Judging by what he’s done over the last couple of days, Donald Trump seems to have decided that the way to win in November is to re-run Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign. For those of you who weren’t around then, Nixon argued that the country had turned into a nightmare of chaos and violence, and only a strong leader like him could bring order and safety.
This is exactly the message Donald Trump is now sending. But it’s doomed to fail.
Let’s look, for instance, at what Trump said in his speech yesterday on veterans’ issues. He talked about “chaos,” “the ongoing catastrophe of crime in our inner cities,” and “an epidemic of violence.” Then he said this:
Too many Americans are trapped in fear, violence and poverty. Our inner cities have been left behind, and I am going to fight to make sure every citizen of this country has a safe home, safe school and safe community.
We must maintain law and order at the highest level or we will cease to have a country. I am the law and order candidate.
This is right in line with what has been the overarching theme of Trump’s campaign, which I refer to as, “America: What a Rathole.” Trump portrays the country as a place of unending despair, where we don’t make anything, nobody has a job, we never win, every other country laughs at us, and we exist in a state of constant misery.
This morning on Twitter, Trump continued with the litany on crime in particular. “Crime is out of control, and rapidly getting worse. Look at what is going on in Chicago and our inner cities. Not good!”, he tweeted, followed by: “This election is a choice between law, order & safety – or chaos, crime & violence. I will make America safe again for everyone.”
This is right out of the Nixon playbook — not only the repeated use of the antiquated term “inner cities,” which everyone understands is none-too-subtle code for “black,” but the general portrayal of the country as spinning out of control. Look at this ad from Nixon’s 1968 campaign (although if you’re prone to seizures, you should beware):
Nixon wrapped up a variety of kinds of disorder — crime, war, protests against that war and for civil rights — into a swirling miasma of threats and chaos that he would banish. But Trump can’t duplicate that message and have the same success Nixon did, for a couple of reasons. The first is that when Trump charges that crime is rapidly increasing, he’s either ignorant or lying. As you may know, the assertion isn’t just false, it’s 180 degrees false. In fact, crime in America has been dropping steadily for a couple of decades now. The violent crime rate today is less than half of what it was in the early 1990s, and homicides are at a historic low. Here’s a chart based on FBI crime statistics:
In 1968, the murder rate was 6.9 per 100,000 and rising fast; it peaked at 10.2 in 1980, fell a bit, then rose again to a recent high of 9.8 in 1991. Today it’s 4.5 per 100,000 and falling (though there was a spike in murders in some cities in the last few months, which criminologists are struggling to explain).
While people are certainly still concerned about crime, as a voting issue it doesn’t have nearly the urgency it did in the 1960s. And by the way, it’s also an unusually safe time to be a police officer, for all that cops have legitimate concerns about their safety. As Christopher Ingraham notes, during Ronald Reagan’s administration, an average of 101 cops were killed on the job each year. That number has declined in every subsequent administration; during the Obama years the average has been 61 per year.
President Obama has talked about these statistics in an effort to convince people that things in the country are not as bad as some would have us believe. He spoke about it the other day in his comments on the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the killings of the police in Dallas. “I think it’s just important to keep in mind that our crime rate today is substantially lower than it was five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago,” he said. “We should never be satisfied when any innocent person has been killed, but that should not be something that is driving our anxieties, relative to where we’ve been in the past.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if he touches on that in his speech in Dallas later today — tamping down anxieties has long been a theme of his rhetoric, whether he’s talking about crime or terrorism or Ebola.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, is obviously working hard to make people feel as anxious as possible. Here’s part of his response to Obama, in an AP interview:
“When President Obama said the other day that he doesn’t think it’s as bad as people think, I think it’s far worse and certainly far worse than he believes it is,” Trump said. “We are in a divided nation. I looked two nights ago and you were having trouble in 11 different cities, big, big trouble. And the press actually plays it down.
“I mean, you were having big, big trouble in many cities. And I think that might be just the beginning for this summer.”
In other words: Be afraid, because more chaos is coming. But there’s an important reason, even more so than the drop in crime, why Trump can’t duplicate Nixon’s success with the law-and-order message: This is a very different country, demographically and politically, than it was in 1968.
Nixon won in large part because he drove a wedge through the Democratic Party, pulling away conservative white Democrats who blamed social unrest on black people. As Michael Cohen writes in his new book, “American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division,” while Nixon didn’t even try to win the votes of African-Americans, Hubert Humphrey was caught between them and white Democrats whose fear of crime was tied up with race: “Without strong black turnout [Humphrey] had no chance of winning. But if he decried Nixon and [George] Wallace’s focus on law and order as veiled racism, he risked alienating those white voters whose number one concern was the possibility that they or someone in their family would become a crime victim.”
But as Michael Tesler noted yesterday, it isn’t possible today for Trump to do the same thing for a number of reasons. First, the parties have polarized in their opinions on race. While white Democrats in 1968 had very similar ideas as white Republicans, today white Democrats think more like minority Democrats. White Democrats today overwhelmingly support the Black Lives Matter movement and believe that African-Americans are treated less fairly by the police than whites. Trump’s racially divisive appeals won’t work with them. And most importantly, while the electorate was around 90 percent white in 1968, most projections say that in the 2016 election it will be only around 69 percent white.
When Richard Nixon said he spoke for the “silent majority,” there really was a majority behind him. Today, Donald Trump is saying many of the same things. But the people he’s speaking for aren’t silent, and they aren’t a majority.