John Geraghty, a 41-year-old tractor factory worker, has barely paid attention to the presidential race or the conventions. Every day he focuses on survival: getting his son to sports practice, working at his job where he now wears a mask, and getting home to sleep, only to start over again the next day.
But when he woke up on Monday morning to images of his hometown, Kenosha, Wisconsin, in flames, he could not stop watching. The unrest in faraway places like Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis had arrived at his doorstep, after a white police officer on Sunday shot a black man in the back multiple times. And after feeling “100 per cent on the fence” about who he will vote for in November, he is increasingly nervous that Democratic state leaders seem unable to contain the spiralling crisis.
“It’s crazy that it’s now happening in my home city,” he said. “We have to have a serious conversation about what are we going to do about it. It doesn’t seem like the powers that be want to do much.”
The politically calculated warnings of Donald Trump and the Republican Party about chaos enveloping America should Democrats win in November are reverberating among some people in Kenosha, a small city in the southeast corner of one of the most critical states in this election, where protests have raged for a number of increasingly combustible nights.
While many demonstrators have been peaceful, others have set fire to buildings. At least four businesses downtown have been looted. Men armed with guns have shown up to confront protesters, leading to the shooting of three people, two of them fatally. On Wednesday, a white teenager from across the state line in Illinois was arrested in connection to the shooting, and Mr Trump vowed to send in federal law enforcement and additional National Guard troops.
In Kenosha County, where the president won by fewer than 250 votes in 2016, those who already supported Mr Trump said in interviews that the events of the past few days have simply reinforced their conviction that he is the man for the job. But some voters who were less sure of their choice said the chaos in their city and the inability of elected leaders to stop it were currently nudging them towards the Republicans.
And some Democrats, nervous about condemning the looting because they said they understood the rage behind it, worried that what was happening in their town might backfire and aid the president’s re-election prospects.
Yet the situation in Kenosha remains extremely fluid. Many people in the city are enraged about the police shooting of the black man, Jacob Blake; the Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, spoke with his family and said that “justice must and will be done”. On Wednesday night, in response to the shooting, athletes from the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer refused to participate in games. And following the arrest of the teenager in connection with the two fatal shootings, it emerged that he had displayed support for Mr Trump on social media.
Ellen Ferwerda, who owns an antique furniture store downtown just blocks from the worst of the destruction that is now closed, said that she was desperate for Mr Trump to lose in November but that she had “huge concern” the unrest in her town could help him win. She added that local Democratic leaders seemed hesitant to condemn the mayhem.
“I think they just don’t know what to say,” she said. “People are afraid to take a stance either way, but I do think it’s strange they’re all being so quiet. Our mayor has disappeared. It’s like: ‘Where is he?’”
Mr Geraghty, a former Marine, said he was disturbed to see his town looking like “a war zone”, and he feared that the Democrats in charge were “letting people down big time”.
Politics for him had long been like a sport he did not follow. In his late 20s, he voted for Barack Obama, the first vote of his life. He did not vote in 2016, and he called the president’s handling of the coronavirus “laughable”.
Mike Pence slams Kenosha situation in RNC speech
Mr Geraghty said he disliked how Mr Trump talked but said the Democratic Party’s vision for governing seemed limited to attacking him and calling him a racist, a charge being levelled so constantly that it was having the effect of alienating, instead of persuading, people. And the idea that Democrats alone were morally pure on race annoyed him.
“The Democratic agenda to me right now is America is systematically racist and evil and the only people who can fix it are Democrats,” he said. “That’s the vibe I get.”
Mr Geraghty said he understood peaceful protesting but felt frustrated with Democratic leaders who seem afraid of confronting crowds when things turn violent. He was angry at the statement by governor Tony Evers on Sunday, which in his view took sides against police in a knee-jerk way that worsened the situation. On Tuesday, Mr Evers, a Democrat, did condemn the looting and fires, while reiterating protesters’ rights to assemble.
“I’m not 100 per cent sure of anything yet,” Mr Geraghty said of November. “But as of now I’m really not happy about how Democrats are handling any of this.”
Mr Biden on Wednesday denounced systemic racism and police brutality as he also sharply condemned the destruction and violence unfolding in Kenosha.
“As I said after George Floyd’s murder, protesting brutality is a right and absolutely necessary,” Mr Biden said. “Burning down communities is not protest; it’s needless violence. Violence that endangers lives. Violence that guts businesses, and shutters businesses, that serve the community. That’s wrong.”
Meanwhile, Mr Trump promised on Twitter to restore “LAW AND ORDER” in Kenosha by sending in troops. “We will NOT stand for looting, arson, violence, and lawlessness on American streets,” Mr Trump wrote.
With the unrest in Kenosha happening the same week as the Republican National Convention, local events were threatening to merge with national politics. James Wigderson, editor of a conservative website in Waukesha, Wisconsin, said the chaos reinforced the message of the Republicans this week that the Democrats were not fit to govern.
“Whether it’s fair or not, they see this all as one monolith: from Biden on down to the guy throwing the brick at the cop,” said Mr Wigderson, who has been critical of Mr Trump. “As a result, they are more motivated not to let those people win.”
That was all the more true for committed Republicans in Kenosha. Don Biehn, 62, owner of a flooring company, was standing in line at a gun store on Tuesday afternoon. He said that he had never bought a pistol before but that he had a business to protect. A former county board supervisor, Mr Biehn said he had been calling county and state officials for days, trying to explain how grave the situation was.
Neither John Antaramian, mayor of Kenosha, nor Jim Kreuser, the county executive, responded to requests for comment. (The positions are nonpartisan, but both men previously served in the state Assembly as Democrats.)
“There’s people running all over with guns – it’s like some Wild West town,” Mr Biehn said. “We are just waiting here like sitting ducks waiting to get picked off.”
He added: “It’s chaos – everybody is afraid.”
Mr Trump, he said, “was not my man”, but now he is grateful he is president.
He said he seemed to understand in a way that other politicians did not.
“There’s nobody fighting back,” he said. “Nobody is paying attention to what’s going on.”
Scott Haight, who was boarding up a line of businesses in a Kenosha strip mall on Tuesday, said he blamed lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes, a Democrat, for what he said was irresponsibly stirring up emotion. (On Monday, Mr Barnes said the shooting “wasn’t an accident”.)
“It’s like: ‘What, are you trying to burn our city down?’” Mr Haight said.
Mr Haight, 59, said he was a “lifelong Democrat” but had decided not to vote this year.
“It’s not worth it,” he said. “One’s as bad as the other.”
Priscella Gazda, a waitress at a pizza restaurant in Kenosha, was having the opposite reaction. She said she had voted only once in her life – for Obama in 2008. Her son has Type 1 diabetes and was hoping for health insurance.
“I’m not the one who would ever vote,” she said.
But after the chaos in her town, this year is different.
“I am going to vote for Trump,” she said. “He seems to be more about the American people and what we need.”