In the eyes of President Donald Trump and some Republicans, electing the Democrats in 2020 would lead to a clear and frightening outcome: tranquil suburbs in Connecticut and elsewhere would be overrun by crime, violent protests, and social decay.
It’s an old message with a new twist, fueled by the backlash against Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations this summer that were largely peaceful in Connecticut, but turned violent in Portland, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities.
Referring to the prospect of civil unrest, David X. Sullivan, a Republican candidate for the 5th Congressional District, told the Courant that he is “concerned about Avon, Farmington and Simsbury becoming as violent as Portland, New York and Chicago.”
Unrest in Avon?
Trump’s law and order message and its many versions may sound far-fetched to some. But there is a racist undertone to the rhetoric that has proven effective in the past, said Noel A. Cazenave, a professor of sociology at UConn. It reflects a long history of American politicians attempting to secure votes by playing up racial fears.
A Trump campaign video from July conjures up a world of defenseless suburbs under attack, showing a fictionalized scene of an elderly white woman watching a news segment about the defunding of the police as a shadowy intruder breaks into her house. She calls 9-1-1 but there is no dispatcher to pick up. The ad flashes a message: “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
Sullivan said he rejects any implication that there is a racial element to his campaign messaging, which he described as an effort to “promote safety, in our homes, in our workplaces.”
But Cazenave notes that fear-mongering in political campaigns has deep roots in America, from Richard Nixon’s “Law and Order” campaign in the late 1960s to George H. W. Bush’s late 1980s political ad centered on Willie Horton, a Black man incarcerated in Massachusetts who raped a white woman while released on furlough, meant to demonstrate his Democratic opponent’s weak stance on crime. Trump is exploiting those same themes this year, Cazenave said.
“Donald Trump’s appeal to European-American suburban women voters is intended to exploit fear that if Joe Biden is elected, low-income African Americans and African American protestors will invade their suburbs,” Cazenave said. He noted that the tactic is “an extension of the old racist trope of imperiled white women.”
Many Trump supporters in the state say they find comfort in Trump’s promise of safety and were angered to see Connecticut law enforcement come under attack during Black Lives Matter protests this summer and through the recent police accountability bill signed by Gov. Ned Lamont.
In a Biden White House, Trump supporters say they fear the dismantling of constitutional liberties and a lax approach to public safety.
“We haven’t seen the Democrats come out and really put a squash on the increase in crime or the rioting out West and even though we haven’t seen it here, there is that fear that that will continue,” said Cathy Hopperstad, a Republican running for state representative in a district including East Hartford, Manchester, and parts of Glastonbury.
In Glastonbury, Democratic Town Committee chairman Matt Saunig said he has heard local Republicans “trying to double, triple down on the Trump message, which is a fear-mongering, divisive message of law-and-order and that there will be riots in the suburbs and crime run amok if Biden is elected.” (The Glastonbury Republican Town Committee declined to comment on such messaging.)
But Saunig doesn’t think that kind of extreme messaging will take the lion’s share of voters in Glastonbury — regardless of party affiliation.
“The vast majority of Democrats in Glastonbury and Republicans in Glastonbury and unaffiliated voters in Glastonbury are somewhere in the middle and not on those extremes,” he said.
Many houses in town have both Black Lives Matter signs and signs in support of the Glastonbury Police Department on their front lawns, he added.
“This is that Trump, Republican line of trying to be divisive, that you’re either in one camp or the other, an us vs. them kind of thing, and that’s not actually the case,” he said.
A number of recent national polls suggest that Trump’s law and order message has failed to resonate in critical battleground states including Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, appealing to his core base but not bringing undecided or Democratic voters over to his side. That may hold true for centrist areas of Connecticut as well, or for voters who backed Trump in 2016 but may not vote to reelect.
In Beacon Falls, a sleepy town of 6,000 tucked into the lower Naugatuck River Valley, fervent calls for law and order, condemning rioting, looting and civil unrest, can seem far removed from daily life.
“That’s not here in suburban Beacon Falls,” said Mike Krenesky, the chairman of the Beacon Falls Republican Town Committee.
Residents in town have kept mostly quiet about the election, Krenesky said, and he has heard neither fears about a Biden administration bringing destruction to the suburbs nor vocal criticisms of President Trump. That’s either because people are keeping their opinions to themselves, or because there is little debate to be had, he said. In 2016, Trump won 60% of the vote in Beacon Falls and Krenesky said he expects town residents to vote similarly this year.
“Everyone is in agreement that All Lives Matter and the lack of respect across the country and the political divisiveness we’ve got right now in Washington, D.C. is not benefitting the common man in Beacon Falls,” he said.
For his part, though, Krenesky remains undecided. He voted for Trump in 2016, but four years later, he is wavering between the incumbent president and Biden. Krenesky is most concerned about a strong American military, a fortified economy, and addressing climate change; Trump’s law and order message has not resonated enough to secure his vote, he said in late September.
“The challenge we have right now is that the two guys running for the presidency, you can’t really be a fan of either one,” he said.
Two Connecticut Republicans running in congressional races have echoed Trump’s law-and-order message.
In western Connecticut, Republican David X. Sullivan, vying to unseat freshman Democrat Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-5th District), has pitched himself as a “rule of law candidate” who will protect Connecticut’s towns from violence and unrest.
A Sullivan campaign video published in June featured footage of police vehicles burning and scuffles between protesters and law enforcement officers during demonstrations. “Each night on television, we see rioting, looting, the desecration and destruction of our monuments,” Sullivan says in the ad. “The rule of law and our institutions are under attack.”
