Presumptive nominee Donald Trump has dialed up the volume on his “law and order” message, warning that the nation’s social order is at risk after eight policemen were killed in the past 10 days – three in Baton Rouge, La., on Sunday.
As the Republican National Convention opens today in Cleveland, Trump seems to be following the strategy of Richard Nixon, who in his 1968 campaign said “we will have order” as big cities erupted in riots and Vietnam War protestors burned American flags.
Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort on Monday made the Nixon analogy explicit, saying at a Bloomberg breakfast that Nixon’s ’68 acceptance speech will be the model for Trump’s effort later this week.
But 1968 was a long time ago. The national conversation about the collision of police, race, and violence is far different today than it was then. Even Republican luminaries such as Newt Gingrich – a possible Trump Cabinet pick – has said he long underestimated the danger of being black in America. “You’re substantially more likely to be in a situation where police don’t respect you,” Gingrich said earlier this month.
Meanwhile, political violence is tamer and less organized than it was in the Vietnam era, though Cleveland remains on edge as the RNC opens. Mass protests and a sense of a society teetering on the edge of control remain absent from US life.
And Nixon was a subtler politician than Trump has so far shown himself to be. It was a different era, but it’s hard to imagine Nixon talking about race and ethnicity with the bluntness of Trump. At least, not in public – the White House tapes reveal another, earthier mode of Nixon conversation.
Thus Trump’s “law and order” appeal may be another example of how his entire campaign has been organized around nostalgia, a desire for a long-past, whiter era of good factory jobs and low immigration that is gone with the wind. It may appeal to his followers but win him little more in the wider world of American society.
“... [L]aw and order doesn’t work when nothing is coded & electorate isn’t all white,” tweeted Shana Gadarian, an associate professor in political science at Syracuse University on Monday.
One thing seems clear: Trump and Republicans more generally are not about to soften their words on the interplay of race, police, and guns, despite the pleas of President Obama.
On Sunday Mr. Obama noted that the US is about to enter a period when rhetoric becomes even more heated than usual as both parties rally the faithful at their respective conventions.
“We don’t need careless accusations thrown around to score political points or to advance an agenda. We need to temper our words a open our hearts – all of us,” Obama said in a statement after the Baton Rouge killings.
In response, Trump on Monday seemed to imply that Obama’s heart was with those attacking police officers, not the embattled officers themselves. You could tell this, said the GOP’s likely leader during a “Fox & Friends” interview, just by looking at him.
“I mean, you know, I watched the president and sometimes the words are OK,” Trump said. “But you just look at the body language. There’s something going on. Look, there’s something going on and the words are not often OK, by the way.”
Of course, many mainstream Republicans believe Obama does not provide enough support, rhetorical or otherwise, for the nation’s police forces. Monday’s convention line-up is full of them, from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency briefly floated as a candidate for Trump VP.
Some on the right say the Black Lives Matter movement has so demonized police that the Dallas and Baton Rouge shooters thought they were doing the right thing by targeting cops.
There may be more violence to come, they warn. In the current atmosphere of unease, Trump’s law and order message is “likely to resonate,” writes Jim Geraghty of National Review.
“If cops are being ambushed and shot every few days, the country is coming apart at the seams,” he writes.
The bottom line: In days and weeks to come you’re likely to see updated versions of Nixon’s approach from ’68.
In his acceptance speech before the RNC back then, Nixon hit law and order hard, criticizing courts that were soft on crime and saying the incumbent administration was soft on the issue.
“The first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence. And that right must be guaranteed in this country,” he said in Miami Beach, where the GOP gathered that year. “And that right must be guaranteed in this country.”
In a campaign ad Nixon said flatly “we shall have order in the United States.” The ad’s tagline: “This time, vote like your whole world depended on it.”