Importance of ‘Rule of Law’ Comes Into Focus at RNC Convention, on Campaign Trail

Trump and Biden spar on public safety after summer of unrest, but Catholic commentators say issue runs deeper.

Kenosha (photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images / Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

During his Aug. 27 speech to conclude the Republican National Convention, President Donald Trump made a point of distinguishing his views from those of his Democrat challenger, Joe Biden, on everything from jobs to abortion.

But Trump also drew a sharp distinction between himself and the former vice president on an issue not typically in play in recent presidential elections: enforcing the rule of law amid domestic unrest.

“Your vote will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans, or whether we give free reign to violent anarchists, agitators and criminals who threaten our civilians,” said the president.

Trump made his comments in front of the White House, but the “People’s House” wasn’t his only backdrop. Large crowds had gathered blocks away from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to protest Trump as he accepted his party’s nomination. Some placed an effigy of the president under a mock guillotine, an instrument of death associated with the French Revolution. Another group, standing in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, chanted “If we don’t get [justice], burn it down!” Others harassed convention attendees, including Sen. Rand Paul and his wife, as they departed the event. The Kentucky Republican told media the next day that without a police escort, “I don’t think we would have survived.”

“We can’t let our cities be taken over by these marauders and thugs,” he added.

Summer of Unrest

Trump’s emphasis and the events surrounding his speech highlight an issue that has emerged as a pivotal one less than two months before Election Day. Concerns about public safety come at the tail end of a summer marked by widespread public demonstrations in protest of police violence against Black men, which began with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. Although most of the protests have been peaceful and law-abiding, and have included participation from Catholic clergy and laypeople, some have descended into violence and destruction.

In Minneapolis, two deaths and an estimated $500 million of property damage are associated with the unrest and rioting in the wake of Floyd’s death, which some have classified as the single most destructive period of local unrest since the 1992 Los Angeles riots. In Chicago, with police preoccupied with looting and unrest, gun violence spiked in the city; one 24-hour period on May 31 saw 18 shooting fatalities, making it the deadliest day in the Windy City in more than 60 years. And in Portland, Oregon, where violent engagements between protesters and law enforcement have been commonplace in more than 90 days of continuous demonstration, matters escalated on Aug. 29, when a pro-Trump counterprotester was shot and killed allegedly by Michael Reinoehl, who police suspect is a member of the far-left Antifa group. Reinoehl was shot and killed on Sept. 4 as federal agents attempted to arrest him.

Kenosha, Wisconsin, is the latest to join the list of cities seriously impacted by unrest. On Aug. 23, police shot and seriously injured Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, during his arrest related to a domestic dispute, prompting widespread rioting and destruction of property across the city. In response, armed groups of civilians came to the scene, ostensibly to protect local businesses. Conflict between these groups and protesters led to 17-year-old Kevin Rittenhouse shooting and killing two men and injuring a third.

There are signs that the wider public is growing weary of ongoing strife in U.S. cities. Public support for the Black Lives Matter movement, largely seen as a catalyst of protests and demonstrations, has fallen 9% among voters since June to 52%, according to a new Politico-Morning Consult poll.

And while Trump has been accused of blurring the line between peaceful protesters and violent agitators, Democrats have been criticized for failing to condemn looting and lawlessness. There was no mention of the issue at the Democratic National Convention the week before the RNC.

Some left-leaning politicians and members of the media have worried that this trend could have an impact on Election Day.

“It’s showing up in the polling. It’s showing up in focus groups,” said CNN host Don Lemon on Aug. 25. “I think this is a blind spot for Democrats. I think Democrats are ignoring this problem or hoping that it will go away, and it’s not going to go away.”

Trading Blame

Trump has made a point to capitalize on the Democrats’ perceived soft response to civil unrest. He repeatedly drew attention to it during his convention speech, pointing out that the worst of recent looting and violence has taken place in cities with Democrats in charge.

“This problem could easily be fixed if they wanted to,” said Trump about the Democrats. “We must always have law and order.”

Trump also attacked Biden directly, stating that the former vice president’s openness to redirecting police funding and eliminating cash bail were an “attack on public safety” and “the most dangerous aspect” of Biden’s platform.

“They will make every city look like Democrat-run Portland, Oregon,” said the president. “No one will be safe in Biden’s America.”

Biden responded in kind in an Aug. 31 speech in Pittsburgh. The presidential hopeful first condemned looting, violence and destruction of property as “lawlessness, plain and simple,” stating that perpetrators should be prosecuted. Then he turned his attention to Trump, claiming that the president not only cannot contain civil unrest, but contributes to it.

“Fires are burning, and we have a president who fans the flames rather than fighting the flames,” said Biden, who criticized Trump for not condemning the actions of armed right-wing groups.

Biden also noted that this summer’s slew of unrest has happened on the president’s watch.

“Does anyone believe there’ll be less violence if Donald Trump is reelected?” Biden asked, promising an America “safe from four more years” of Trump.

