Almost a half-century ago, Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff decried police violence from the podium at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. “And with George McGovern as president of the United States, we wouldn’t have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.”
The Gestapo tactics worked, of course; George McGovern never had a chance. Richard Nixon drove his law and order message against the backdrop of anti-war and civil rights protests across the country, and romped to an historic 520 to 17 victory in the Electoral College that year, winning the popular vote by the widest margin in history. It is the stuff of Donald Trump’s dreams.
In what has become a defining moment in the cancel culture wars, former Obama campaign data geek David Shor was eviscerated online and ultimately lost his job in May for tweeting out an academic article that suggested that protester violence in 1968 contributed to Richard Nixon winning the presidency that year. The article, by Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow, is so intuitive in its conclusions that it is hard to understand why Shor was attacked for sharing it. In his study of how Black protest in the 1960s impacted public opinion and voting patterns, Wasow concluded that nonviolent activism, particularly when met with state or non-state vigilante repression, expanded public support for the civil rights movement, while protester-initiated violence had the opposite effect. Specifically, he concluded that protester-initiated violence in 1968 “likely caused” a 1.6 to 7.9% shift in voter support toward the Republican Party, particularly among suburban whites in neighboring counties, ultimately tipping the electoral balance against Hubert Humphrey.
This is exactly the scenario that Donald Trump is hoping to repeat, and he has not been subtle about pointing to Nixon’s law and order campaign strategy as his model. A precondition of a law and order campaign, however, is the perception of disorder, and — unlike 1968 — crime barely registers among the issues that voters rank as of concern to them during this presidential year. Accordingly, a major focus of the President’s effort has been to change that perception through a drumbeat of verbal attacks, tweets, and images.
When Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf arrived in Portland to check on the paramilitary units that Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr dispatched there under the pretext of defending a federal courthouse, he had Fox News and Trump campaign film crews in tow, ready to create the necessary B-roll footage for American Carnage: the Sequel, also known as the Trump 2020 ad campaign. The post-apocalyptic images of soldiers in gas masks, patrolling surreal, gas-fill streets with burning building interiors and graffiti strewn exteriors suited the campaign’s purposes, are now featured in Trump campaign adds, across conservative cable news shows, and even made an appearance on Capitol Hill as a Republican prop during a House committee hearing.
Cracking the whip in America, popping corks in Moscow
If the Trump administration has agreed with agreed with Oregon Governor Kate Brown to stand down — as it appears they have this week — it is simply because Portland has served its purpose. The President has already announced the next target cities for his Operation Legend — perhaps the first named paramilitary operation launched against civilians on U.S. soil — which will likely be tightly linked to his campaign strategy. If the campaign can produce similar images of federal forces subduing protesters in Detroit, the President believes he can win back those white suburban women who abandoned the GOP two years ago and restore his standing in the polls in Michigan as Election Day approaches. If it can do the same in Milwaukee and Philly — he can regain the advantage in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. If he can put Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania back in his column, he is almost all the way home. Albuquerque is a bit more of a “bank shot” in terms of campaign strategy. Exacerbating Hispanic-Black political tensions is nothing new to New Mexico politics, but in 2020 it may be less about New Mexico’s five electoral college votes than suppressing enthusiasm among the far more critical, Democrat-leaning Hispanic vote in Texas.
All of this, it is important to emphasize, takes the notion of a law and order campaign far beyond anything Richard Nixon ever imagined. Nixon responded to real unrest during the 1960s, he did not instigate it to create footage for campaign commercials as Trump has done. More to the point, as his former White House counsel pointed out this week, there was never any consideration of putting paramilitary federal forces on the ground in American cities. The forces that Abe Ribicoff accused of using Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago were the Chicago police.
The singular question surrounding Trump’s unrelenting focus on instigating racial tensions as his chosen path to reelection is whether he has misjudged the country. It has been more fifty years since John Lewis was beaten bloody by Alabama State Troopers in Selma, and Richard Nixon’s race-baiting Southern Strategy drew long-time southern Democrats to the GOP, yet Trump plays the race card with a bluntness that suggests that he believes little or nothing has changed in American society over the ensuing half-century. The widespread public outrage at the brutal murder of George Floyd clearly eludes him. As Brendan Buck, a long-time aid to Republican Speakers of the House Paul Ryan and John Boehner observed about the President this week. “There seems to be a complete lack of understanding why [Trump’s] been getting drubbed in the suburbs. Educated suburban voters are not interested in — and are actually repelled by — his fear-mongering and these racial dog whistles.”
While coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum, Donald Trump and David Shor appear to agree on one thing, that the United States today may have changed less in the intervening half-century than polling data appears to suggest, and that continuing violent protest could yet turn public opinion against the Black Lives Matter movement and once again cost a Democratic presidential candidate the White House. David Shor fears that could happen, while Donald Trump is counting on it. Nearly every day, whether by tweet, word or action, the President doubles down on his conviction that white Americans are no better, no more open minded, and no more caring about their fellow citizens of color than they were a half-century ago. While some look at the data showing widespread public support for public protests and police reform, Donald Trump sees evidence of a starkly partisan issue that he can leverage to his advantage. Fear and racial animus worked for Richard Nixon, and he fully believes that it can work for him this year.
What remains to be seen is whether the President has enough credibility with enough of the electorate to sell his story of violence and mayhem as a greater threat to the nation than giving him another four years in the White House. In my worse moments, I fear that Donald Trump may yet be proven right, that he understands the zeitgeist of the nation in ways that others do not, and that the episodes to come of American Carnage: the Sequel — whether from Detroit or Milwaukee or Philly — could turn the trick, and his standing in the polls will begin to bounce back. Yet each day, even as the he continues to caricature Democrats and protesters as wild-eyed radical anarchists wrecking havoc across the country, he cannot escape the caricature of himself that is on display every day. And each day, new polls suggest that an increasing share of the electorate is disgusted with the direction in which the country is headed under his leadership and are prepared to move on.
It is a truism in politics that three months is an eternity, and that the electorate doesn’t even begin to focus on a presidential race until after Labor Day. But this is not a normal year. Life in a perpetual state of semi-quarantine has slowed to a crawl, as the economy remains stagnant, the body count continues to rise, and the country waits anxiously to see what turn the pandemic will take next as students head back to school. For Donald Trump, however, that extended sense of time seems less an opportunity to change the narrative of the race, than an eternity for the electorate to dwell on the inexorability of the pandemic and on the President’s failures. Incapable of seeing that he alone is the cause of his campaign woes, and desperate to fight the reality that he is becoming more irrelevant to our lives by the day, Donald Trump’s behavior is only becoming more erratic. One moment he is doing his best to stick to the script and play the role of a responsible leader, the next he is lashing out at his enemies, and the next he is claiming that some new miracle cure lies just around the corner. All the while, he is hoping beyond hope that he can find some way to convince voters that it is the other guys who are tearing apart the fabric of the nation.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.