facing a difficult reelection with rivals to her left and right, said on Fox News' “America’s Newsroom” this week that the defunding movement has "resulted in the death of a child.” She was referring to Secoriea Turner, 8, who was fatally shot near the site of recent protests in Atlanta. Police are seeking the shooter.
Loeffler, part owner of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream, has also opposed the basketball league's plan to incorporate Black Lives Matter messaging on uniforms and courts. In a letter to the league, she said the movement favors “the disruption of the nuclear family structure” and has “promoted violence and destruction.”
One of her Democratic opponents, Rev. Raphael Warnock, said Loeffler had surrendered to “the narrow impulses of tribalism and bigotry.”
Homicides and shootings routinely rise in spring and summer as days get longer and people spend more time outdoors, academics say. Other factors include gang violence, and this year's spike could be fed by stress related to the virus, sky-high unemployment, stay-at-home orders and anger over police brutality.
Recent polling suggests Republicans have work to do to win over large swaths of the public.
About 3 in 4 people believe defund the police means revamping how police departments work, not erasing them, according to a Monmouth University Poll conducted last month. Six in 10 Americans say Trump's handling of the protests worsened the situation.
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey last month found major increases since 2015 in the number of white Americans who consider police violence a serious problem. Seven in 10 people back a complete reshaping or major changes to the criminal justice system, though only a quarter supports cutting law enforcement funding.
In the 2018 congressional elections, Trump vaulted immigration and supposedly dangerous “caravans" of Central Americans streaming toward the U.S. border a major GOP issue. Democrats focused on health care.
AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey of American voters, showed large majorities bucked Trump and thought immigrants arriving illegally should have a chance for citizenship.
Democrats gained 40 House seats, capturing control of the chamber.
Associated Press writers Emily Swanson and Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.