Just a quick note. I intended to write this blog months ago back in August, but in Trump world, political events that would end any other politician’s career become outdated in mere milliseconds. Scandals that would shake a nation to its core are forgotten about by next week. For instance, the President was hospitalized by Coronavirus, said he was cured by a miracle drug made possible by stem-cell research that his own appointed judges are trying to ban and is already attending rallies. All of that happened in just one week! So, you get the point. Anyhow, it’s still prudent to touch on a dominant aspect of his campaign which will have a major impact on his re-election chances.
We are in the midst of a country breaking at its seams. A global pandemic has resulted in millions losing their jobs, countless businesses being shuttered and 200,000 Americans dead. After months of people being confined to their homes, this summer, a powder keg exploded and social unrest poured out into the streets. Americans quickly and loudly took to the streets to protest police violence and structural racism against black citizens. They were and still are condemning a system they believe to be unjust and unfairly stacked against black people. In a matter of just 3 weeks, the cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims of police violence were seared into the nation’s consciousness. Politicians, movie stars, athletes, everyone with a voice was talking about Black Lives Matter and police brutality. It was on the news, it was on social media, it was everywhere. Then, just a few weeks after that, TV’s broadcasted rioters and looters destroying retail stores, people fighting each other in the streets, cars being destroyed and cities literally on fire. During a year in which the majority of small businesses and retailers say they won’t survive another year of economic stagnation/depression, cities were now having to deal with civil unrest. Meanwhile, mayors of these cities were put in the awkward position of having to be reliant on the very same people (the police) that were being protested against.
Amidst the mayhem, President Trump saw an opportunity. He promised to be the candidate of “Law and Order”.
This isn’t the first time an American politician pledged to end to social unrest and restore peaceful order to the country. While we’ve never had someone quite like the President before, the fundamental character of this nation is still the same. Even amongst all of the social and cultural upheaval, the problems we see today stem from decades, even centuries ago. Specifically, the dynamics of this current election can be traced back to the election of 1968, where law and order took center stage.
Before we get into that though, a quick history recap.
On April 4th 1968, MLK was assassinated, resulting in a surge of rioting known as the Holy Week Uprising. Soon after, Robert F. Kennedy was killed (he could’ve been the Democrat primary nominee), opposition to Vietnam spread across college campuses and in August of that year, 10,000 anti-war activists went to the Democratic Convention and clashed with 23,000 members of the Chicago police and the National Guard. While anti-police and pro-equality protests were happening for a few years before (under LBJ), this period between MLK’s death and the election, at the time, was considered to be the greatest period of social unrest since the Civil War.
Three candidates vied for the Presidency: Nixon, George Wallace and Hubert Humphrey. Both Wallace and Nixon used law and order to win over voters but in slightly different ways. Wallace, the Democratic Governor of Alabama, was an open segregationist, and as such, his message of law and order focused on the erosion and therefore restoration of social and cultural barriers between black and white citizens. Nixon, following Barry Goldwater’s campaign against LBJ in 1964, promised to restore peaceful order to cities that were disrupted by counter-culture protestors. Nixon, like Goldwater, linked the problem of crime and unrest to welfare programs and urban disorder. Sound familiar? So while Wallace was focused on race, Nixon focused on a more generalized law and order and allowed those perturbed by Wallace’s rhetoric to vote for someone more palatable. Nixon’s campaign promised white Americans a return to when America was great, before all of the sociocultural changes upended their way of life.
Just take this quote from one of his stump speeches:
“As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying….. As far as this problem of law and order is concerned, I am for law and order.” – Nixon
A year later, after a tumultuous first year of his Presidency, he dubbed his supporters, the “silent majority”.
Which brings us back to this 2020 election, in which Trump is trying to emulate Nixon and recapture the support of voters he lost after a year of protesting and growing urban blight. He has been vocal about law and order and proclaimed himself to be the only defense in protecting the suburbs from the encroaching chaos of the cities.
In September, Trump toured American cities, led by Democratic leaders and disrupted by protests, and posed in front of burning buildings as he spoke about how he will restore peace and lawfulness.
His message is that these Democratic leaders have failed to protect their communities and allowed civil unrest to destroy people’s homes, that only Republican leaders can fix these cities. Many Americans, even Democrats, were disturbed by the violence. Gallup found that only 8 percent of US adults thought “looting and property damage during protests on racial justice” was justified and most Americans do not support the rioting.
It isn’t difficult to figure out why the President is leaning so hard into this message. Trump’s poll numbers after year 3 were bad, but then Coronavirus happened, BLM took off and his disapproval ratings reached record lows, all the way down to 38% in June 2020. Trump has since rebounded back to ~45% approval but he still has a limited path to re-election. He is polling well on the economy and trade, but that’s about it. He can’t win on his response to the virus, which senior voters take very seriously, regardless of how the President feels. Apparently old people don’t like being told that their lives don’t matter! So weird!! He can’t win on healthcare, no matter how indomitably he tries to convince people that once Republicans appeal Obamacare (still in the courts) he will come up with a new plan. Proof 1. Proof 2. He is even losing ground on immigration, which was a winning policy issue for him in 2016.