Both Trump and Biden continued their sparring match on public safety with visits to Kenosha. The president visited on Sept. 1, surveying property damage and blaming Democrats for failing to request assistance from federal law enforcement agencies more quickly. On Sept. 3 Biden also visited Kenosha and accused Trump of “having legitimized a dark side of human nature” during an appearance at a local Lutheran church.

Although Trump has made a point to make public safety an issue, recent polling indicates that voters have greater faith in Biden on the topic. One poll found that 47% of voters prefer Biden’s leadership on the issue, compared to 39% for Trump.

Another indicated that 42% of voters thought Biden would make America safer, compared to 35% for Trump; meanwhile, 40% thought Biden would make America less safe, but 50% said the same about the incumbent.

At the same time, there are some indications that voters in swing states affected by unrest, like Wisconsin and Minnesota, could move in Trump’s direction.

Whatever the case, it’s an issue that both candidates seem likely to continue to spar over in the lead-up to Nov. 3.

Catholic Perspectives

During the unrest of the summer, Catholic leadership has consistently highlighted the need to address racial injustice in America while also maintaining peace and the rule of law.

“Burning and looting communities, ruining the livelihoods of our neighbors, does not advance the cause of racial equality and human dignity,” said Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, in a May 31 statement.

Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland expressed a similar perspective in a July 24 installment of his “Chapel Chat,” noting that unrest was drawing attention away from George Floyd and the campaign for racial justice and that responding to racism with violence was akin to “piling one evil upon another.”

“We need to act as citizens of this country to fight against the evil of racism,” said Archbishop Sample. “And we need to reject the violence.”

In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which includes Kenosha, Archbishop Jerome Listecki has stated that “violence can never be the means to attain peace and justice.”

“The sins of violence, injustice, racism and hatred must be purged from our communities with acts of mercy, with the protection and care for the dignity of every human person, with respect for the common good, and with an unwavering pursuit of equality and peace,” said the archbishop in a statement following Blake’s shooting.

Some voices in society have attempted to justify acts of looting and destruction as legitimate attacks against an unjust system stacked against Black people and other marginalized groups.

For instance, NPR recently ran a segment featuring the author of the newly published In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action, summarizing the book as an argument that “looting is a powerful tool to bring about real, lasting change in society.”

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a moral theologian and the president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, rejects this line of reasoning. He says that even in a case where there is an unjust distribution of goods in society, looting can hardly be considered a just form of remuneration, as it harms innocent people “in the process and its aftermath.”

However, Msgr. Swetland is also adamant that Catholics cannot use the perpetration of violence and looting as an excuse to write off the movement for racial justice in America. He says the present crisis is the product of years of failing to address significant racial disparities, coupled with “highly questionable incidents of police brutality,” which have “led many in our society to question if their lives mattered to the rest of [us].”

“As Christians, we should be embarrassed that any of our brothers and sisters should even need to ask such a question,” he said, adding that “Catholics should proclaim publicly and loudly that Black lives do matter to all of us and that we stand in solidarity against the injustices that oppress people of color.”

The formal naval officer and moral theologian also added that, in the American context, “we should obey the laws unless there is a serious reason or grave reason not to,” noting that U.S. law protects the constitutional right to peaceful assembly and free speech. He also says that not only are nonviolent means of demonstration morally superior, they’re also more conducive to bringing about reconciliation and racial justice.

Deeper Problem

Other Catholic thinkers emphasized that America’s present-day crisis of rule of law indicates a serious  malaise at the deepest levels of society. “What we are seeing now looks a lot like the cashing out of decades of American social prodigality, catalyzed by a pandemic and exacerbated by ideological opportunism,” said Stephen White, a fellow in Catholic studies at the Washington-based Ethics in Public Policy Center.

White says that the decline of important civic institutions like local communities, churches and the family has led to a deficit of solidarity and goodwill, replaced by “dislocation, alienation and fear.” Historical wounds like racism that lay beneath the surface have been exposed “like jagged rocks at low tide.”

“It seems to me that the appalling state of our electoral politics is as much a symptom of this same situation as it is a cause,” he added.

Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen, citing St. Thomas Aquinas, says that good laws, issued by a legitimate authority and consistent with the natural law, are “just and necessary” and amplify our natural orientation to act virtuously and justly.

But according to Deneen, America’s legal culture operates from a different understanding that seeks to maximize individual liberty. Law, then, is seen less as an aid to flourishing and more as a constraint. In such a society, liberty and law are put into competition with one another, leading to gross expansions of both.

“The clash of militarized police and anarchists is a predictable consequence of the liberal idea of liberty and law,” said Deneen, the author of the best-selling Why Liberalism Failed.

Deneen says restoring true “law and order” won’t come about by merely enforcing what’s on the books, but only by recommitting ourselves to an understanding of law as a contribution to the common good and the flourishing of every citizen, regardless of status, education, wealth or race.

“Without true law seeking to orient people toward human flourishing, there can be no true order; without order that is requisite for human flourishing, we are likely to see the imposition of arbitrary law and violent public authority to enforce it — which is no true law at all.”

Register correspondent Jonathan Liedl writes from Minnesota.