Trump: Putting Out Fires, or Starting Them?

The Republican candidate is trying to convince Americans their country is dangerous. They may believe him, but that doesn’t mean they’ll vote for him.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

CLEVELAND—Republicans don’t face a particularly heavy lift at their national convention this week convincing Americans that when it comes to security, the house is on fire. The harder test may be convincing them that Donald Trump is more fireman than arsonist.

Yet the opening night of the 2016 Republican convention appeared focused much more on the first challenge than the second. While speakers from former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, Sheriff David Clarke presented an array of ominous threats, they devoted much less effort to arguing that Trump was best equipped to confront them.

That balance reflected the belief inside the Trump campaign that, as Americans grow more concerned that the country is tumbling into disorder, they will become more inclined to turn to a candidate seen as a tough, decisive leader. But some operatives in both parties say that straightforward equation misses the more complex challenge facing the polarizing GOP nominee. “I think they will do a great job [this week] of reinforcing all the scary stuff,” says the long-time GOP strategist Mike Murphy, a frequent Trump critic. “The question is how they make Trump the answer. Piling on the scary stuff is a necessary but not sufficient way for him to win.”

There was no shortage of “scary stuff” in the convention’s opening night. The evening resembled an album medley—the Beatles’ second side of Abbey Road, say—as speakers seamlessly segued from one threat to another: ISIS, homegrown Islamic radicals, undocumented immigrants, street criminals, and African Americans protesting police behavior all blended into a panoramic assault on safety and order.

“The world outside of our borders is a dark place, a scary place,” insisted former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, whose experiences in Afghanistan were recorded in the book and film Lone Survivor.  “A vote for Hillary is putting all of our children’s lives at risk,” said Mary Ann Mendoza, whose son was killed in a car accident with an undocumented immigrant. In the defense of freedom, “this is the last stand on earth,” declared retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn.

Trump, who has taken to labeling himself the candidate of “law and order,” also joined the chorus Monday when he called into Bill O’Reilly’s program on Fox News Channel. Trump accused the Black Lives Matter movement of fomenting violence against police. While Trump lately has expressed some concern about police shootings of African Americans—and even Giuliani nodded toward concern about unjustified shootings in his heated remarks Monday night—Trump suggested to O’Reilly that if elected he would direct the attorney general to investigate the BLM movement. “I have seen them marching down the street essentially calling death to the police,” Trump said. “And I think we’re going to have to look into that.”

Those remarks came after Trump last week tweeted: “This election is a choice between law, order & safety—or chaos, crime & violence.”

Trump advisers say their polling and focus groups show that Americans have been deeply shaken by the concatenation of recent horrific mass-casualty attacks, from terrorism in Orlando and Nice, to the shootings of police in Baton Rouge and Dallas.

The Trump team believes that promoting security and branding him as the candidate of “law and order” will help him not only with the blue-collar whites who have provided his staunchest support, but also with white-collar whites (including college-educated white women) and even minorities (such as Hispanic men) who have been much more resistant toward him. “We have a great deal of suburban angst right now in the country, and it’s not just worries about ISIS,” Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to the campaign, said at an Atlantic forum in Cleveland on Tuesday morning. “It’s a combination of opioid use, private drugs, random violence, the idea that you can be standing in the wrong coffee line … you can live a good life, you can do everything—play by the rules, be a productive citizen, be a good person—and you just can’t control the outcome. It’s … just a … feeling that we don’t have control.”

The conviction that fear of disorder will drive voters toward Trump explains the signal sent by Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, at a breakfast Monday morning sponsored by Bloomberg Politics that the model for the nominee’s acceptance speech on Thursday night will be Richard Nixon’s in 1968. (“We looked at previous convention speeches; the one he focused on, though, was Nixon in 1968,” Manafort told reporters.)

Nixon delivered his speech at a time of intense national division over the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and pervasive racial unrest—a time that most experts agree represented a moment of far greater discord and unease than the nation is experiencing today. In one measure of the disorder, the nation then was well into a spike that would more than double the violent crime rate from 1960 to 1970.

In his speech, Nixon promised to “restore order and respect for law in this country” and to represent “the forgotten Americans—the non-shouters; the non-demonstrators.” (That was an early formulation of “the silent majority” phrase that Nixon later popularized and Trump has revived.) While Nixon promised to heal the nation’s divisions, his portrayal of the divide verged on apocalyptic: “As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame,” he declared. “We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad. We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home.”

Geoff Garin, the chief strategist for Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign and now the pollster for Priorities USA, the principal political action committee supporting her, says Trump’s echoes of Nixon’s messaging fundamentally misreads America’s current mood. “To me the big difference between 1968 and 2016 is the silent majority may be on a different side of the line this time than it was then,” Garin says. “The majority of Americans obviously abhor people killing police. But they also don’t want police unjustifiably killing black citizens. And more than anything else, the silent majority in America doesn’t want America to be more divided than it already is. In 1968, Americans already felt much more divided and you had to be on one side or the other of the line. And that’s not where we are as a country.”

Indeed, analysts in both parties believe one of the principal hurdles Trump faces is the sense among many voters that at a time when the seams appear to be loosening in America, he would intensify racial, ethnic, and cultural divisions. That perception looms as a critical hurdle for Trump not only with minority voters, but also college-educated whites, who are providing him much less support than Republican presidential nominees usually garner. This week’s ABC/Washington Post poll offers one hint why: fully 51 percent of college-educated whites said they considered Trump biased against women and minorities. (Just over seven-in-10 non-whites described Trump as biased in the poll.) As Garin puts it, “One of the big fears about Trump is that he will make a divided country even more divided. And that he exacerbates the divisions for his own political benefit.”

That perception helps explain a critical distinction in the way Americans are assessing the two candidates. In recent polls, Trump either leads (Pew Research Center) or runs almost even (ABC/Washington Post) with Clinton when Americans are asked which candidate can best respond to the threat of terrorism.

But polls also show that Americans give Clinton a commanding lead when asked which candidate can better handle race relations, or manage the tension between African Americans and police departments. Her advantages on those questions are especially pronounced among the minority and college-educated white voters who provide the core of the modern Democratic coalition.

As long as that’s true, even many voters growing concerned that America could be heading toward “smoke and flame [and]…sirens in the night” may view Trump as more likely to feed than douse the blaze.

Leah Askarinam contributed reporting.