A Republican presidential candidate, eager to exploit fear, public anxiety, and racial tensions, tells voters he’s running as the “law and order” candidate. At the same time, this GOP White House hopeful says he represents the “silent majority,” all while assuring voters he has a secret plan to resolve a foreign security crisis?
You probably see where I’m going with this. If you saw Rachel’s segment on this last night, you know I’ve obviously just described Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, just as I’ve also described Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. In fact, Trump isn’t just borrowing themes from Nixon’s successful candidacy, this year’s presumptive GOP nominee is literally taking exact phrases and using them to advance his ambitions.
There is, however, a problem with the comparison: Nixon’s rhetoric at least made some contextual sense. The Republican’s prescription was misguided, his strategy was at times ugly, and his purported commitment to the rule of law turned out to be ironic, but the 1968 candidate was running at a time of intense social upheaval in the United States. His “law and order” rhetoric fell on fertile national soil.
Trump, meanwhile, is reading from the same script, but reality keeps getting in the way. Take this tweet from this morning, for example.
“Crime is out of control, and rapidly getting worse. Look what is going on in Chicago and our inner cities. Not good!”
I don’t doubt that some of the GOP candidate’s supporters nodded along in agreement when they read this, but crime isn’t out of control and it’s not rapidly getting worse. Violent crime rates have steadily improved over the last generation, and homicide rates are actually lower now than in 1968.
Yesterday, Trump rolled out a related line:
“We’ve also seen increasing threats against our police, and a substantial rise in the number of officers killed in the line of duty.”
Again, perceptions might make it seem like this is true, especially after Thursday night’s tragic mass-shooting in Dallas, but violent crimes against U.S. police officers has improved dramatically in recent years, and has reached levels unseen in modern American history.
Trump, in other words, is running Nixon’s playbook without Nixon’s circumstances.
It’s possible the gambit will work anyway, Trump’s dishonesty and ignorance notwithstanding, because public perceptions are also out of line with the evidence. For many Americans, it seems like violent crime is spiraling out of control, even though it’s not, and there’s an appearance of increased violence directed at the police, even though there isn’t.
Trump benefits from the confusion, exploiting public misunderstandings. But for those who care about reality, Nixon at least had some basic factual details to use for political purposes. Trump doesn’t.