In the end, all Donald Trump has left is fear. In running for reelection, there’s little else he can rely on. His handling of the pandemic has been a disastrous mixture of denial and disinformation. Prior to the pandemic, he might have made a plausible claim as a steward of the economy who presided over the first substantial wage growth in two decades. But now Trump’s economy is in shambles and not likely to recover until Covid-19 is under control. He’s kept America out of large-scale wars, but America’s international reputation has sunk and there are ominous rumblings of a potential conflict with Iran.
Lacking alternative arguments, Trump has returned to a tried and true trick that has served him and the Republican Party well: racist fearmongering about crime. Since the outbreak of continuous nationwide protests against police racism in the wake of the George Floyd killing, Trump has incessantly banged away at the theme of law and order.
After the Pentagon reportedly rebuffed the idea of sending in troops to quell protesters, Trump created an ad hoc paramilitary group, staffed by federal agents wearing unmarked camouflage, who were dispatched to Portland. Further federal interventions have been announced for cities like Chicago and Albuquerque.
In recent weeks, Trump has repeatedly argued that Joe Biden is a threat to suburban voters, falsely claiming that Biden wants to defund the police. On July 19, Trump warned that Biden was advocating policies that would “eliminate single-family zoning, bringing who knows [sic] into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down.” The phrase “who knows into your suburbs” is closer to a foghorn than a dog whistle.
A recent Trump ad vividly brought these fears to life with fearmongering worthy of the notorious Willie Horton ads that helped George H.W. Bush defeat Michael Dukakis in 1988. The Trump ad shows an elderly woman watching the news of the defunding of police. Then, a burglar starts breaking into her home. She calls the police, but it turns out they can’t serve her because they had been defunded. The ad ends with the woman mutely screaming and dropping her phone as the home invader lunges at her.
A message of fearmongering comes natural to Trump. After all, he won the 2016 election by stoking panic about Mexican and Muslim immigrants. He had less success in 2018 with his demagogic hyping of the caravan from Central America.
Yet even if fear didn’t work for Trump in 2018, it remains too central to his political worldview to be easily abandoned. In 2016, Trump told interviewers, “Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear.”
Nor is Trump the only Republican who has played the fear card. Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968 owed much to his hammering of his Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey on law and order. Even more instructive is the 1988 election. In that year, 103 days before the election, Michael Dukakis was leading by 15.3 percent. The Willie Horton ads started airing on September 21 and were a major factor in George H.W. Bush’s victory.
Trump might well be looking at 1988 as an example of how an unpopular Republican can gain a lead by playing up racist fears of crime. On July 23, there were only 103 days to the election and Joe Biden’s lead in the FiveThirtyEight aggregation of the polls is 7.7 percent, which is healthy but far lower than the Dukakis lead that so quickly dissipated.
Can Trump imitate the success of the elder George Bush? Is Willie Horton redux the path to Trump’s reelection?
There’s reason to think that Trump’s law-and-order strategy is failing. One problem with the law and order pitch is that it’s likely to be drowned out by much bigger news about the pandemic and the economy. Far more Americans are being killed by Covid-19 or losing economic security from the depression than are being murdered.
As Greg Sargent of The Washington Post points out, Americans trust Biden far more than Trump on Covid-19, while on crime Biden either has a slight advantage or is about on par with Trump. This is true even among older Americans, a crucial demographic that Trump seems to be losing.
“The most recent Post/ABC News poll found that Americans trust Biden over Trump to handle the coronavirus by 54 percent to 34 percent, and they even trust Biden over Trump to handle crime and safety by 50 percent to 41 percent,” Sargent notes. “Remarkably, this is also true among voters age 65 and over: They trust Biden more on the coronavirus, 52 percent to 39 percent, and they trust Biden more on crime and safety, by 51 percent to 44 percent.”
If Trump’s law-and-order messaging isn’t resonating, one big factor is that he’s a poor messenger on this issue. Unlike Nixon or George H.W. Bush, Trump is not an establishment politician who can plausibly sell himself as an upholder of the status quo. He won as a disruptive force who would shake things up. This was an appealing message to many in 2016 when the nation was at relative peace and prosperity. But amid the turmoil of 2020, Trump can more easily be seen, even by admirers, as someone who adds chaos to an already disorderly situation.
As Ross Douthat noted in The New York Times, Trump’s frantic overkill responding to protests “have locked in an image of him as an instigator in his own right, an arsonist in the White House whose presence there can only make matters that much worse. Maybe there is a threshold of violence where this image changes and his instigation starts to look like necessary toughness. But it’s also possible that Trump’s incapacities now extend to an inability to ever look like the law-and-order candidate, no matter how many times he tweets the phrase.”
Writing in Salon, Amanda Marcotte, a writer who rarely agrees with Douthat about anything, made a similar point, noting that “everyone outside the Fox News bubble can see that the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, and that the president who’s sending in poorly trained, amped-up federal cops is the one stoking violence and chaos. Trump is doing all this to get images of ‘violent’ protests, but what he’s mostly getting is images of cops attacking a row of middle-aged women who are singing lullabies.”
The work of Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow, which shows that the riots of the 1960s contributed to erosion of the Democratic Party’s vote in 1968, is often cited as reason for Democrats to worry. But that is only one half of Wasow’s argument. He also demonstrates that the politically unifying protests of 1964 helped the Democrats. Writing in The Washington Post in early June, Wasow noted:
Over the past week, however, as the protests grew larger and more organized—as they remained largely peaceful and as hundreds of videos of police violence against demonstrators circulated—it became clearer that 1964 was probably the stronger historical analogue. In that year, nonviolent civil rights protests led not only to the passage of the Civil Rights Act but contributed to the landslide reelection of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The same dynamic is currently being replicated in Portland. By sending in federal agents, Trump has provoked a counterreaction: The protests are becoming much larger, drawing in a wider swath of the political spectrum (liberals like mayor Ted Wheeler in addition to the original anarchists). Notably, middle-class women are now the most visible feature of the protests, leading the lullabies Marcotte mentioned. Trump’s ham-fistedness has helped reenergize the coalition that led to Democrats taking over the House of Representatives in 2018.
If Douthat and Marcotte are right, then law and order will be a major factor in 2020—but in a way that benefits Joe Biden. The former vice president can easily point to the violence on the streets and ask whether America wants four more years of this. The paradox of Trump is that he allows Biden to run as both a liberal and also the safest and most prudent choice.