Trump Sees 2020 as 1968. He’s Wrong.
“Law and order” campaigning and the perils of misinterpreted history.
President Trump is attempting to model his reelection campaign on President Nixon’s “law and order” message that was successful over fifty years ago.
“Some in the president’s circle see the escalations as a political boon, much in the way Richard M. Nixon won the presidency on a law-and-order platform after the 1968 riots. One adviser to Mr. Trump…said images of widespread destruction could be helpful to the law-and-order message that Mr. Trump has projected since his 2016 campaign.”
President Trump is free to model his campaign on whatever messaging he so chooses, but he should be warned — he is not Nixon, and this is not 1968.
The most obvious disconnect between the two campaigns is that Trump’s the incumbent, not the outsider. The current unrest with which Trump seeks to utilize is occurring while he is in power. If Trump cannot handle the crisis now, why would voters believe he can handle it in the future?
Second, a successful law and order message would require a stable, steady leader with decisive and consistent decision making, qualities not normally ascribed to President Trump.
His supporters believe he is unpredictable, his detractors think he is unhinged, but both agree — he is the chaos president.
Whereas Richard Nixon promised law and order and Teddy Roosevelt said “speak softly and carry a big stick,” the Trump Doctrine appears to be tweet insults and hide in a bunker.
Third, only part of the unrest in 1968 concerned domestic politics. Yes, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, coupled with the backlash to the civil rights movement, were key ingredients in the protest stew. But a significant element — the unpopular Vietnam War — was also a driving force for the unrest. With no current parallel, it is difficult to see how replicating the 1968 strategy would be equally effective.
Lastly, while police brutality did exist before Trump assumed office, it is fair to point out how Trump has enabled it further.
In a 2017 speech on Long Island, Trump seemed to encourage excessive force, saying “when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’”
His Justice Department has removed police misconduct from federal oversight. In the final hour of beleaguered Attorney General Session’s tenure, the Justice Department adopted a seven-page memorandum that weakened accountability protections for local police forces.
Can President Trump run as a law and order candidate when the root cause of the unrest — excessive police force — was made worse under his watch?
History is only instructive when it is interpreted correctly. Given the discrepancies of 1968 and 2020, President Trump would be wise to find a different message.