Trump Revives ‘Law-and-Order’ Politics of Nixon and Reagan

Trump Revives ‘Law-and-Order’ Politics of Nixon and Reagan

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Attendees hold up a cardboard sign featuring Donald Trump, former president Ronald Reagan, and actor John Wayne during a Trump campaign rally in Forth Worth, Texas on February 26, 2016.
Photo: Laura Buckman/AFP via Getty Images

Twice during his brief and truculent Rose Garden speech Monday night, President Trump identified himself with the cause of “law and order,” at one point announcing he was “your president of law and order.” It was a jarring reminder that Trump has revived a term that had largely dropped out of the American political lexicon because of its association with racism and repression. He utilized it liberally during his 2016 presidential campaign, as part of his anachronistic claim that a country with historically low violent crime rates and only occasional incidents of civil unrest was somehow descending into chaos and barbarism (or “American carnage,” as he memorably called it in his dark Inaugural Address). It appeared a candidate who played heavily on white racial resentment and didn’t expect much support from minority voters wasn’t worried by the unsavory legacy of “law and order.”

The first notable use of the term, nearly a century ago, was by Calvin Coolidge in a retrospective speech about — ironically — his decision to break a police strike in Boston when he was governor of Massachusetts. But the basic concept that government’s chief function is the strict maintenance of social order is a deeply embedded conservative concept closely associated, in this country anyway, with racial fears and conflicts. Nothing terrified or motivated the white antebellum South like the prospect of a slave rebellion. The southern white terrorism of the Reconstruction Era was crystallized in “Black Codes” that minutely regulated the behavior of ex-slaves as a way to keep them from exercising economic or political power. That outlook was deeply entrenched in the structure of Jim Crow, in which maintenance of segregation and white supremacy was the indispensable mission of law enforcement and a mandatory obligation of state and local elected officials.

As Jim Crow began to break down under sustained pressure from a non-violent civil-rights movement and the federal courts, law-enforcement personnel were widely regarded as an instrument for fighting racial change, and the most peaceful civil-rights demonstrations were treated by local authorities as horrendous threats to public order. It’s no mistake that the great symbol of Jim Crow’s last stand, whose tactics may have done more to galvanize northern white civil rights sentiment than any other’s, was Bull Connor, Birmingham’s elected Commissioner of Public Safety, whose war on civil-rights activists defined him, his police department, and his city for a generation. White police officers in Alabama generally were regarded as representing something of a motorized Klan with a license to kill. In next-door Georgia where I was growing up in the early 1960s, I graphically recall white children singing this terrorist ditty to the tune of an Oscar Meyer Wiener jingle:

I’d love to be an Alabama Trooper
That is what I’d truly like to be
For if I were an Alabama Trooper
I could kill n*****s legally!

There were “race riots” and major waves of repression outside the South over the years, of course. But the modern apotheosis of “law and order” politics coincided with the spread of “racial unrest” beyond the South in the 1960s, as I noted recently:

For a possible analogy of the current nationwide explosion of unrest in response to the killing of George Floyd, you have to go back to the 1960s, particularly to the “long, hot summer” of 1967, when civil unrest occurred in 150 cities (most violently in Detroit and Newark) and the National Guard was called out in 34 states, and then the sometimes-violent protests in 1968 in more than a hundred locations (the most destructive occurring in Chicago and Washington) following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. These large waves of riots were preceded by the spectacularly destructive Watts Riot of 1965 in Los Angeles and smaller but intense 1964 uprisings in Harlem, Rochester, and Philadelphia.

Soon “law and order” became a standard conservative watchword, initially in both political parties. Democratic Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty distinguished himself for feckless and reactionary leadership during the Watts explosion, and later won a classic race-baiting reelection battle with African-American city councilman Tom Bradley (his successor). A bit later in Philadelphia, where rising crime rates rather than major unrest had become a political preoccupation, Democratic (later Republican) mayor and former police officer Frank Rizzo epitomized law-and-order messaging and open hostility to African-American and “liberal” politicians. His memory is so toxic that this week the city tore down a brass monument to him as representing, in the words of his current successor Jim Kenney, “bigotry, hatred, and oppression, for too many people, for too long.”

More typically it was Republicans who mastered law-and-order politics, nationally and in statehouses and city halls. One of the first and most successful practitioners was Richard Nixon, who managed during the many disturbances of 1968 (a series of assassinations, the MLK riots, the demonstrations and “police riot” at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago) to position himself as both a symbol of law and order and as a conciliatory neutral figure between clashing antagonists. He was helped in this effort by the high visibility on his right flank of George Wallace, the Alabama governor running on a third-party platform who called for harsh repressive measures in addition to opposing civil-rights legislation. “We don’t have riots in Alabama,” Wallace once said. “They start a riot down there, first one of ’em to pick up a brick gets a bullet in the brain, that’s all.”

Law-and-order politics were not strictly aimed at repressing African-Americans or quelling “race riots.” Thanks to the many late-1960s, early-1970s student protests focused on the War in Vietnam and America’s imperial pretensions, conservative politicians made great hay promising to rein in ungrateful middle-class students and self-styled campus radicals. The leader of the next generation of law-and-order pols, California’s Ronald Reagan, made examples of the University of California at Berkeley from the get-go, as the university itself officially recalls:

Ronald Reagan launched his political career in 1966 by targeting UC Berkeley’s student peace activists, professors, and, to a great extent, the University of California itself. In his successful campaign for governor of California, his first elective office, he attacked the Berkeley campus, cementing what would remain a turbulent relationship between Reagan and California’s leading institution for public higher education.

Nixon’s first vice-president, Spiro Agnew, combined law-and-order rhetoric aimed at students (and accusations of complicity towards news media) with a history of racial insensitivity in possibly the closest analogy to Trump on the national scene. As governor of Maryland he came to Nixon’s attention with tough talk aimed at African-Americans involved in unrest in Baltimore and Cambridge. As vice-president he became Nixon’s attack dog and a darling of conservatives, calling students (in words mostly penned by Willian Safire of Nixon’s staff) an “elite corps of impudent snobs,” and the media who sympathized with their antiwar protests “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Like Nixon, Agnew was driven to resign under intense pressure, though in his case it was for simple corruption (he had been receiving cash payments from Maryland road contractors in an arrangement that went back to his tenure as Baltimore County Executive).

By the time Reagan was elected president, broad-scale civil unrest had subsided and students were no longer particularly liberal, much less radical. But tough-on-crime rhetoric in both parties was associated with rising crime rates and drug use. Federal legislation associated with the War on Drugs, including deployment of mandatory minimum sentences, had significant bipartisan support, as Democrats sought preemptive protection against “weak-on-crime” attacks from Republicans and conservative groups. A bit later, public anger at prison-crowding-generated liberal parole practices led to a craze for habitual offenders laws, often styled as “three strikes and you’re out.” An associated issue became a red-hot controversy in the 1988 presidential contest, as supporters of George H.W. Bush ran racially inflammatory ads dramatizing the Massachusetts weekend furlough program implemented under then-governor Michael Dukakis. Convicted murderer Willie Horton was released under the program, then committed assault and rape.

Bush got his own moment of intense urban unrest to batten upon politically near the end of his presidency when major violent protests broke out in Los Angeles after the police officers caught on video brutally beating DWI suspect Rodney King were acquitted of all charges by a suburban jury. California’s Republican Governor Pete Wilson asked Bush to send in U.S. military units and he complied, with the first invocation of the Insurrection Act since the 1960s.

The peak of bipartisan law-and-order politics was near the end of the long crime wave that began in the 1960s and finally started to subside in the early 1990s. The now-infamous 1994 Omnibus Crime bill — in which then- senator Joe Biden played a leading role — saw sharp partisan divisions over gun control and crime-prevention measures, but not over harsh sentencing policies. And indeed, as crime rates improved and riots faded from the scene, the most notable “disorder” problem in the country became gun massacres, in which Republicans caught in an ever-more-rigid Second Amendment absolutism all but lost their law-and-order mojo.

Until Trump, that is.

Trump’s counter-factual claims of runaway crime, with undocumented immigrants representing a particular threat, brought back the Nixon-Agnew-Reagan rhetoric of law and order, and this time, Democrats did not follow and even some Republicans resisted. His lock-em-up rhetoric in 2016 collided with a bipartisan criminal-justice reform movement that had begun in the states with many Christian conservatives playing a leading role. Triump’s Senate allies Jeff Sessions and Tom Cotton (who said America had an “under-incarceration problem”) helped halt reform legislation, and Trump signed watered-down legislation late in 2018 only after his son-in-law Jared Kushner convinced him he could win over some African-American voters by doing so and taking credit for it.

But then George Floyd was killed by the police in Minneapolis and protests exploded everywhere. Forced to choose between his alleged sympathy for protesters and the political opportunity to stand up for the forces of order, Trump predictably went right instead of left. Will it help him or hurt him in November? It’s hard to say, though so far public opinion is strongly sympathetic toward protesters and hostile to Trump.

So what, if anything, has changed since the salad days of law-and-order politics? Well, for one thing, we have decades of research, publicity, and debate about police misconduct and other causes for “urban unrest.” The video evidence showing how Floyd (and a number of previous victims of police assaults) died is so hard to ignore or rebut that many people are not responding ideologically or tribally to the grievances of protesters. For another, there’s no longer significant bipartisan cover for Trump’s law-and-order stylings.

But perhaps most importantly from a political point of view, Trump is himself such a divisive figure that he cannot, like Nixon, or to some extent like Reagan, pose as a unifying leader who can pacify as well as subdue the forces of disorder. Trump is more like Agnew at best, or Wallace at worst — a culture warrior who welcomes civic unrest as an opportunity to smite his enemies, fulfill the blood lust of his “base,” and impose the will of one part of America on the other. Being “your president of law and order” is an electoral gamble at a time when so many Americans are exhausted by fear and doubt and tired of being played for suckers. Odds are it’s not going to reinforce the Trumpian case for “Transitioning to Greatness.”

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