On Thursday morning I walked across much of Manhattan and back again. (Why are all the doctors’ offices on the East Side?) It was a beautiful day, and the city looked cheerful: Shops were open, people were drinking coffee in the sidewalk seating areas that have proliferated during the pandemic, Central Park was full of joggers and cyclists.
But I must have been imagining all that, because Donald Trump assures me that New York is beset by “anarchy, violence and destruction.”
With only two months left in the presidential campaign, Trump has evidently decided that he can neither run on his own record nor effectively attack Joe Biden. Instead, he’s running against anarchists who, he insists, secretly rule the Democratic Party and are laying waste to America’s cities.
There’s not much to be said about Trump’s claims that people “in the dark shadows” control Biden and that mysterious people dressed in black are menacing Republicans, except that not long ago it would have been inconceivable for any major-party politician to engage in this kind of conspiracy theorizing.
There’s a bit more to be said about his claims of rampant violence and destruction in “anarchic jurisdictions” — namely, that these claims bear little resemblance to the mostly peaceful reality.
But invisible anarchists are all Trump has left. To see why, let’s talk about the real issues: the pandemic and the economy.
A few months ago the Trump campaign clearly hoped that it could put the coronavirus behind it. But the virus declined to cooperate.
It’s not just the fact that premature reopening led to a huge second wave of infections and deaths. Equally important, from a political point of view, has been COVID-19′s geographical spread.
Early in the pandemic it was possible to portray COVID-19 as a big-city, blue-state problem; voters in rural areas and red states found it easier to dismiss the threat in part because they were relatively unlikely to know people who had gotten sick. But the second surge of infections and deaths was concentrated in the Sunbelt.
And while the Sunbelt surge appears to be slowly subsiding now that state and local governments have done what Trump didn’t want them to do — close bars, ban large gatherings and require masks — there now appears to be a surge in the Midwest.
What this means is that by Election Day almost everyone in America will know someone who caught the virus, and will also know that Trump’s repeated promises that it was going away were false.
When it comes to the economy, all indications are that the rapid snapback of May and June has leveled off, with unemployment still very high. Friday’s employment report is likely to show an economy still adding jobs, but nothing like the “super V” recovery Trump is still claiming. And there will be only one more labor market report before the election.
Furthermore, the politics of the economy depend less on what official numbers say than on how people are feeling. Consumer confidence remains low. Assessments by businesses surveyed by the Federal Reserve range from unenthusiastic to glum. And there just isn’t enough time for this to change much: Trump isn’t going to be able to ride an economic boom into the election.
So he needs to run against those invisible anarchists.
Now, there has been some looting, property damage and violence associated with Black Lives Matter demonstrations. But the property damage has been minor compared with urban riots of the past — no, Portland, Oregon, is not “ablaze all the time” — and much of the violence is coming not from the left but from right-wing extremists.
It’s also true that there has been a recent rise in homicides, and nobody is sure why. But murders were very low last year, and even if the rate so far this year continues, New York City will have substantially fewer homicides in 2020 than it did when Rudy Giuliani was mayor.
In short, there isn’t a wave of anarchy and violence other than that unleashed by Trump himself. But can voters be swayed by the president’s lurid fantasies?
Actually, they might. For whatever reason, there’s a long history of disconnect between the realities of crime and public perceptions. As Pew has pointed out, between 1993 and 2018 violent crime in America plunged; murders in New York fell more than 80%. Yet over that period Americans consistently told pollsters that crime was rising.
And with travel and tourism way down, so that people can’t see the reality of other places with their own eyes, it may be especially easy for Trump to pretend that our big cities have turned into dystopian hellscapes.
What’s less clear is whether this lie will help Trump, even if people believe it. “America has gone to hell on my watch, so you must reelect me” isn’t the greatest campaign pitch I can think of.
And polling suggests that fear is not, in fact, the president’s friend. For example, by a large margin respondents to a new Quinnipiac poll declared that having Trump as president makes them feel less safe. Reactions to Biden were much more favorable.
Still, expect Trump to keep ranting about those invisible anarchists. They’re all he has left.
Paul Krugman is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.