This post was updated on Monday, July 18, at 9:57 p.m.
CLEVELAND—Alex Castellanos is a thoughtful Republican consultant and, on this night before the Republican National Convention, he was thinking about 1968. “It feels like that sort of time,” he said over drinks a few blocks from the convention site. “Only worse.”
He remembers the year of riots, war protests, and the assassinations of the civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. He recalls the political unrest, which my colleague Peter Beinart described as a confrontation “between leftist activists, who believe in physical disruption as a means of drawing attention to injustice, and a candidate eager to forcibly put down that disruption in order to make himself look tough.”
I asked Castellanos, “What if we had Twitter and Facebook in 1968?”
He winced. “Race riots?” Framed as a question, it was a warning of things that might come.
In this summer of violence—of cop-on-black and black-on-cop killings—the 1968 comparison might seem, in one respect, a bit quaint. Back then, anger festered slowly, movements grew gradually, and power was concentrated in the hands of a few gatekeepers who could dilute the impact of divisive and dangerous language.
Today, the radical connectivity of the internet empowers every American to find people who share their views, to mobilize them, and to incite their online community members with false and provocative language.
Any citizen can be a demagogue. And, arguably, Americans are more easily manipulated by a demagogue—directly, without the filter of journalists and other institutional elites.
Which brings me to the leader of Castellanos’s party. Donald J. Trump seems determined not to calm racial strife but to exploit it — and thoughtful Republicans should worry about where it might end.
“If he tries to make the racial conflict between blacks and whites worse, it will hurt his candidacy and hurt his country,” said the GOP consultant John Feehery.
Feehery argues that Trump has not gone too far on the race issue, but it’s a hard case to make. Trump questioned Barack Obama’s citizenship, accused Mexico of sending rapists across U.S. borders, and called for a “total and complete” ban on Muslim immigration. More recently, in response to the spate of violence involving police and African Americans, Trump seems less concerned with solving the problem than benefiting from it.
“President Obama just had a news conference,” Trump tweeted Sunday after the slaying of three police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, “but he doesn’t have a clue.”
Obama had just condemned the killings as cowardly and reprehensible. “There is no justification for violence against law enforcement. None. These attacks are the work of cowards who speak for no one. They right no wrongs. They advance no causes.”
That should have been enough to short-circuit suggestions that Obama blames police for violence brought upon them or that his sympathies lie with radical anti-white groups. It didn’t; the internet is filled with these and other baseless accusations. Trump himself suggested that the president had contributed to the bloodshed.
“How many law enforcement and people have to die because of a lack of leadership in our country?” Trump said in a statement. “We demand law and order.”
He tweeted: “Our country is a divided crime scene and will only get worse!”
Polarization and racial division in America is undeniable—74 percent of voters say race relations are bad, according to a new NBC/WSJ poll—but the nation is not a “crime scene.”
Predicting and almost cheering for “worse,” Trump seems to know he benefits if a scared nation rejects the party in power. “I think race relations now are as bad as they have ever been,” Trump told Fox News, ignoring slavery, Jim Crow, and the turbulent ’60s.
“Make America Safe Again” was the theme of the first day of Trump’s nominating convention, with mentions of the war on terrorism, the Benghazi raid, and illegal immigration. But the focus of the night was a law-and-order message literally borrowed from Richard Nixon’s successful but racially charged 1968 campaign.
Trump’s top adviser, Paul Manafort, told reporters his candidate was using Nixon’s convention address as a template for his own. “It was an instructive speech,” Manafort said at a Bloomberg News breakfast. “If you go back and read, that speech is pretty much on line with a lot of the issues that are going on today.”
Trump recently drew comparisons between 1968 and 2016—and, implicitly, between himself and the disgraced former president. “I think what Nixon understood is that when the world is falling apart, people want a strong leader whose highest priority is protecting America first,” Trump said recently, according to the New York Times. “The 60s were bad, really bad. And it’s really bad now. America feel like it’s chaos again.”
Such talk from Trump makes Republicans like Castellanos and Feehery uneasy. “Since the 1960s, politicians have used code words and dog whistles—terms of art that allow them to nod to concerns of voters without directly talking about them,” Feehery said, adding that Trump has not even tried to disguise his strategy.
“He speaks viscerally about the fears and concerns of normal people and that makes elites uncomfortable,” Feehery said. “If he wants to succeed, he needs to find language that unites people—whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims—not in just a visceral way, but with common purpose.”
That doesn’t seem to be Trump’s plan. He is the law-and-order candidate eager to forcibly put down disruption in order to make himself look tough.