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Opinion Five reasons ‘law and order’ rhetoric might not work as well in 2020 as in 1968

Protesters burn trash cans and police vehicles as they march around downtown New York on May 30. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

There is something familiar about SpaceX soaring into the heavens while, back on Earth, U.S. cities are convulsed by rioting and looting. The same thing happened in 1968. After the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the chaotic Democratic national convention in Chicago and riots across urban America, that dismal year ended with Apollo 8 becoming the first manned spaceflight to orbit the moon. If only social progress could keep pace with our technological prowess.

President Trump’s rhetoric is also reminiscent of 1968. He offers not hope and unity like Bobby Kennedy but rather fear and division like George Wallace — while hoping to reap the same political reward as Richard M. Nixon. But race-baiting disguised as a call for “law and order” might not be as successful a political tactic in 2020 as in 1968.

Trump’s initial response to the unrest was to echo a Miami police chief who in 1967 said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Trump later denied that he was advocating shooting anyone; he was merely making an innocent observation: “looting leads to shooting.” His campaign manager, Brad Parscale, complained about “the media’s relentless twisting of President Trump’s words.” Actually, the context of Trump’s tweet — “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — makes clear that he was indeed making a threat.

Full coverage of the George Floyd protests

In case there was any doubt, Trump dispelled it with his subsequent tweets. On Saturday morning, he sounded like a latter-day Eugene “Bull” Connor as he warned, with undisguised bloodlust, that any protesters who breached the White House grounds “would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least.”

Trump went on to castigate the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis, writing that he “will never be mistaken for the late, great General Douglas McArthur [sic] or great fighter General George Patton.” What a telling comparison. In 1932, MacArthur led infantry, cavalry and tanks, including a cavalry contingent under then-Maj. Patton, in a brutal assault on an encampment of unarmed veterans demanding a bonus for their World War I service.

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By incessantly threatening to send in the troops, while staying silent about obvious examples of police brutality, Trump makes clear that he is salivating for a reprise of the 1932 Bonus Army attack — or of the 1968 “police riot” in Chicago. But he wants to avoid taking responsibility for his racist, incendiary rhetoric. So did Wallace. He complained, “Well it’s a sad day in the country when you can’t talk about law and order unless they want to call you a racist.”

The political logic of Trump’s odious rhetoric is clear: Republicans have been winning elections since 1968 by promising to crack down on criminals of color. The “Southern strategy” could work again this year, but there are at least five reasons to believe it might not be as potent as in the past.

First, white voters aren’t as numerous as they once were. The white, non-Hispanic share of the electorate declined from 89 percent in 1968 to 69 percent in 2016 — and it is expected to fall even further this year. The GOP base is shrinking.

Second, the evidence of police brutality is now incontestable thanks to cellphone videos. In the past, most whites gave police the benefit of the doubt. But even Rush Limbaugh and Jeanine Pirro have condemned the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop.

Third, voters aren’t as fearful of crime as they once were. The homicide rate increased by 54 percent between 1960 and 1970. By contrast, violent crime has been falling for the past quarter-century.

Fourth, Trump’s poll numbers are remarkably steady — he has been close to his current level of 43.1 percent approval, 53.3 percent disapproval since the start. If not even epochal events such as impeachment, a pandemic or an economic meltdown could not affect his support, it’s doubtful that the current unrest will do so.

Fifth, and most important, Trump is now the incumbent. He might imitate the law-and-order message of Wallace or Nixon in 1968, but, unlike them, he cannot blame the current president and promise to make everything better once he wins.

In his acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican national convention, Trump promised that “the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end. Beginning on January 20th, 2017, safety will be restored.” Turns out, this pledge was as fraudulent as his promise of up to 6 percent economic growth.

Having vowed in his inaugural address to end “American carnage,” Trump has instead presided over true carnage — a combination of the worst pandemic since the 1918 flu, the worst unemployment since the Great Depression and the worst riots since 1968.

He cannot escape accountability by scapegoating “anarchists” as Nixon and Wallace once did. If he wins, it will be because of an economic recovery, not because he demonized demonstrators.

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