With knotted brows and a steely timbre, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a Republican National Convention speech Wednesday night that intended to stoke fear in the hearts of white Americans everywhere. His tone was mournful, almost apologetic, as he crafted an apocalyptic vision of what America would look like if Joe Biden—a Democrat without a radical bone in his body—won the general election in November. He invoked the most recent uprising in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to help illustrate his point.
“In the midst of this global pandemic, just as our nation had begun to recover, we have seen violence and chaos in the streets of our major cities,” Pence said. “President Trump and I will always support the right of Americans to peacefully protest. But rioting and looting is not peaceful protest. Tearing down statues is not free speech, and those who do so will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
He continued: “Last week, Joe Biden did not say one word about the violence and chaos engulfing cities across this country. So let me be clear. The violence must stop, whether in Minneapolis, Portland or Kenosha, too many heroes have died defending our freedom to see Americans strike each other down. We will have law and order on the streets of this country for every American of every race and creed and color.”
Pence’s framing of violence is a strange one, especially considering his inclusion of Kenosha. Americans will never see eye to eye on violence: To Pence and many others, the most extreme act of “violence” emerging from this summer of uprisings against police violence and systemic racism is the destruction of property, be it a burnt down building or a toppled Confederate statue. To those at the front lines of the battle for Black lives, violence looks a little different: police killing unarmed Black people, riot cops shooting teargas in the faces of protesters simply marching in the street, a militarized presence in America’s cities after the state inflicts violence against one of our own.
During this period of mass protest, it has been easy for those who miss the point to wax poetic about busted windows and destroyed car dealerships. But the Kenosha case is different. On Sunday, a white Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake—a Black man—seven times in the back. Blake was unarmed. Blake survived. Protests followed. Buildings were burned. But on Tuesday night, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly shot and killed two people while “protecting” local businesses and helping out the boys in blue. Rittenhouse was moonlighting as a militiaman along with several others, fighting against the same enemy Vice President Pence and President Trump believe to be the architects of America’s downfall. That Rittenhouse was an avid Trump supporter who even sat front row at Trump’s January rally in Des Moines, Iowa is telling.
An ignorant viewer would relegate the violence in Kenosha to burning buildings and furious protesters, not a white teen who is a suspect in the murder of two people: 36-year-old Joseph “Jojo” Rosenbaum and 26-year-old Anthony Huber, who allegedly tried to take down Rittenhouse with his skateboard.
“Joe Biden would double down on the very policies that are leading to violence in American cities,” Pence said. “The hard truth is you will not be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
This dog whistle pitch to white suburbanites who fear the specter of irate protesters conveniently ignores the fact that this violence, this fight, is happening in Trump’s America. But Pence’s job wasn’t to offer voters reality; if it was, he wouldn’t have suggested that the United States is recovering from the covid-19 pandemic. His job was to inflict fear, and that’s exactly what he did. Pence’s speech style might not be particularly engaging, but it didn’t have to be to make its intended impact. The Vice President painted a sinister portrait of an autocratic America where those in opposition to law enforcement’s unchallenged authority is an enemy of the state, and of democracy itself.
Pence said that law and order are on the ballot this November. Millions of Americans will likely vote for Trump and Pence with this in mind, believing they’ve secured four years of serenity, a clampdown on anti-police sentiment, of protest, of the toppling of monuments venerating racists. But an election can’t clamp down demands for change. They won’t stop under a Biden administration and certainly won’t stop if Trump is re-elected either.
Still, Pence’s speech might have been laden with white suburban fantasy, but embedded in that fantasy was a warning: protesting state violence is akin to protesting America itself. And it’s clear that the Republicans, having tasted blood in the water and latching onto an amorphous, faceless threat, are just getting started.