The Slatest

Trump Launches Effort to Run Nixon’s 1968 Campaign, but Without the Competence

Protesters hold up signs outside the White House fence. A sign in the foreground says, "My complexion is not a crime."
Demonstrators outside the White House on Sunday. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Many Democrats are habitually, reflexively concerned that images of violent police-protester conflict and urban property damage—regardless of the righteousness of the protesters’ underlying cause or the details of who instigated the violence—will result in backlash-driven electoral losses. The historical reason for this is that amid assassinations, mass protests, and urban violence in 1968, Richard Nixon and segregationist candidate George Wallace won a combined 57 percent of the national vote, and Nixon won the Electoral College.

Will the same thing happen in 2020 if violence and looting persists? Both election years involved civil rights protests and a Republican candidate with a history of racist statements. But unlike Nixon, who could present himself as the challenger to an allegedly soft-on-crime liberal administration, Donald Trump is already the president, and thus ostensibly responsible for maintaining (or failing to maintain) order; meanwhile, the American population he would try to pander to is less heavily white than it was in 1968, and his opponents much more united on racial issues. Also, as the president showed Monday morning, he has great difficulty creating political messages that are appealing, or even coherent, to anyone who doesn’t keep track of the ideas circulating on the ideological closed loop consisting of the White House, Fox News, right-wing websites and social media figures, and MAGA diehards.

Here’s the president’s first public statement after Sunday night’s events:

And then:

To understand this message, one would need to:

• Have heard of antifa, which is a catch-all term for “anti-fascist” protesters who believe they’re entitled to use violence to defend against police and/or white supremacist aggression.

• Have followed the right-wing media story about Biden campaign staffers donating to a bail fund for protesters in Minneapolis.

• Believe that Joe Biden, a 77-year-old career centrist, is secretly controlled by the young, leftist anarchists who show up at protests with wooden weapons to smash the windows of Starbucks stores.

It’s hard to imagine Biden’s campaign strategists worrying too much about how to defend him against that particular line of attack. And by chasing after conspiratorial theories about the hard left, the president is associating protest violence with out-of-touch white “antifa” radicals, rather than using it to delegitimize the black community’s underlying anger about the issue of police brutality. Nixon would never have taken his eye off the ball like that!