Trump didn't puff his chest out and brag that he's the law and order president in response to the looting and burning that accompanied some of the massive anti-police violence protests. He made the boast almost four years ago in July 2016 in a campaign speech that he was the "law and order candidate." At the time, Trump was locked in a dual with Democratic presidential foe Hillary Clinton for the handful of swing states that would decide the White House.
Trump wrapped himself in the law and order mantle as a blatant, naked, and cynical ploy to appeal to his base of less educated, lower income white rural and blue-collar workers. It worked for him as it worked for Nixon in the presidential election a half century earlier. Nixon made the slogan law and order and crime in the streets his signature themes. He was brutal and direct in one speech when he flatly said that the "solution to the crime problem is not the quadrupling of funds for any governmental war on poverty but more convictions."
It was cold, calculating, and cynical. And, it resuscitated the career of the man many saw as a hopelessly failed, flawed, has been politician, and turned him into the front-runner for the White House in 1968. Nixon played hard on the urban riots, antiwar mass marches and riots, and campus takeovers that tore the country in the late 1960s to paint a horrific picture of an America in anarchy. He ridiculed the thought that poverty, racial discrimination, and social inequities were the root cause of crime, violence, and ghetto unrest. His answer was a get tough, crack down on crime.
The crime, of course, that he meant was black crime, and that meant more police, prisons, tougher and longer sentences, and a full-scale militarization of police departments. Nixon doubled down on this with a thinly disguised Southern Strategy in which he did a hard court of fearful blue-collar whites and, unreconstructed racists in the South. He piled on a healthy dose of racially loaded code words such as "out of control big government" "welfare cheats," "permissiveness" and "crime in the streets." This pitch gave Nixon a comfortable lead in the polls over his Democratic rival Hubert Humphrey for much of the campaign.
Trump knew that history in 2016 when he first snatched the page from Nixon's playbook. And he knows it now. This time the issue he latched onto was the destruction of buildings in several cities and the seeming inability of local police to stop the destruction. The subtle ingredients of racial hysteria are there again to try and make the pitch stick. There are enraged masses of demonstrators. There are the repeatedly TV looped scenes of buildings and even a police station being torched. There are the demands to defund and, even more terrifying to some, abolish the police. To top it off, there is the same convenient whipping boy movement, Black Lives Matter, that conjure up for many a nihilistic, anti-white, anti-police, lawless group. As in 2016, Trump aims again to make his law and order sell to nervous, fearful voters in the swing states, and right leaning independents. They are the ones Trump again banks on to tip the scales in the crucial swing states in his direction.
He's also got another foil as Nixon tried to make out of Humphrey in 1968. That's to tar the Democrats, and sooner or later Biden, as a candidate and party that tilts, and panders shamelessly to minorities, particularly blacks, by allegedly stoking anti-police sentiment, with its kid glove approach to Black Lives Matter, and by relentlessly pushing for more spending on job, health and education programs. The not so subtle hint is that this is all done at the expense of hard working, law abiding, white middle class and blue-collar workers.
It's true that this is not 1968 America with gun toting Black Panthers and white student radicals tearing up American campuses and streets. This is the stuff that gave Nixon his fodder. It's also true polls show that most Americans back peaceful protests against police abuse and now think the police are heavier handed with blacks than whites. However, property destruction and attacks on police are a far different matter. That's especially true for voters in the Heartland states and Florida that Trump needs to win again. The polls that show Biden beating Trump handily now could easily change if Trump succeeds in pounding a message that touches the fear and rage of his supporters in those states.
The recycle of Nixon's law and order ploy is another stark reminder that presidential history often repeats itself. When Trump bellowed his law and order shout, he was just stealing the script from Nixon that sadly did much to land him in the White House and just as sadly, Trump at least once too.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author Why Black lives Do Matter, (Middle Passage Press) He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.