In the space of a few days two things happened on the presidential campaign trail that repeat the script of a presidential election nearly a half century back. Trump boasted in a speech that he was the "law and order candidate." Close on the heels of this, new polls showed that in the three states that will again likely decide the election, Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania, Trump surged in the polls to either edge or pull to a statistical dead heat with Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Trump's "law and order" boast and his poll resurgence are no accident. In the election a half century ago, GOP presidential candidate Richard Nixon virtually made the slogan law and order and crime in the streets his signature themes. He was brutal and direct in one speech when he flatly said that the "solution to the crime problem is not the quadrupling of funds for any governmental war on poverty but more convictions."
It was cold, calculating and cynical, but it worked. It resuscitated the career of the man many saw as a hopelessly failed, flawed, has been politician, and turned him into the front-runner for the White House in 1968. Nixon played hard on the urban riots, antiwar mass marches and riots, and campus takeovers that tore the country in the late 1960s to paint a horrific picture of an America in anarchy. He ridiculed the thought that poverty, racial discrimination and social inequities were the root cause of crime, violence and ghetto unrest. His answer was a get tough, crack down on crime. The crime, of course, that he meant was black crime, and that meant more police, prisons, tougher and longer sentences, and a full scale militarization of police departments. Nixon doubled down on this with a thinly disguised Southern Strategy in which he did a hard court of fearful blue collar whites and, unreconstructed racists in the South. He piled on a healthy dose of racially loaded code words such as "out of control big government" "welfare cheats," "permissiveness" and "crime in the streets." This pitch gave Nixon a comfortable lead in the polls over his Democratic rival Hubert Humphrey for much of the campaign.
Trump almost certainly knows that history, and swiping Nixon's stock line, he opened yet another attack thread for the campaign. This time the issue he latched onto was the heinous slaying of the five Dallas police officers, and the fear and the rage at the killings. The subtle ingredients of racial hysteria are there to try and make the pitch stick. There's an African-American shooter, who allegedly made anti-white utterances, five dead white police officers, and a convenient whipping boy movement, Black Lives Matter, that conjure up for many a nihilistic, anti-white, anti-police, lawless group. The difference this time is it's not the South that Trump aims to make his law and order sell too, its nervous, fearful voters in the swing states, and right leaning independents. They are the ones Trump banks on to tip the scales in these states in his direction.
He's also got another foil as Nixon tried to make out of Humphrey. That's to tar the Democrats, and sooner or later Hillary, as a candidate and party that tilts, and panders shamelessly to minorities, particularly blacks, by allegedly stoking anti-police sentiment, with its kid glove approach to Black Lives Matter, and by relentlessly pushing for more spending on job, health and education programs. The not so subtle hint is that this is all done at the expense of hard working, law abiding, white middle class and blue collar workers.
The law and order pitch gets even more resonance in this era with the network's 24-hour news cycles filled up with continual feeds of street protests against police abuse, complete with taunts, curses and shouts at police officers. The stock line is that the country is again bursting at the seams, and is so hopelessly racially polarized that it will take nothing less than a full blown crackdown and even bigger top heavy spending on weaponry and military preparedness by police to deal with the supposed anarchy in the streets.
Nixon got his way on all counts. He edged out Humphrey. He shifted public and government focus to beefing up resources for a wild expansion of police power and a prison building boom. He finger pointed at liberal Democrats for their emphasis on more social programs to deal with the plight of the urban poor. Worst of all, he virtually encoded the blame the victim narrative into the public mind for the very poverty and abuse that gave rise to the urban unrest in the first place. The polls that put Trump neck and neck with Clinton in the must win states are a stark reminder that presidential history often repeats itself. When Trump bellowed his law and order shout, he was just stealing the script from Nixon that sadly did much to land him in the White House.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Let's Stop Denying Made in America Terrorism, (Amazon Kindle) He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.