When Donald Trump met local leaders in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday, he barely mentioned Jacob Blake, the black man shot seven times in the back by a white police officer in front of his children. Instead, the US president made it clear that his sympathies lay with the police force.
“I have to say this to the police – the people of our country love you,” Trump told a group of lawmakers, police and small business owners.
Trump has been criticised for his response to the largely peaceful anti-racism protests that have swept the US following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota in May and the more recent shooting of Mr Blake.
While the Wisconsin governor and Kenosha mayor urged him to stay away because they feared his presence would ignite more tension, Trump had two reasons to ignore the Democratic politicians.
First, he wanted to shore up support in Wisconsin, a swing state that helped him to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016, but where he trails behind Joe Biden, his Democratic rival, in opinion polls.
Second, the violent protests that followed the shooting of Mr Blake provided an opportunity to sell his “law and order” message and to accuse Democrats of fomenting chaos in American cities.
“Reckless far-left politicians continue to push the disruptive message that our nation and our law enforcement are oppressive or racist,” Trump said, before dismissing the idea that the US was rife with systemic racism.
[Washington correspondent Suzanne Lynch talked to foreign editor Chris Dooley about the state of the US presidential race. To listen, click here]
Trump stunned Democrats in 2016 by winning the White House on an anti-immigrant platform that critics said encouraged racism against Hispanics and Muslims. He repeated that strategy – albeit to a lesser effect – in the 2018 midterm elections when he warned that "caravans" of migrants were heading to the border to enter the US illegally.
Heading into the final two months of the race, Trump has resurrected his “law and order” strategy in an attempt to close the gap with Biden by shifting the focus from his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic shock.
Although the strategy is well-established, Trump has taken a different tactical direction in this election campaign by embracing conspiracy theories, apparently to convince wavering Republicans that a Biden presidency would lead to anarchy and the destruction of the American way of life.
Speaking to Laura Ingraham, a conservative anchor on the Fox News channel, on the evening before his visit to Kenosha, Trump said "people you've never heard of, people that are in the dark shadows" were pulling Biden's strings.
He also recounted a unsubstantiated story about a plane “loaded with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms” who were travelling to an unidentified city to incite violent unrest.
Even as the president has touted such conspiracy theories, he has refused to condemn Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old Trump supporter who was charged with homicide after two protesters were fatally shot in Kenosha.
When asked about Blake – who was paralysed by the police shooting, according to his family – he said that while he felt “terribly” for anyone in that situation, the circumstances were “complicated”.
As Trump arrived in Kenosha, a rust-belt city where Amazon is now one of the biggest employers, supporters and opponents of the president gathered near the site where the two protesters were shot dead.
The scene in the city of 100,000 residents underscored the divisions that will play out across America over the next two months as Trump and Biden sell their competing ideologies to voters ahead of the election.
At one point, the two sides tried to drown each other out with competing shouts of “Black Lives Matter” – which Trump has described as a “Marxist” organisation – and “all lives matter”.
Todd Chilton, a local resident who was trying to catch a glimpse of Trump's motorcade, said that while he did not find the president's personality appealing, he supported his policies, including his broader message on law and order. And he pushed back against the claim that Trump would further stoke tension with his visit.
“Trump has nothing to do with the unrest,” Chilton said. “It’s liberals that are making this unrest ... So why is it Trump’s fault?”
Lori Hawkins, the Democratic Party chairwoman in Kenosha county, said residents were "raw" after nine days during which Blake was shot, the two protesters were killed, and parts of the city were destroyed by fires.
“Taking human tragedy and politicising it is something that we do not want to do here, but we know that to make the changes to end systemic racism ... we have to keep pushing forward,” said Hawkins, who stressed the importance of Kenosha in November by pointing out that Trump won the county by only 238 votes in 2016.
“The road to the White House goes through Wisconsin ... Kenosha is important,” added Hawkins, who was sceptical that the law and order message would work. “I don’t know how many minds it’s going to change.”
JoHanna Skildum, a graduate school student who was one of the only black students at her high school in Friendship, a Wisconsin village, said she felt that Trump “wanted to incite something”.
"I'm just really passionate about this. We just want to see change and that doesn't start with staying at home," said Skildum, a supporter of Black Lives Matter who travelled to Kenosha from Milwaukee to take part in the anti-Trump protests.
Trump was either oblivious to the protests, or spared the sight as he travelled in his motorcade to a roundtable with supporters. “There was love in the streets of Wisconsin ... as we were coming in,” he claimed.
As he was wrapping up, Trump was showered with the kind of praise he hopes will resonate with voters in November.
"Thank you for being the president that likes law enforcement," said David Beth, the Kenosha sheriff, who once said that black shoplifters should be "warehoused" for the rest of their lives. "On behalf of law enforcement ... I hope you could feel the love that they have for you." – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020