President Donald Trump on Tuesday took his tough law-and-order message to Kenosha, the latest US city roiled by the police shooting of a black man, as he branded recent anti-racism protests acts of “domestic terror” by violent mobs.
Trump has been hoping for months to shift the election battle against Democrat Joe Biden from a referendum on his widely panned coronavirus pandemic response, to what he sees as far more comfortable territory of law and order.
And in the Wisconsin city of Kenosha, in upheaval since a white police officer shot 29-year-old African American Jacob Blake in front of his three young sons, the Republican found his mark.
“These are not acts of peaceful protest but domestic terror,” Trump said after touring damaged areas of the city, describing multiple nights of angry demonstrations last week that left two people dead.
Crowds lined the barricaded streets where the president’s motorcade passed, with Trump supporters on one side and Black Lives Matter protestors on the other, yelling at one another from a distance and in sometimes tense face-to-face encounters.
“Thank you for saving our town,” read the sign of one supporter along the road. “Not my president,” read another.
Under heavy security that blocked off the road, Trump visited a burnt-out store where he told the owners “we’ll help you rebuild”.
“These gentlemen did a fantastic job,” he said, about law enforcement units that quelled the violent protests.
“This is a great area, a great state,” Trump said, adding later that his administration was committing at least $47 million to Wisconsin law enforcement, small businesses and public safety programmes.
“We’ll get Kenosha back in shape,” he said.
Trump had suggested in Washington that a meeting with the Blake family was possible during his high-profile trip, but it did not materialise.
A microcosm of the racial and ideological tensions of the Trump era, Kenosha has seen Black Lives Matter protests, riots, and the arrival of armed, white vigilantes, culminating in an incident in which a 17-year-old militia enthusiast, Kyle Rittenhouse, allegedly shot dead two people and badly injured another.
Democrats and police-reform advocates view Kenosha as a symbol of institutional racism.
They see Rittenhouse, a Trump supporter, as emblematic of right-wing militias that are increasingly brazen about brandishing weaponry in political settings.
Trump, however, came with a different priority – countering what he has repeatedly described as the “anarchy” in Democratic-led cities.
Trump has refused to condemn the growing presence of armed vigilantes on the streets, calling the alleged killings by Rittenhouse “an interesting situation”.
“We have to condemn the dangerous anti-police rhetoric,” he said at a command centre set up in a Kenosha high school.
In an interview on Monday, Trump likened police officers who err when making split-second decisions to golfers who “choke” under pressure.
He said: “Shooting the guy in the back many times. I mean, couldn’t you have done something differently?”
“But they choke. Just like in a golf tournament, they miss a three-foot putt.”