“Safety has been the cornerstone of my 30-year career in law enforcement and I have never suggested, although I’ve read about it a few times, that violence and rioting were coming to our suburbs,” Sullivan, a career prosecutor who describes himself as a Reagan Republican, said Tuesday.
“I don’t want to see what’s happening in Portland, Chicago, Seattle, New York, Kenosha, Philadelphia, coming here,” he added. “There has been no knee on the back of the neck by a Connecticut law enforcement officer, either. And we’re certainly talking about police reform. If we’re going to be consistent and talk about the problems that our nation faces, whether they’re here in Connecticut at this moment I don’t think is the issue. The issue is that they’re here in our nation and we must address them.”
In the third congressional district, which encompasses New Haven and its surrounding suburbs, Republican Margaret Streicker, a Milford real estate developer running against 30-year incumbent Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-3rd District), has also positioned herself as a supporter of law and order.
“We need to maintain our sense of safety and security [so that] people can live their lives in peace, which is, frankly, what a vast, vast, vast majority of us want,” she recently told the Courant. Streicker’s campaign did not respond to a request for additional comment.
Sullivan and Streicker’s rhetoric echoes the fear Trump has attempted to provoke of quiet suburban communities threatened by crime and civil unrest, particularly in the wake of a summer of protests and calls to defund the police.
Throughout the summer, Trump directly appealed to the “Suburban Housewives of America,” warning that Biden would “destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream.” The Trump administration also moved to repeal an Obama-era initiative designed to end racial housing disparities in the suburbs, which critics saw as an attempt to win suburban voters by stoking racial fears.
In Connecticut, a Fairfield County group, Suburban Women Against Trump (S.W.A.T.), formed this past summer to push back against Trump’s attempts to court female suburban votes. The group launched a mass mailing campaign to send 100,000 copies of a letter to the White House informing Trump, “You do NOT know us, you do NOT speak for us, and you do NOT represent the type of leader we respect.”
Scot X. Esdaile, the president of the Connecticut State Conference of the NAACP, sees Trump’s law and order rhetoric as an attempt to drum up fear—and votes—in the suburbs during an intensely charged election season. But such rhetoric is racist and without factual merit, he said.
“It seems like they’re going back to a Paul Revere type of tactics, ‘The Redcoats are coming, the Redcoats are coming,’” he said. “I guess they’re trying to use those fear tactics, but it’s baseless, it has no substance to it. The Redcoats aren’t coming. The Black people are not coming to the suburbs to hurt and harm white people.”
The exclusionary history and enduring segregation of suburban Connecticut requires ongoing work toward more equitable housing and education, Esdaile said. But he believes those goals are achievable, particularly in light of widespread racial justice activism this past summer.
“They’re trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat, out of desperation,” he said of the Republican rhetoric. “It looks like the country does not want to go back to that direction. It wants to move forward and try to make the country more equitable and fair.”
For members of his base, Trump’s law and order message cuts to the heart of what is wrong with the Democratic party. They argue the Democrats have veered increasingly to the left and are now dominated by an agenda that could lead to chaos and disorder.
At a watch party for the first presidential debate in late September at One Wood Pub at the East Hartford Golf Club, supporters of the president mingled over drinks and cheeseburgers. Many said they see Trump as a bulwark of traditional conservative values and are concerned about the pressure law enforcement has come under this year.
Matt Harper, a Republican running for state representative serving East Hartford, Manchester, and South Windsor, said that Trump “instinctively seems to lean towards values that are conservative and make me feel like our country is going to be safe to continue as it was founded and not veer too far off course.”
Harper, a strong supporter of law enforcement, said he was grateful that Connecticut has not seen the violence or civil unrest that has emerged in other cities across the nation.
“Locally, I’m not too worried, but I think in other parts of the country, there’s the potential for violence to flare up,” he said.
Kathy Bilodeau, a member of the East Windsor Republican Town Committee, wearing a blue “Women for Trump” face mask, said she fears a Biden presidency would institute a “socialist agenda,” stripping away religious rights, increasing taxes and dismantling protection for law enforcement.
“I think that’s one of the most ludicrous things that could’ve happened in our country,” she said of the push to defund law enforcement. “Police protection? We all need protection. What’s going to happen when it’s not there? That’s a scary thought to me.”
Across Connecticut, many moderate Republicans say that Trump’s depiction of law and order disintegrating nationwide resonates less with them than does the more immediate concern of Connecticut’s new police law, which they worry profoundly weakens protections for local law enforcement officers. Those Republicans emphasize that the national and statewide issues surrounding law enforcement are distinct.
Jack Testani, chairman of the Fairfield Republican Town Committee, sees Trump’s law and order rhetoric as an attempt to “convey a message that any kind of violent protesting…is something to be frowned upon.” What he and other local Republicans find far more distressing, he said, is the reduced power of Connecticut law enforcement under the new law which, among other measures, potentially exposes officers to personal damages in civil lawsuits.
“I would not equate opposition to that bill with agreement to the concern of suburban unrest,” said George Norman, chairman of the Glastonbury Republican Town Committee. “Some people might say that’s step one on a slippery slope. I wouldn’t deny that there may be people who make that connection, but I don’t think I would assume that all do. I think many people might equally be not concerned. I can only speak for myself: I do not wake up every morning wondering if, when I go for a run at lunch, I’m going to be accosted by mobs in Glastonbury.”
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