Trump's 'law-and-order' gamble

Trump's 'law-and-order' gamble
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpConservatives express concern over House GOP immigration bill Poll: McSally holds 14-point lead in Arizona GOP Senate primary Trump defends Nielsen amid criticism over family separations MORE's embrace of “law and order” on the campaign trail is a risk that could pay big dividends, political experts say. 

Trump, who is on the verge of becoming the Republican presidential nominee next week, has begun to characterize himself as "the law-and-order candidate" in the wake of last week's mass shooting in Dallas, where a sniper killed five police officers and wounded another seven.

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It’s a loaded phrase, harkening back to the 1960s, when Republican presidential candidates Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon adopted it during the campaigns of 1964 and 1968, respectively. The expression was perceived as carrying racial connotations — a dog whistle to white voters amid civil rights protests — so Trump's resurrection of the language could further erode his standing with minority voters.

"I don't know of many African-Americans and Latinos who heard Mr. Trump's words and did not recoil at the thought that we're returning to an era we thought was behind us," Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), former head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), said Wednesday.

But, some conservatives think Trump's message will prove effective in an election year when violent crime is churning headlines and voters are anxious about the threat of terrorist attacks. 

Trump is already lagging behind Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLewandowski says 'womp womp' at story of young girl being separated from mother at border Giuliani: FBI asked me about tease of a 'surprise' before election Republicans tear into IG finding on Clinton probe MORE, the presumptive Democratic nominee, by an enormous margin among blacks and other minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic no matter who the Republican nominee is. 

"It's hard to see what he loses among African-Americans because it's such a monolithically Democratic group," said Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

With that in mind, some political experts suggested Trump's "law-and-order" push is another indication that the billionaire businessman sees the surest route to the White House in energizing the white, male, working-class voters who largely constitute his base, rather than shifting his general-election message to appeal to minorities and women. 

"He is trying to win an election primarily with the working and middle class white vote, where he thinks law and order will resonate," Julian E. Zelizer, political historian at Princeton University, said Tuesday.  

"He has shown repeatedly he is willing to make the bet that in the short term the basic framework of Nixon's strategy will work even if it has long-term consequences for the party."

Michael W. Flamm, the author of "Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s," said Trump's message carries risk, but "the upside is greater" because he's already alienated the minority voters who might be driven away by a tough-on-crime message. 

"The issue of security and law and order are probably Trump's best chance to take the election," said Flamm, a history professor at Ohio Wesleyan University. 

Nixon was successful in '68, Flamm said, in large part because the political environment of the time — which featured a crime wave, race riots, Vietnam War protests and the sexual revolution — created a national mood in which "the fear factor was acute." 

"The question for Trump in 2016 is whether the fear factor will be enough," Flamm said.

Flamm predicted that the daily shootings around the country wouldn’t be enough to make Trump's message resonate, because "most people are inured" to such attacks.

"They simply don't seem to penetrate the national consciousness for more than 24 to 48 hours," he said.

But Flamm said a larger national security issue — "a catastrophic terrorist incident" — "would really ratchet up the fear factor" in a way that could give Trump the White House. 

Thursday's killing of police officers in Dallas, combined with a pair of fatal shootings by officers in Louisiana and Minnesota — both captured on video — have thrust the issues of crime, race relations and gun violence to the forefront of the presidential race. 

Both Trump and Clinton suspended their campaigns on Friday. But when they returned to the trail, Trump's message was the far more combative one.

"I am the law and order candidate," Trump said Monday during a speech in Virginia Beach, Va.

"I'm also the candidate of compassion — believe it," Trump added. "But you can't have true compassion without providing safety. Without safety, we have nothing." 

On Tuesday, Trump doubled down on that message in a series of tweets in which he claimed to be the only candidate with the tools to rein in "out of control" crime.  

"This election is a choice between law, order & safety — or chaos, crime & violence," Trump tweeted. "I will make America safe again for everyone."

Some conservatives have for months been calling for Republicans to get more aggressive with their tough-on-crime message. Writing in National Review last August, Stephen Eide, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, urged the GOP candidates to push back against "a growing lenience in attitudes towards law and order."

"Despite the gains of recent decades, crime in America remains too high, and addressing that, not our high incarceration rate or police officers’ use of violent force, must remain the primary goal of governments’ public-safety efforts," he wrote. 

Still, for all the recent gun-related headlines, polls indicate that issues of crime and race lag far behind other concerns in the eyes of voters. Indeed, just 5 percent of voters said race relations are their chief concern, and 3 percent singled out crime, according to the latest Gallup survey, released last month. In contrast, 26 percent of voters view jobs and the economy as the most significant problem facing the country.

In the eyes of black lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Trump is simply using racially loaded language as a calculated strategy. 

"Anything that would bring together people who are angry about something, he has a network of buttons that he pushes. 'Law and order' is one of them," Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), another prominent CBC member, said Wednesday.

"All the things about changing for the general [election] never dealt with the race question at all," Rangel added. "He knows where he's going." 

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement, agreed.

"It reminds me of another period. You cannot bring the country together by speaking of 'law and order,'" said Lewis, who was beaten nearly to death by police during a 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Ala. 

"I don't think politicians can go around saying that," Lewis added. "This is a time for healing. Not a time for division."