Deja vu 1968: Can Trump now become the law and order candidate he always wanted to be?

Guest Writer

After ten nights of riots, looting, and violence erupting in cities across the country, Trump and his Republican allies must be ecstatic for the juicy, political plum that has come their way.

In 1968, as a young Columbia University graduate student and freelance journalist, I covered and was involved with anti-war Vietnam protests around the country. On the streets of Chicago in August at the Democratic convention, I witnessed firsthand a police riot where thousands of cops brutally beat hundreds of largely peaceful black and white protestors. On the streets, there was no question about who were the bad guys: the cops. But the images of violence, fury and mayhem that went out on television did nothing to help the anti-war cause or the Democrats.

Instead, Richard Nixon took on the mantle of the “Law and Order” candidate, with the help of Roger Ailes, a master of manipulating the politics of fear. From that day on, Richard Nixon became known as the man who could keep the country safe. Despite Nixon’s limp approval ratings, he still managed to narrowly beat Democratic nominee Hubert Humphry who was unable to properly convince voters that he would, or could, protect them from the widely amplified televised scenes of looting and anarchy raging in cities across America.

Ever since 1968, every Republican nominee for president has run on the very same “Law and Order” platform.

Trump plays no different.

The President has always used fear of chaos to motivate his base and like-minded independents. His messages are very clear:

Beware of the Chinese and the Mexicans: they are stealing our jobs, our industrial secrets, our technology and now the Chinese are making and importing deadly germs to kill our people.

For most of Spring, Trump has been treading hot water in the swing state polls. As November grows nearer, his main platform — the booming economy — has crumbled beneath the weight of the country’s lockdown and his botched response to the coronavirus has turned many supporters against him.      

Trump has tried to position himself as a wartime leader emulating Winston Churchill.

But as “Commander-in-Chief,” he has yet to find a credible war to claim to be winning.  A few weeks ago, he tried to sell the story that he saved more than a million American lives by acting early and banning flights from China. But no amount of spin can hide the fact that the U.S. leads the world in coronavirus deaths.

Most voters clearly remember his dismissal of the virus in early February when Trump said it wouldn’t come to our shores. Americans didn’t believe him when he contradicted his doctors and his own public health officials.

Clearly he was not winning the war against the pandemic. Lately, he has tried to distract us by beating the drums for a trade war against China, blaming Beijing for all of America’s ills. But that conflict lacks the drama and bloody images that energize his base.

The riots in the urban centers are not happening in a vacuum: growing economic inequality, a twelve-week lockdown, 40 million lost jobs, and a virus that disproportionately kills Blacks and Latinos are all factors that helped transform another police killing into a desperate anger and nationwide outrage.

If these underlying conditions persist, protests will flare up again with the slightest provocation over the summer and early fall.

With the riots and looting escalating, Trump now has a real war to sink his teeth into. Trump and Republican strategists are already blaming Democratic mayors for the violence and chaos, accusing them of being “weak” and “fools” and urging them to “dominate” protestors into submission.

So far the Democrats have been mild-mannered in combating the violence and vandalism. The Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey said we value lives over property. Trump has countered by warning, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. If the Democrats do not find a strategy to manage the unrest, they risk facing a law and order backlash which may again deliver a narrow victory to Trump.

Analogies between 1968 and 2020 are not exact. President Lyndon B. Johnson understood early that after the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy along with nationwide Black and anti-war protests, there was no way he could run again.

Vice President Humphrey, a former liberal, was too identified with the mayhem and never won the support of many Kennedy-McCarthy leftists.

Richard Nixon was skilled at adopting positions aimed at mollifying the majority and moderate independents; he vowed to end the Vietnam war; he promised to restore “law and order”.

To appeal to the broad middle of the electorate, known as “the silent majority”, Nixon publicly repudiated the George Wallace racists and ignored “the Goldwater conservatives”  while quietly, subtly endorsing their messages.

In contrast Trump, now the incumbent, can be saddled with the botched pandemic response, the economic collapse and ensuing violence and protests. In 2016 Trump won with the support of white women and seniors, two groups who have lately grown distrustful of him.

Trump, like Nixon, will appeal to his strongest core supporters with visions of American carnage and fear of outsiders, criminals, thugs and protestors.

The betting odds average, from Real Clear Politics, which I consider the most reliable predictor, had Trump leading Joe Biden all spring by 5%. Significantly, last week Biden crossed into the lead, with Biden 49.2% to Trump’s 46.5%. A major 9% swing.

But you can’t count Trump out. He has an uncanny grasp of people’s fears which explains why the betting odds favored him all spring, despite his lower polling numbers nationally and in the swing states. He also has the power of the Treasury. He has shown a willingness to dole out trillions of dollars to voters.  And he will continue to give trillions more before the November election, much to the consternation of fiscally conservative Republicans. But they will reluctantly go along.

The massive giveaways in May resulted in 2.5 million new jobs created (after losing 20 million jobs in April,) but many economists are sceptical that even this small growth can be sustained.

Democrats are in a box and face a delicate balance between getting tough on the looters and making sure that cops and the National Guard are not too tough on peaceful protests — which might ignite further violence. If Trump and the Republicans can succeed in convincing voters that the country is falling into a dystopian abyss –and can give away enough money– he could well win.

Blake Fleetwood was formerly on the staff of The New York Times and has written for The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, The New York Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Village Voice, Atlantic and the Washington Monthly on a number of issues.

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1 Response for “Deja vu 1968: Can Trump now become the law and order candidate he always wanted to be?”

  1. Dean Feltham says:

    Well written

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