President Donald Trump has returned to an old playbook, launching a heavy-handed “law and order” campaign that recalls the message employed with success by modern Republican predecessors, from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush, dating back more than 50 years.
As protests against police brutality consume dozens of American cities, the incumbent faces hurdles and complications that those past candidates – all of whom were pursuing a first term – did not. He is running in a more diverse country, which has shifted left on many social issues, and one in which, less than two years ago, the suburban voters he covets revolted against Republicans and swung the House majority to the Democrats.
The pepper spray and flash bangs had already been deployed by security forces outside the White House on Monday night when Trump declared himself America’s “president of law and order,” recalling his declaration four years earlier, at the 2016 Republican convention, that he was the “candidate of law and order.” After protesters were pushed back, Trump and a cadre of aides walked across Lafayette Square for a photo op in front of a church, where the President held up a Bible and tried to ensure that his message of “complete force” from the Rose Garden would be accompanied by triumphal images that cast him as a leader of a decades-old culture war.
“My first and highest duty as President is to defend our great country and the American people,” Trump said on Monday. “I swore an oath to uphold the laws of our nation and that is exactly what I will do.”
The night before, he telegraphed with Trumpian bluntness what was to come. “LAW & ORDER,” he tweeted, no context required. On Tuesday: “SILENT MAJORITY,” another callback to both Nixon and Trump’s 2016 campaign, which won the electoral college but not a majority of the vote.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, in a speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday, railed against Trump’s tactics, accusing the President of turning the country “into a battlefield riven by old resentments and fresh fears.”
Biden also acknowledged the nation’s dark history with racism.
“I wish I could say that hate began with Donald Trump and will end with him,” Biden said. “It didn’t, and it won’t.”
The back-and-forth highlighted a new phase of an already volatile presidential campaign – and signaled how race and the social unrest roiling the country has redefined the contest once again.
Trump’s rhetoric was, in 2016 and now, a callback to the 1960s when Nixon and leading GOP figures made an appeal to suburban white voters scared and, in many cases, angered by the progress of the Civil Rights movement and radical politics of the era.
Reagan successfully utilized the message during his run for governor of California two years before Nixon’s first White House win in 1968, and took it with him to the White House in the 1980s. George H.W. Bush, though widely viewed now as an icon of the vanishing generation of establishment Republicans, used the strategy to batter his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, on his way to victory in 1988.
Ed Rogers, a longtime Republican operative who worked as Bush’s deputy campaign manager in 1988, is intimately familiar with the power of the “law and order” rhetoric in a presidential season.
Republicans aligned with Bush that year ran a racially charged ad that attacked Dukakis on crime by linking him to a furlough program that allowed Willie Horton, a convicted felon, to leave prison for a weekend and eventually commit assault, armed robbery and rape.
The ad featured an image of Horton, who is black, and ended with the narrator saying, “Weekend prison passes, Dukakis on crime.”
“(The ad) was sort of the peak of tough on crime, law and order, as far as a presidential campaign goes,” Rogers told CNN.
But the situation surrounding Trump right now, he said, is markedly different, given the real pain motivating protesters and the fact that Trump, unlike Bush in 1988, is already the president.
“Incumbents want peace and prosperity. Chaos is the enemy of incumbency,” Rogers said. “What (Republicans) need here is empathy. We are OK with toughness, we are OK with supporting the men in blue, we need some empathy and some understanding, we need for the situation to be cooler, not hotter. There is no reason for this White House to stoke their people.”
Like Bush, Nixon in 1968 had already served two terms vice president, though nearly a decade divided his time in office from the presidential campaign of that historically violent year of assassinations, riots and conflict overseas. With an assist from the Democratic Party, which was tearing itself apart with floor fights and a police riot at the national convention in Chicago that summer that roiled the nation, Nixon parlayed the racial resentment and fears, especially among suburban whites, to eke out a victory over Hubert Humphrey.
Nixon harped on “law and order” in speeches, denying the phrase was racist in his 1968 convention speech, and his campaign ran television ads that set images of young rioters and responding police against ominous music.
“It is time for an honest look at order in the United States,” Nixon says in the ad. “Let us recognize that the first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence, so I pledge to you we shall have order in the United States.”
Trump’s history of openly racist remarks, though, might also hinder his ability to make the strategy work for him in 2020, denying him the fig leaves used by past administrations and campaigns.
“Richard Nixon paid lip service to the goals of racial justice even as his Justice Department worked to undermine them. His attorney general John Mitchell even admitted it: he said that on civil rights, ‘Watch what we say, not what we do,’” said Rick Perlstein, the “Nixonland” author and historian of “law and order” politics. “Ronald Reagan’s brilliant pollster Richard Wirthlin came up with a strategy in 1980 of having Reagan give speeches before black audiences, not because he believed Reagan could attract black voters, but specifically to reassure white ones that they weren’t bigots for supporting him.”
Trump has tried to do the same. After deriding the protests in George Floyd’s name on Monday, he touted on Twitter the low unemployment numbers among African Americans before the coronavirus pandemic struck and his administration’s support for limited criminal justice reform legislation.
But, Perlstein said, “The guy who started his campaign claiming Mexican migrants were mostly rapists can’t credibly pull off any of that.”
Tim Murtaugh, a top Trump campaign spokesman, told CNN in an interview that lawlessness is “not a situation Americans should be asked to tolerate” and the President is working to make it stop.
“States with Democratic governors and Mayors are not protecting their cities. President Trump is determined to restore law and order and Democratic leaders are flatly refusing to do so,” Murtaugh said. “At a certain point Democratic leaders need to worry about protecting their citizens and their cities instead of spending all of their time trying to stick a thumb in the President’s eye.”
Murtaugh’s views are not universal among top Republican operatives, many of whom are skeptical they will significantly boost Trump’s flagging approval numbers or help down ballot Republicans.
Biden, meanwhile, continues to hold a sizable advantage over Trump with black voters, polls show. A recent ABC News/Washington Post survey found nearly 90% of black voters said they favored Biden over Trump – a similar number to what exit polls showed Hillary Clinton winning over Trump in 2016. And key battle ground states are beginning to break with Trump, with a new round of Fox News polls finding Biden within the margin of error in Ohio, a must win for Trump, and leading in Wisconsin and Arizona, two states Trump won in 2016.
Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP, predicted that Trump’s well-earned reputation as a political firestarter would undermine his attempt to replicate the message of his Republican predecessors.
“You have to consider the persona of Richard Nixon in his day and the persona of Donald Trump today. In his day, Richard Nixon was able to credibly convince swing voters from the suburbs that he would keep them safe – that he would make them safer than Hubert Humphrey, in particular,” said Jealous, who was recently selected as the new president for the progressive advocacy organization People For the American Way. “Donald Trump will have a very difficult time with swing voters in the suburbs convincing them that he’s anything other than Captain Chaos.”
The suburbs dealt the GOP a staggering blow in 2018, fueling the Democratic takeover of the House, and operatives close to Trump have watched with concern as once-loyal Republican voters outside of Phoenix and Philadelphia have distanced themselves from the party. The symbolic breakdown was most stark in Orange County, California, which launched Reagan’s political career and for decades held out as a Republican stronghold in deep blue California. By 2019, its congressional delegation was entirely Democratic.
Though “a lot has changed” over the past 50 years, Jealous added, “one thing that has not changed is that the suburbs are the place where voters are most interested in stability.”
And with the economy in collapse, a pandemic virus killing more than 100,000 Americans, some of the same anger fueling the protests increasing evident even among upwardly mobile classes – and no clear escape from any of it in sight – that sense of “stability” is far off.
CNN’s Michael Warren contributed to this story.