Mainstream media need to stop letting Trump call himself the “law and order” candidate

Despite his years of criminality and incendiary rhetoric, media outlets still cover Trump’s campaign pitch credulously

President Donald Trump has surrounded himself with criminals, been credibly accused of breaking the law himself, and has continued to fan the flames of political violence in America. However, mainstream media outlets continue to take seriously his “law and order” campaign pitch — in which he is exploiting civil unrest and protests against police brutality targeting Black Americans — by covering it credulously, rather than calling him out on the spot or somehow noting the blatant hypocrisy.

During his presidency, Trump issued pardons for war crimes, commuted the sentence of a known crony, and lavished praise on a Republican congressman who assaulted a reporter. Last year, he warned that his supporters, ranging from police to bikers, might get “tough” on his opponents, including those in Congress. His former campaign chairman was convicted on eight counts in a trial in a Virginia federal court and pleaded guilty to two more counts in a trial in Washington, D.C., federal court. Trump himself was also impeached over illegally withholding foreign military aid to Ukraine to pressure the country into investigating a political opponent while vastly profiting from the presidency himself. A New York Times report raised serious questions as to whether Trump previously evaded tax laws in building up his family’s wealth. He has also publicly defended the right-wing shooting suspect facing two murder charges in Kenosha, Wisconsin, while also touting “retribution” when a left-wing shooting suspect in Portland, Oregon, was killed by U.S. marshals.

Media coverage of Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric has been a serious problem for a long time, as the media has also sugarcoated Trump’s calls for violence and hate for years, and it continues to be a crucial problem going into the final stretch of the 2020 election.

Monday’s edition of “The Morning” newsletter by David Leonhardt of The New York Times, headlined “Biden’s Vulnerability,” speculated that polling on “law and order” issues could be a weakness for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden — even as the poll cited in the piece showed him performing well on those issues.

But the other issue that’s dominated the news in recent months — the combination of police violence, racial injustice, peaceful protests and rising crime in many cities — is more politically complicated. It has the potential to hurt both Trump and Biden, in different ways. And so far, Biden has not managed to send voters a persuasive message that protects his vulnerabilities.

Perhaps the most surprising finding from the poll was this: In the four swing states — Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire and Wisconsin — a larger share of voters said “addressing law and order” was a more important campaign issue to them than said “addressing the coronavirus pandemic” was.

On first glance, these law-and-order concerns may still seem to help Biden. More voters trust him to do a better job on several related issues — including violent crime, unifying the country and handling the protests — than trust Trump. But it’s not quite that simple.

In fact, Biden has repeatedly condemned violence occurring at the protests over police brutality over the past several months, while Trump has only added more inflammatory rhetoric.

And as former Media Matters writer Jamison Foser pointed out in late August, the Times then also reported on the idea of Trump “hammering” a “law and order” message — while only acknowledging much later in the piece that Trump actually enjoyed publicly violating political norms and potentially even the ethics laws when he held a campaign rally for the Republican National Convention on the White House’s South Lawn.

The Washington Post also reported two weeks ago that Trump and Republicans “have seized on the ‘law and order’ message to help win down-ballot races.” Similarly, The Associated Press reported in August that Trump “zeroed in on Midwest battleground states on Monday with a law and order message.”

And when polls continue to show Biden ahead in swing states, both in terms of general horserace and the particular issue questions, outlets such as NBC News, CNN, and Politico carried headlines saying that  “Trump’s law and order campaign isn’t working,” in CNN words — or as Politico said in its article text, “Biden worked to flip the script on Trump.”

But missing from these articles, and the continued narrative that issues of crime present some weakness for Biden, is a crucial element: The entire premise of Trump being a “law and order” candidate is completely bankrupt from the start.