Black Lives Matter protesters may help elect Donald Trump president, just as their predecessors did for Richard Nixon. Scuffles broke out at the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion on Friday after Trump canceled a rally citing security concerns. Earlier that day in St. Louis, Trump was repeatedly interrupted by demonstrators and police made almost three dozen arrests. On Saturday in Dayton, Ohio, a protester rushed the stage being subdued by security. Trump told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that events such as these would only increase his vote tally.Trump may be on to something.
The scenario evokes the turbulent election year of 1968 when Richard Nixon successfully cast himself as the “law and order” candidateagainst Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Violent crime had jumped 85% since Dwight Eisenhower had left office. Nixon charged that Democrats had adopted a do-nothing approach to this rising crisis. When Humphrey denounced the “storm trooper tactics” used by Chicago police in suppressing demonstrations at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, his comment seemed to play into Nixon’s hands. Humphrey was attempting to placate his party’s left wing, but a Gallup poll at the time showed that 62% of Americans approved of the way Mayor Richard Daley handled the situation. Siding against the cops was bad politics.
Nixon’s stance that Democrats were soft on crime had a clear racial subtext, coming as it did in the wake of urban riots in Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Black militancy was on the rise, particularly after Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968. The races were divided on whether police brutality was a factor in the unrest. A 1968 Harris poll showed that 51% of blacks believed it was, compared to only 10% of whites. But Nixon knew where the votes were. Another Harris survey that September showed Nixon with a 20-point lead over Humphrey among respondents who blamed black militants as being a “major cause of the breakdown of law and order.”
Then as now, race and law enforcement were tightly intertwined issues. And, then as now, most people in general support law enforcement. In a June 2015 Gallup survey of confidence in American institutions, the police ranked third behind the military and small business in public esteem, with 52% having a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the men and women in blue. Donald Trump made his position clear in January when he said that “Police are the most mistreated people in this country.”
This dynamic puts prospective Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in a bind. Clinton came under fire from black activists in June 2015 when she made the mistake of saying “all lives matter,” since left-wing orthodoxy tells us only to say that black lives do. She has since rebounded, netting a substantial share of the black vote in Democratic primaries. But in order to do so, she has had to position herself as the anti-cop candidate, for example in January listing as one of the threats the country faces, “police violence that terrorizes communities.” She has evolved far from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign pledge to combat crime by putting 100,000 police on the streets, a promise he claimed to fulfill in the 1994 Crime Bill. Hillary Clinton now sees those cops as a threat. She has little room to triangulate on this issue. What was politically expedient for a New Democrat 24 years ago is progressive political poison today.
Whether these types of campaign-related disturbances become commonplace remains to be seen. And let’s keep things in perspective. This turmoil is small scale so far. Remember that there were 6,000 federal troops and 18,000 Illinois National Guardsmen protecting Chicago Democrats in 1968. However, Donald Trump did not invent the narrative that equates racial activists with crime, disorder and disruption. And if black radicals push the country toward a law and order candidate, it only shows they don’t know their history.
James S. Robbins is a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors and is the author of The Real Custer: From Boy General to Tragic Hero.