Trump's hard line on protests over race puts himself, GOP in a tight spot

Trump's hard line on protests over race puts himself, GOP in a tight spot
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In 1968, Richard Nixon not only won the presidency, he reoriented America’s partisan electoral map when he seized on the tumult of that time and positioned himself as the “law and order” candidate.

Simmering national disaffection among young and black people over the Vietnam War and the ongoing struggles for civil rights exploded into rioting nationwide with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

Fifty-two years later, as police killings of unarmed black people again spawn protests nationally, President Trump is borrowing Nixon’s playbook for his re-election bid, proclaiming himself “your president of law and order.” 

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But a new poll by George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and The Washington Post suggests that Trump’s “go ahead, make my day” approach would be a significant miscalculation for himself and perhaps the Republican Party.

Telephone interviews conducted earlier this month with 1,006 randomly selected adults show that respondents decisively prefer a leader who can heal four centuries of racial division, not one bent on restoring order at gunpoint.

Three out of four people surveyed said they support protests that have erupted nationally over the videotaped Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, a black man, by Minneapolis officers. Three out of five specifically disapproved of the way Trump has handled the unrest, nearly half of them condemning it strongly.

Yet Trump seems undeterred. At every turn he has doubled down on his hardline approach, threatening to usurp governors who don’t crack down harshly enough on protests in their states by sending in federal troops. He did just that to disperse peaceful protesters legally gathered north of the White House on the evening of June 1 before he walked to fire-damaged St. John’s Church to hold a Bible for a photo op. And on the eve of a massive campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with thousands queued for days, maskless and defiant of coronavirus social distancing precautions in a COVID-19 hotspota Trump tweet implied violence awaits protesters.

Trump plows belligerently ahead, playing to his base, unaware or unconcerned at how significantly American attitudes on treatment of black people have changed.

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What worked for Nixon against a feckless Vice President Hubert Humphrey and the dysfunctional Democrats in ’68 is likely to backfire on Trump today. President Lyndon Johnson, exhausted and dispirited from an unpopular war and racial unrest at home, announced he would not seek re-election. His party’s best hope, Bobby Kennedy, was assassinated in June. Nixon recognized the near-universal revulsion over lawlessness that conveniently played out right through that year’s infamous Democratic National Convention and its televised images of Chicago police clashing with protesters. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” moved white voters in the former Confederate states from their historic Democratic Party home into the GOP, where they remain today. 

American attitudes have changed significantly in recent years. Nearly seven in 10 respondents said that Floyd’s killing signified “broader problems in treatment of black Americans by police.” A concurrent ABC News-Ipsos poll yielded a similar result. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll six years ago, only 43 percent said police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri and New York were signs of a broader problem.

Trump is putting fellow Republicans in a difficult spot as they struggle to protect a tenuous Senate majority that has stalemated legislation from the Democratic House, confirmed an increasingly conservative federal judiciary and was the impeached president’s firewall against conviction and removal from office earlier this year. Do Republicans in vulnerable seats rebuff Trump, as Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has, and risk Trump’s acidic tweets and the enmity of his loyal base? Or do they stand with him and await the judgment this fall of an America less tolerant of racism?

The political landscape can change fast, and Nov. 3 is still hidden beyond the horizon. Issues we can see – the economy, the pandemic – or those we don’t – a major conflict in a dangerously unsettled world or a calamity of nature – can still redefine this election. And for now, that may be Trump’s best hope.

Mark J. Rozell is the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University where he holds the Ruth D. and John T. Hazel Chair in Public Policy. He is co-author of “Federalism: A Very Short Introduction” (2019).