The result of this dynamic is that anytime a new shock hits the American political system, Trump’s supporters and opponents can agree on a narrative where Trump can spin dross into gold and coast to reelection. Take, for example, how the protests, looting and police overreactions of the past week might affect the November election.
The New York Times’s Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman reported that “some in the president’s circle see the escalations as a political boon, much in the way Richard M. Nixon won the presidency on a law-and-order platform after the 1968 riots. One adviser to Mr. Trump … said images of widespread destruction could be helpful to the law-and-order message that Mr. Trump has projected since his 2016 campaign.”
Trump’s advisers are not alone in this sentiment. CNN’s John Avlon, the Atlantic’s James Fallows and USA Today’s Tom Nichols have articulated variations of this argument. Political science offers some backup as well. Omar Wasow, an assistant professor of political science at Princeton, just published the world’s most timely paper in the American Political Science Review. Wasow uses the ’60s protests to show that if protesters engage in violent resistance, the mainstream media will frame the conflict in terms of law and order, benefiting conservatives.
This is certainly what Trump wants to do, and he’s not being subtle about it.
LAW & ORDER!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2020
On Monday evening, the administration went so far as to use tear gas and flash-bangs to clear out a peaceful protest in Lafayette Square so Trump could do this:
Will this work? It could. There are no guarantees in a presidential election this far out, and if Trump has any political gifts, it is in the ability to set the agenda and then divide and conquer.
But there are many reasons to believe that it will not play out the way it did in 1968. My Post colleague Max Boot has already offered some excellent reasons. Here are a few others.
First, as previously noted, the initial spark of violence this time around did not come from protesters, but from the police. Some protesters have engaged in violence, but many cops have engaged in disproportionate violence as well. In his paper, Wasow notes that “when peaceful protesters are the object of state or vigilante violence, the mainstream media are expected to issue frames that are especially effective for activists.” In a contest as to which images will predominate, I’ll put five bucks on the policy abuse ones.
Second, as Fallows noted in his column, to run a law-and-order campaign, the candidate needs to offer a patina of reconciliation to make it sell in the suburbs. The toddler in chief lacks both the finesse and the self-control to be able to play this game. Over the weekend, Trump talked about using dogs and unlimited force. This morning, as my Post colleagues reported, he managed to sound even more like Bull Connor:
President Trump on Monday berated the nation’s governors during a conference call, describing them as “weak” in the face of growing racial unrest and urging them to take an aggressive stand against unruly protests.Trump told governors that if they don’ take back the streets and use force to confront protesters they would look like “fools,” alarming several governors on the call as they communicated privately.“You have to dominate, if you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time,” he said. “They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.”
Maybe a softer version of this would have some positive effect; this kind of message is a pure base play.
Third, and most important, Nixon was running as the challenger from the party that had been out of power for eight years. Trump is the incumbent. Not just that, he is the incumbent who claimed in 2016 that “I alone can fix” all the problems with the country. Trump later pledged “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now” in his inaugural address, and let me just say that I would give anything for the problems of 2016 compared with the carnage of 2020.
Fair or not, what’s happening now is on him. Even low-information voters — especially low-information voters — are likely to get that.
Fourth, while everyone is paying attention to the social unrest right now, it’s not like the country’s other problems are going away. Covid-19 is still a pandemic. Forty million Americans are still unemployed. Absent therapeutics and vaccines, the United States is not getting back to normal. Those facts are likely to predominate as the campaign progresses, and they will not help Trump at all.
And this leads to the least theoretical and most data-driven argument for why this will not be Trump’s magic bullet. If the events of 2020 have been volatile, the polling for 2020 has been the opposite of that. As CNN’s Harry Enten noted on Sunday, “Biden’s in one of the best positions for any challenger since scientific polling began in the 1930s.” Not just that, but the persistence of Biden’s lead stands out: “The May polls had Biden up by 6 points on average. That is right where the average of polls taken since the beginning of this year has been. It’s where the average of polls conducted since the beginning of 2019 has been as well.”
In the first few months of 2020 alone, I heard that impeachment would benefit Trump, and then that his pandemic news conferences would help him. Neither worked. This could be due to deep polarization, or Biden and Trump both being very known commodities. Or the fact that Trump is a bad president.
I have no doubt that Trump will try to run a law-and-order campaign. I have severe doubts that it will work.