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In this Aug. 25, 2020, file photo, police clear a park during clashes with protesters outside the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wis., during demonstrations over the Sunday shooting of Jacob Blake.David Goldman/The Associated Press

In Defense of Looting is the title of a book released last week. In an interview with National Public Radio, the American equivalent of the CBC, author Vicky Osterweil described looting as “sort of joyous and liberatory,” and something that can “demonstrate that, without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free.” All this at a moment when several U.S. cities have been gripped by nightly rioting and escalating violence.

Ms. Osterweil’s book, as you may have guessed, is not part of Joe Biden’s election platform. Not even close. But U.S. President Donald Trump understands that, in the midst of the worst economic downturn in decades, paired with a pandemic that’s recently been killing more than 1,000 Americans a day, the only way he’s getting re-elected in November is by making everyone talk about law and order.

Mr. Biden has to deny him that card by playing it himself.

Over the past few weeks, several American cities have been rocked by riots. The peaceful protest movement for racial justice and police reform is far larger and far more widespread, but the outbreaks of violence are real and not soon forgotten by communities touched by them. In Kenosha, Wis., site of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, several nights of upheaval have led to fires, businesses destroyed, clashes between right-wing and left-wing marchers and deaths.

The narrative being pushed by the Trump campaign and conservative media is that Mr. Biden and the Democrats are so beholden to people like Ms. Osterweil that, while they’re always happy to talk about supporting protests, they can’t talk about stopping violence. If Mr. Biden wins the White House, goes this story, “Defund the Police” will literally become policy and lawlessness will explode.

It’s an absurd idea, far removed from what a Biden administration would advocate or practise. But absent clear Democratic pushback, it has a certain compelling logic for undecided voters in swing states such as Wisconsin – a supposedly solid Democratic stronghold in which Hillary Clinton didn’t even bother to campaign in 2016, and which she lost.

Mr. Biden has to tell those swing voters, in unmistakable language, that unlike Mr. Trump, he stands for both respect for the law and respect for civil rights, and that he’s for tackling all forms of lawlessness, whether that’s the police shooting a Black man in the back in Kenosha, as happened a week ago, or rioters burning down a car dealership in Kenosha, as happened a few nights ago.

Democrats have to talk about law and order so that they can get beyond talking about it and keep the election focused on what matters to most Americans, from jobs to the pandemic to health care. Millions who have lost their jobs have simultaneously lost their health insurance. Those are the key issues, along with the irresponsibility of the man currently in the White House.

Yet somehow, Democrats have been tripping over themselves on law and order.

On Aug. 27, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut tweeted: “This isn’t hard. Vigilantism is bad. Police officers shooting black people in the back is bad. Looting and property damage is bad. You don’t have to choose. You can be against it all.”

It was hardly a controversial statement; it was more like a statement of the obvious. Yet he got pushback from his side of the aisle and deleted the tweet, writing that he “mistakenly gave the impression that I thought there was an equivalency between property crime and murder. Of course I don’t think that. So I just took it down.”

Even he sounded unpersuaded.

On Monday afternoon, that story was at the top of the Fox News homepage, which means the only beneficiary of the Democrats’ inability to talk straight is Mr. Trump. He is travelling to Kenosha on Tuesday, allegedly to help but more likely in the hope of sparking protests and counterprotests. The more footage of chaos, the better. Mr. Trump is a sower of discord, and he has found what may be the last remaining fertile field.

The Democrats have to deliver a simple message of unity: They are against the killing of George Floyd and against setting a neighbourhood on fire in protest. Both are forms of lawlessness; both hurt people and destroy lives; both can and will be dealt with by the law.

On Monday in Pittsburgh, Mr. Biden made a good start at clearly expressing just that. If he keeps it up, he’s going to win the election. If he can’t, he just might lose.

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