As riots and looting have disordered cities across the United States, many have speculated that the troubles could help reelect President Donald Trump. The speculation is based on analogy. American cities were swept by riots in the mid-1960s, and then, in 1968, Richard Nixon campaigned on a pledge of “law and order” and won the presidency. As it was then, so it will be now—or so the punditry goes.
The riots of 2020 may or may not help Donald Trump. The analogy to 1968, however, misunderstands both the politics of that traumatic year, and the success of Richard Nixon.
One thing to remember about the presidential election of 1968 is that it was a three-way race. Nixon ran not only against the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, a liberal stalwart with a long civil-rights record, but also against the outright segregationist George Wallace, governor of Alabama. Wallace would ultimately collect 8.6 percent of the popular vote and win five states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
Facing those two rivals allowed Nixon to run as the candidate of the middle way, committed both to civil rights and to public order.
In 1968, Nixon’s pledge of “law and order” spoke to many national agonies, not only the urban riots. In Nixon’s famous law-and-order TV ad of 1968 there appeared not a single African American face. The faces in the ad were those of student protesters, and the photos were of the brutal suppression of a student protest by Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago police. Strikingly, the ad portrayed the police almost as harshly as the protesters. It showed an image of a short-haired young man helping a blood-drenched friend; of a respectably dressed person being dragged away; of smirking cops in sinister paramilitary outfits. The ad was just tough enough on the students to appeal to the white ethnic, urban Catholics who identified with Daley, and just tough enough on the Chicago police to reassure the prosperous Protestant suburbanites whose children may have been clubbed by Daley’s brutal cops. Race riots were at most a subtext of an ad that purported to address other issues entirely.
By renominating in 1968 its candidate of 1960, the Republican Party seemed to be repudiating its radical lurch to the right under Barry Goldwater in 1964—and offering a return to the civil-rights Republicanism of the recent past: Nixon had served for eight years as the vice president of that most consensus-minded of presidents, Dwight Eisenhower.
Nixon’s message of a return to calm and peace resonated because he stoked memories of a presidency that had delivered just that. In 1968, Americans remembered well that Eisenhower had promptly extricated the United States from the Korean War, which he’d inherited from his Democratic predecessor. Nixon promised to do the same in Vietnam.
Accepting the nomination that year, Nixon said, “To those who say that law and order is the code word for racism, there and here is a reply: Our goal is justice for every American. If we are to have respect for law in America, we must have laws that deserve respect. Just as we cannot have progress without order, we cannot have order without progress, and so, as we commit to order tonight, let us commit to progress.”
Today, we know the Nixon of the secret tapes: crude, amoral, often bigoted. The public Nixon of 1968, however, behaved with the dignity and decorum Americans then expected in a president. Trump in 2020 occupies the place not of Nixon, but of Daley and George Wallace: Trump is the force of disorder that is frightening American voters into seeking a healing candidate—not the candidate of healing who can restore a fair and just public order. Trump on Sunday retweeted a right-wing media personality: “This isn’t going to end until the good guys are willing to use overwhelming force against the bad guys.”
The irony, of course, is that at the same time that Trump tweets bloodthirsty threats, he has turned off the White House lights and cowered in the bunker below. He joins noisy bluster to visible weakness—exactly the opposite of the Nixon formula in 1968. Trump will not repeat Nixon’s success in 1968, because he does not understand that success. Nixon joined his vow of order to a promise of peace at home and abroad. Trump offers only conflict, and he offers no way out of conflict, because—unlike Nixon in 1968—Trump is himself the cause of so much conflict.
If Trump seeks historical parallels for his reelection campaign, here’s one that is much more apt. There was a campaign in which the party of the president presided over a deadly pandemic at the same time as a savage depression and a nationwide spasm of bloody urban racial violence. The year was 1920. The party in power through these troubles went on to suffer the worst defeat in U.S. presidential history, a loss by a margin of 26 points in the popular vote. The triumphant challenger, Warren Harding, was not some charismatic superhero of a candidate. He didn’t need to be. In 2020 as in 1920, the party of the president is running on the slogan Let us fix the mess we made. It didn’t work then. It’s unlikely to work now.