Through his career, Donald Trump has specialized in high-risk business strategies. In the past week, he has arrived an even-higher-risk political strategy, not only for himself, but for his whole adopted party.
The strategy is not of his own making. The Drudge Report, Breitbart.com, and Fox’s Sean Hannity converged upon it before Trump. But he’s adopted it as his, and here in Cleveland, he will now impose it on every Republican in the nation.
The strategy is to offer Donald Trump as the upholder of “law and order” against an attack launched upon police and law-abiding citizens by Black Lives Matter activists, menacing black street criminals suddenly on the rampage against elderly white people, and various dopey Twitter loudmouths. Only Trump can keep America safe against the rising tide of chaos.
As always with demagogues, Trump has seized upon a small piece of truth. Crime in America has begun rising again since 2014, at least in major metropolitan areas—and as always, violent crime is disproportionately committed by young black men. Black Lives Matter activists have sometimes defamed police. Twitter is indeed full of dopey loudmouths.
But as so often with general-election Trump, the strategy is badly calculated not only from the point of view of political ethics, but from the point of view of broadening the 14 million votes he won in the Republican primary contests to the 120 million or so he’ll need to win a presidential election.
Here, in ascending order of dangerousness to the party and its hopes, are the problems with his plan.
1) The theme “law and order” invites media attention to Trump’s own manifold problems with the law. This has and will happen anyway, which is why it’s the least of the problems, but it’s not quite zero. It’s one thing for a politician to be caught bending the rules in areas where it’s already understood he or she is no angel. (Who was surprised to discover in 1998 that Bill Clinton had not improved as a faithful husband?) But if there’s abundant video of you demanding respect for law, it becomes a bigger problem if there’s also abundant video of you breaking laws to take financial advantage of ordinary people.
2) Sean Hannity’s TV audience needs little convincing that dangerous black people are lurking behind every darkened corner. But Sean Hannity’s TV audience won’t decide this election. There’s scant evidence that the people who will decide the election regard crime and disorder as top-of-mind issues. Even after the apparent 2014 to 2015 uptick in metropolitan violent crime, the United States remains almost as safe a country today as it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A focus on the issues of physical security that swing-voter Americans don’t much worry about detracts from attention to the issues of economic security that they intensely care about.
3) Here we’re getting into the problems that hurt. The essence of dog-whistle politics is that only the dog can hear the whistle. But the Trump campaign can never execute a deft or subtle maneuver for the threshold reason that the Trump campaign fumbles everything. Instead of careful signaling sympathy and concern to crime-anxious constituencies, the Trump campaign crudely broadcasts a blatant message of racial provocation. The Republican Party is a coalition of which economically stressed down-market whites constitute an important bloc—but only a bloc. Romney voters matter, too—and they’re not going to follow along as the message transitions from “blue lives matter” to “black lives kill.”
4) Trump launched his campaign as a candidate of immigration enforcement. That’s an important and popular message, but one that has to be handled with care. Non-white voters especially will need to be convinced that the purpose of the policy is to enhance the cohesion of an American community of which they are respected and fully equal members. The fear and contempt for nonwhites emanating from the pro-Trump media—and oftentimes from the Trump campaign itself—discredits and destroys that effort. It will be pitifully easy for the Clinton campaign to disparage the combined immigration and law-and-order messages of the Trump candidacy as an attack on everyone who doesn’t wear a white skin.
5) Whatever else Trump is, he’s obviously not a steady pair of hands. That did not much hurt him so long as his dominant message was: “Vote for me to shake things up.” An impulsive, anger-prone, bullying TV personality probably is more likely to “shake things up” than a careful and deliberate career politician. Suddenly though, Trump is talking less about shaking things up than calming things down. And Trump is just obviously and manifestly not a person interested in, willing to, and capable of doing that. If America wants tranquility and security, it will want somebody a lot less exciting and excitable than Donald Trump to deliver it. In 1968 Richard Nixon didn’t promise to shoot rioters. He promised to “bring us together.” Nobody supposes that Trump will keep us together.
So long as Trump was advertising bold disruptive change, it didn’t look incredible that he might be the man to deliver. But if the plea is for domestic tranquility—it’s hard to imagine a less plausible candidate for that message. “Make America Quiet Again” is not a slogan for a cap on Donald Trump’s pugnacious head. But Hillary Clinton could wear it well. And if the Trump campaign continues down its present angry path? She will.