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Biden Needs a Sister Souljah Month

Democrats need to convince voters that they really are against riots.
August 28, 2020
Biden Needs a Sister Souljah Month
Nope. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

I suggested a little while ago that Joe Biden needs a Sister Souljah moment, a reference to an incident in the 1992 presidential campaign when Bill Clinton criticized a race-baiting black rapper. Facing steep odds of winning the White House, Clinton took the chance of slightly alienating the radical wing of the Democratic party for the sake of reassuring centrists and conservative Democrats.

When I suggested this, the riots had abated for a while in favor of peaceful protests, and Biden held a strong lead in the polls. The cautious option was for Biden to take no chances and stand pat.

This week of protests and riots in Kenosha has changed that calculation. Public opinion is turning against the Black Lives Matter protests. A Marquette Law School poll completed before Kenosha showed support in Wisconsin for Black Lives Matter protests falling from 61-36—nearly a two-to-one approval-to-disapproval ratio—down to 48-48. We should assume it has gone done farther since then. Republicans will spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next ten weeks trying to convince voters that they should punish Democrats for tolerating or excusing lawless violence.

Which is why, on Wednesday afternoon, Joe Biden released a video making largely the correct argument: “[P]rotesting brutality is a right and absolutely necessary. But burning down communities is not protest, it’s needless violence—violence that endangers lives, violence that guts businesses and shutters businesses that serve the community. That’s wrong.”

This is about the best we could expect from the Man in the Middle. In his statement, Biden acknowledged the legitimate grievance of the Black Lives Matter moment and made a small obeisance toward the left’s dogma of “anti-racism” by using the phrase “systemic racism”—but he also used a quote from Jacob Blake’s mother disavowing the violence as protective cover so he could offer a straightforward rejection of riots as “needless violence.”

It was a good start. But it was only a start.

Democrats do not seem to realize how much credibility on this issue they are in danger of losing. A New York Times reporter talking to people in Wisconsin sounded the alarm:

Ellen Ferwerda, who owns an antique furniture store downtown just blocks from the worst of the destruction that is now closed, said that she was desperate for Mr. Trump to lose in November but that she had “huge concern” the unrest in her town could help him win. She added that local Democratic leaders seemed hesitant to condemn the mayhem.

“I think they just don’t know what to say,” she said. “People are afraid to take a stance either way, but I do think it’s strange they’re all being so quiet. Our mayor has disappeared. It’s like, ‘Where is he?'”

Or consider another exchange caught on video: a store owner shouting out from his shattered window, “Are they trying to get Trump re-elected?” A protester replies, “These people don’t represent our movement.” His rejoinder: “I’m sorry, but they’re with you.”

That’s the problem in a nutshell. The anarchist and revolutionary wing of the protest movement has run riot—quite literally—among the non-violent protesters with not nearly enough resistance from either elected Democrats or the left-leaning media.

Consider, for example, the role of the press in sugar-coating the dark side of these protests. There is the way they described the takeover of downtown Seattle as having a “festive” atmosphere—which Seattle’s mayor compared to the Summer of Love—and only later printed the stories of residents and business owners intimidated by lawless mobs. Or the way CNN characterized the burning of businesses in downtown Kenosha as “fiery but mostly peaceful protests.”

“Mostly peaceful protest” has become a running joke as an evasive way to describe a violent mob. Is there a big difference between a protest and a riot? Absolutely. I just wish the media would remember this and stop blurring the difference between them.

Add to this the increasingly widespread use of brutish intimidation tactics, as with a group of Black Lives Matter protesters who surrounded outdoor diners at a restaurant in Washington, D.C., and demanded that they raise their fists to show symbolic solidarity with the cause, chanting the Orwellian slogan “Silence Is Violence.” When one woman refused, they surrounded her in a literally howling mob. The woman, Lauren B. Victor, stood firm, explaining that “she felt there was something wrong about being coerced to show support.” The whole thing bears a striking visual similarity to the Two Minutes Hate, including the raised fists, and that’s what gives it such a totalitarian flavor: the venting of unreasoning hatred against even the smallest signs of dissent.

This is precisely the sort of thing that could tip the election back to Trump by making his opponents seem like weak and timid men afraid to confront the violent brutes.

Is this Joe Biden’s Sister Souljah moment? Maybe, but he needs more than a moment. The Democratic party needs a Sister Souljah month. A month in which Democratic mayors and governors stop trying to appease the rioters and instead shut them down. A month in which the media and commentators stop making excuses for the rioters and start exposing the viciousness of their destruction.

What they need to recognize, and what they need to say to the American people, is that how you fight for a cause says a lot about what that cause actually is.

If you resort to violence, you undermine your claim to fight for peace.

If you unleash hatred, you undermine your claim to fight for love.

If you target random businesses and passersby, dealing out the very kind of indiscriminate violence you are supposedly protesting against, you undermine your claim to fight for justice.

If you lust to build a guillotine, you are not a humanitarian.

It is the nature of coalition politics that every party attracts a crazy, illiberal fringe. It is also in the nature of these coalitions that they risk being captured by their crazy fringe—that they grow so used to regarding them as “their people,” as their allies and fellow travelers, that they cannot bring themselves to disavow the fringe’s most repellent notions. On the Republican side, Donald Trump has done this repeatedly, most recently by his refusal to disavow the QAnon conspiracy theorists.

The overriding message of last week’s Democratic convention is that their crazy fringe is not in charge, that the sober, reasonable liberals are running the show. But Democrats now have to back that message with very specific words casting out the rioters from among their company.

And it would help if these words were backed by actions of local elected Democrats and by liberal activists.

Only the Democrats can really do this. Only they seem to be willing and able to credibly recognize the grievances driving these protests. But they have to find the courage to shake off the fear of their radical wing and stand for the rule of law. There is no nobler cause than to crusade for the equal protection of the laws.

But the equal protection of the laws requires the protection of the laws.

It implies a society run by the rule of law, not the rule of the mob.

Biden’s recent statement on this is a beginning. But Democrats need to treat it as only a beginning.

Robert Tracinski

Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.