He has one path to victory. Fear.
His only opportunity is to present Democrats as feckless leaders (and socialists) who will make America less safe. He needs to keep using the fear many have of the far-left (both economic and social), because he will not win over new voters or even win back the voters he lost with his policy decisions. It’s why you keep hearing about ANTIFA (Anti-Fascists). Trump and the GOP use ANTIFA as a catch-all term to encapsulate the dangers of the far-left. He is trying to connect the violence of ANTIFA and the looting to Democrats with the aim of delegitimizing any and all peaceful protests. He is doing so because he has lost the support of white suburban women (key for him in 2016), especially in the Rust Belt, which will determine the election. If Trump can increase white voter turn out in Wisconsin even more then he did last election, then it won’t matter how many black people in Milwaukee he upsets, as he will still win the state. That is why he was touring Kenosha. That is why he tweets out things like this:
The President isn’t wrong that white suburban homeowners, especially self-proclaimed liberals, don’t want low-income residents in their neighborhoods, as it lowers property values and there is a (albeit debatable) perception that it increases crime. This issue of housing inequality is for another blog though. The point is, by touring Democratic cities enveloped by protesting, targeting low income-housing and repeatedly mentioning ANTIFA, he is using racial fears to bring the white suburban voter back to his side. Additionally, he has forced Biden to make a tough choice and take a solidified stance on police funding, rioting and BLM.
Biden is clearly worried about all of this. He toured Kenosha soon after the President and met with Jacob Blake’s family. While many Democrats on Twitter defended the rioting and looting, even going so far as defending ANTIFA (which is truly absurd in my opinion), Biden didn’t fall for the trap. He has said he will not defund the police, a major social media talking point that has little real-world support. He has strongly condemned the rioting, even making it the focus of a major advertising campaign and his speeches.
It seems like Biden has been successful in defending himself against the narrative Trump is selling. Nevertheless, its important to note that places like Wisconsin and Minnesota (where George Floyd was shot) will help determine the election. So will Florida, a state that often determines the election. While Florida hasn’t been directly affected by protests, Biden is lagging with Hispanic (Cuban) voters there. Cuban voters in Florida fled Castro and still have deep-seated fears of communism and far-left governments. Though their fears of crime/rioting may seem unfounded, they do not want civil turmoil disturbing their neighborhoods and view it as a product of leftist leanings. There is also historical evidence to suggest that rising crime rates help Republicans. There is a reason Trump has paraded walking corpse Rudy Giuliani on national television as his surrogate, since it was the former Republican mayor’s tough on crime approach that propelled him to two mayoral terms in a Democratic city. Being tough on crime has worked for Republicans in the past, even in Democratic areas. Nixon won in 1968 and even after impeachment, Republicans won four out of the five next elections. That is why Democrats are worried about all of the social discord.
All of that being said, there is a difference between Nixon in 1968 and Trump in 2020. First off, Nixon was a first-time candidate and this time around, Donald Trump is already President. As political history shows, the incumbent politician/party gets the credit and the blame for events happening under their watch. It’s much harder to present himself as a political outsider and as the protector of leftist violence when its happening under his own Presidency. Especially when it is the President himself who ordered unnamed, fully armed, federal officers to violent attack peaceful protesters in front of the White House for a photo op.
Trump can blame Democratic mayors and governors all he wants, but Biden is running for President, not Governor Whitmer (Michigan) or Gov. Evers (Wisconsin). Recent polling indicates no major shift took place in May on a national level. In fact, Biden’s lead grew in June, just mere weeks after Floyd’s shooting. Even polling for Wisconsin shows Biden has actually increased his lead with white voters. Biden is doing well in the battleground states and is doing incredibly well with seniors, who are the most reliable voting base. Biden may actually produce the strongest performance for a Democrat among seniors in a generation. Trump will continue to sell this narrative of “law and order” and portray Democrats as the party of chaos and himself a strongman leader who will rein in the disorder. It’s his only path to victory, minus another last-minute scandal that flips everything on its head. But Biden isn’t Hillary Clinton, no matter how much Trump still tries to campaign against her. An email scandal or Hunter Biden’s dealings in Hungary is not likely to deter Biden voters. There is no built-in political/misogynistic resentment of the Clintons to lean into.
Nixon’s election was a welcome relief to white Americans tired of all of the social upheaval. Four years later, after Nixon campaigned on law and order, he ended up impeached, resulting in Democrats retaking the Presidency. Trump has already been impeached, so at least he has that going for him. The election will tighten, many people who say they are voting for Biden may change their mind when they get to the polls. An open SCOTUS seat may change some swing voters mind’s. Trump still has a path to victory, but not a wide one. So while Democrats are understandably protecting themselves against another heartbreak, Biden does seem to be in good shape to win the election. Then again, that is what the pollsters said in 2016. Either way, we will know very soon.
Bonus (Very on brand for me):
My prediction for the 2020 election: