With the election less than three months away, Donald Trump has sought to turn his campaign around by presenting himself as the law and order candidate. He has made this clear in his public statements, his campaign commercials and, in case anybody has not gotten the message, by occasionally simply tweeting the phrase "Law and Order."Trump is hardly the first Republican to use this appeal to win the support from white suburban voters and other key constituencies concerned about crime or civil unrest. For over half a century, conservative candidates in the US, such as Rudy Giuliani when he ran for mayor of New York City and numerous other Republicans, have made calls for law and order a centerpiece of their campaigns. Ideologically simpatico leaders internationally from Hungary s Viktor Orban to Brazil s Jair Bolsonaro have made similar appeals.
One of the earliest major American politicians to run a successful law and order campaign was Ronald Reagan in his first campaign for governor of California. In that 1966 race, referring to unrest on the University of California s Berkeley campus, Reagan spoke of the need to "teach self-respect, self-discipline, and respect for law and order," in order to prevent "a great university to be brought to its knees by a noisy dissident minority." Two years later, another California Republican, Richard Nixon used the same theme in his successful campaign for the White House.
But there is one hugely important difference between Reagan and Nixon s campaigns and where Trump finds himself today. Nixon and Reagan were challengers running against Democratic incumbents -- Nixon against sitting Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Reagan against Jimmy Carter.For Republicans, law and order has been a potent campaign pitch when made against Democratic incumbents in times of civil unrest or by Republican incumbents who have managed to maintain order on American streets. Trump is neither. Rather, he is a President who is making the somewhat surreal argument of pointing to chaos in the streets, as he sees it, in his own America and trying to scare people into thinking that is what Biden s America would look like.
Trump s law and order campaign boils down to urging voters to believe first that there is chaos, disorder and crime all around them, and second to believe that only he, the one who has presided over these developments, can stop them. The illogic of that argument is hard to miss.
The temporary deployment of federal troops from the Department of Homeland Security to Portland over the last few weeks further underscores the paradox of Trump s law and order campaign as well as illustrating why governing is much more difficult than campaigning. Threatening to send troops to restore law and order in parts of a city riven by demonstrations and chaos might sound good in a campaign and can demonstrate strength in the face of unrest. However, actually doing it as President or even governor is very different because federal troops, like those in Portland, rarely restore order.Instead, the Portland case shows they complicate the situation and can even contribute to greater disruption and more violence. Overall, the presence of federal troops in Portland strengthens the perception of chaos and violence in that city. A similar dynamic will occur elsewhere if Trump expands his Portland policy to other Democrat-run cities, as he has begun to do. Trump has sought to blame Democrats for the disorder in those cities, but overplayed his hand as many Americans seem to be dismissing this tactic as another act of partisanship at a time of extremely heightened political divisions. Several polls in June and July showed Biden consistently ahead of Trump on the law and order issue, with a Washington Post/ABC News poll finding that those surveyed said they trusted Biden more than Trump by a margin of 50% to 41% on the issue of "crime and safety."
There is no question that the nationwide demonstrations around, but not limited to, the issue of police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement, include participants who are not committed to the idea of peaceful protest, but it is equally apparent that sending in troops, grandstanding about law and order and promising to "dominate" the protestors can lead to even larger protests and clashes between troops and protestors that suggest civil unrest and a President who has lost control of the country. This helps explain why Trump s inability to deliver on his law and order mantra is not helping him catch up with Joe Biden in the polls
The Trump campaign appears to be hoping that a strong law and order message can bring White voters, particularly in the suburbs, back to the President in November. Trump himself has made explicit appeals to the suburbs, including to "suburban housewives," in recent days.That approach worked for Reagan and Nixon more than half a century ago and countless Republicans challengers since. Unfortunately for Trump, the more apt parallel may be to 1992, when another incumbent Republican president, George H.W. Bush, faced with major demonstrations against police violence in numerous cities, made a similar plea for law and order. It was not enough to save him from losing to Bill Clinton that November.
During the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Richard J. Daley, the mayor of that city at the time, uttered the famous malapropism "the policeman isn t here to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder." Today it s Trump whose efforts to maintain law and order are preserving disorder.