Brett Stephens: Unwitting progressives for Trump

(Christian Monterrosa | AP file photo) In this May 29 photo, protesters loot and vandalize a Starbucks as they clash with police officers during a protest in downtown Los Angeles. Members of the "Safe LA Task Force" announced on Wednesday arrests for arson, looting, assault and vandalism, among other crimes, that occurred during protests against police brutality in the Los Angeles region.

On Thursday, as Donald Trump was about to accept the Republican nomination from the South Lawn of the White House with warnings that “No one will be safe in Biden’s America,” National Public Radio was doing its small part to make sure the president would be reelected.

NPR’s assistance in this matter was surely unwitting. But that doesn’t make it any less effective.

The assist came in the form of a lengthy interview by NPR’s Natalie Escobar with Vicky Osterweil, author of “In Defense of Looting.” The book makes the case for looting because it “attacks some of the core beliefs and structures of cisheteropatriarchal racial capitalist society”; “rejects the legitimacy of ownership rights and property”; and “reveals all these for what they are: not natural facts, but social constructs benefiting a few at the expense of the many, upheld by ideology, economy and state violence.”

To judge by the NPR interview, “In Defense of Looting” is not an interesting book. It speaks for almost nobody beyond the fringe left — and certainly not for looters who hadn’t thought about “cisheteropatriarchalism.” The fact that the publisher is an imprint of international conglomerate Hachette (2018 revenues, approximately $2.7 billion) compounds foolishness with hypocrisy.

Nonetheless, the book is symbolically important. I became aware of it when several friends separately forwarded to me the NPR interview. Many of these friends, I suspect, will reluctantly vote for Trump — not out of sympathy for him, but out of disgust with defenses of looting and other things they see too often on the left.

What else are they seeing? A CNN chyron from a burning Kenosha, Wisconsin: “Fiery but mostly peaceful protests after police shooting.” A video of an outdoor diner at a Washington, D.C., restaurant being yelled at by Black Lives Matter protesters because she won’t raise a fist in solidarity. Republican Sen. Rand Paul and his wife getting harassed by a swarm of protesters as they left the White House.

And more: Trump being mocked in 2017 for warning that if statues of Robert E. Lee come down, then George Washington and Thomas Jefferson statues will be next — and then radical demonstrators doing exactly that three years later. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York scolding Orthodox Jews in April for appearing to flout social distancing rules at a Brooklyn, New York, funeral, but then making an exception for Black Lives Matter demonstrations a few months later. Seattle’s mayor, Jenny Durkan, celebrating a “summer of love” in the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” and then watching the area descend, with depressing predictability, into violent anarchy.

The list could be longer, but the question it leaves in the minds of wavering voters is exactly the question Trump most wants asked: Can the left be trusted with power?

Let me ask that question more specifically. Can the left be honest that the tragedies unfolding today in U.S. cities are as much the story of insufficient policing as they are of abusive policing? Does it get that “law and order” is a precondition to civil liberty, not an impediment to it? Is it willing to say that the American founders who bequeathed us the institutions of liberal democracy should be honored, not despised? And does Joe Biden have the nerve to stand up to the extremes in his own party, or does he just mean to appease them?

Is he Bill Clinton or George McGovern?

I’ve been fairly enthusiastic about Biden’s candidacy, largely because I think he represents the best chance for the moderate Democratic wing to prevail over its left one. But his wan and sometimes unsteady speech in Pittsburgh, with its brief defense of police and its anodyne call for healing, isn’t going to assuage the voters he needs in swing states.

And need them he does. It’s always possible that Trump will overplay his hand on law and order. And Biden may still have a commanding lead in national polls. But he’s up by an average of just 2.7 points in battleground states, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. And the phenomenon of the “shy voter” is coming into sharper focus: Nearly 12% of Republicans and 11% of independents say they’re unlikely to give telephone pollsters their true opinion on how they’ll vote in November because they think “it’s dangerous to express an opinion outside of the current liberal viewpoint,” according to a study cited by Bloomberg. When did we hear that before?

Biden can do something about this. He can publicly call out far-left ugliness (not just violence) the next time he sees it. He can pay a visit to the people who’ve had their businesses burned to the ground in Kenosha and tell them that their grievances will be heard, and their property protected, in a Biden administration. He can even call the family of the right-wing activist killed on Saturday in Portland, Oregon. What better way to prove that a Biden presidency stands for unity than to express sympathy for the victims of violence, regardless of their politics.

Too many progressives are unthinkingly helping Trump. Biden helps himself when he tells them, publicly, that their sort of help isn’t needed.

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.