The Time a President Stoked a Protest So He Could Play the ‘Law and Order’ Card

tags: Vietnam War, Calvin Coolidge, Nixon, Trump, Law and Order

David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers, is a contributing editor at Politico Magazine. He is the author of several works of political history including, most recently, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.

The throngs of protesters who stormed Capitol Hill late last month didn’t succeed in keeping Brett Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court. But they did furnish Donald Trump and the Republicans with an election-season message to energize their base. Ever since Americans saw the atria and corridors of the Senate buildings teeming with foot soldiers of the resistance, the president and other Republicans have been trying to stoke fears of social chaos with overblown rhetoric comparing Democrats to a mob. “The only way to shut down the Democrats new Mob Rule strategy is to stop them cold at the Ballot Box,” Trump tweeted earlier this month—a warning echoed in GOP political ads across the country. He unveiled a hashtag aimed at Democrats: #JobsNotMobs. 

Trump, of course, is far from the first politician to use the fear of the rabble to boost his party’s fortunes. Occasionally, Democrats have positioned themselves as the upholders of decorum—a firewall of sanity against the unhinged radicalism of frothing Goldwaterites in 1964 or lunatic Tea Partyers in the Obama years. And this fall, with Trump applauding a congressman who beat up a journalist and pipe bombs targeting Democratic officials, they certainly could position their party as the defender of lawfulness. But overall it’s usually been conservatives who’ve run on law and order, for conservatism at its core prizes stability over change, uniformity over fractiousness, control over expressiveness. Calvin Coolidge, for example, brandished the “law and order” slogan expertly as governor of Massachusetts in the wake of the 1919 Boston police strike, even using it to launch a presidential boomlet. 

In modern times, the phrase is associated with no one more than Richard Nixon—the president Trump resembles most. Like Trump, Nixon ran for president on a promise to protect the peace-loving public from Democrats who would coddle the libertine and the lawless. Like Trump as well, he dusted it off for the midterm elections that arrived as the opposition was surging—in one instance stoking a liberal protest so that he could capitalize on the backlash, with his speechwriter William Safire, a former public relations man, calling it “the most serious mob attack on a national leader in American history.”

America may feel as if it’s unraveling today, but things were worse in 1968. Mass protests against the Vietnam War continued to swell in size and took on an increasingly radical tenor. Revolutionary zeal ran much hotter than it does today. The Weathermen and the Black Panthers make today’s “antifa” gangs look downright toothless. On campuses, student strikes, canceled classes and building takeovers were all but replacing homecoming as an annual ritual. Urban riots, also a rite of summer by 1968, got started early that year, after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April, and continued through the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August. Throw in a rising crime rate, and it was easy to understand the yearning for a president who would restore calm and safety. (Then, as now, there was right-wing vigilante violence, too—such as at George Wallace rallies, where audience members pummeled protesters, or at the “hard hat” riot of 1970, when pro-Nixon construction workers roughed up antiwar marchers.)

Intuitively understanding this hunger for stability, Nixon promised “law and order” in his campaign speeches that year. Like the best slogans, this one worked on many levels. It resonated with voters who were concerned about the spike in violent crime, scared by the uprisings in inner-city black neighborhoods; resentful toward what they saw as spoiled college kids wasting their parents’ tuition dollars; or put off by opposition to the war. There was also, of course, a none-too-subtle racial element in the appeals. ...

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