In calling himself the “president of law and order” in the White House Rose Garden last Monday, Trump (or more likely his speechwriter) was echoing a mantra of Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 campaign. But Trump is the incumbent, unlike Nixon in 1968. The pandemic and the recession have hit Americans on his watch, just as surely as the Vietnam War escalated on Lyndon Johnson’s. A pandemic at home is very different from a distant war which, in mid-1968, more than a third of Americans still supported. The devastating economic consequences of the lockdowns make the early signs of inflation in 1968 seem trivial. The electorate is radically different from that of 1968: older, but also more ethnically diverse because of immigration and variations in birth rates. Traditional news media did not cover violent protest sympathetically in 1968. In all these respects, Trump’s chances of re-election should look worse than Johnson’s.
Yet on March 31, 1968, Johnson announced that he would not seek a second term because, as he put it on prime-time television, “There is division in the American house now.” Do not expect any such capitulation from Donald Trump. Division in the American house is precisely what gives him a shot at four more years.
Unlike in 1968, in other words, urban unrest with a racial dimension might actually save a beleaguered incumbent. The current wave of protests is in many ways a repeat of more recent events — Ferguson 2014, Charlottesville 2017 — and its main significance may be to shift the American political conversation away from the Trump administration’s incompetent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, back to the terrain of the culture war, where Trump is an experienced combatant.
Even in 1968, merely using the phrase “law and order” was to invite accusations of racism. In the case of a president who last week fantasized about a MAGA mob joining the fray outside the White House, the charge of insincerity seems well-founded. Trump is indifferent to the law by nature; he thrives on disorder. And he understands much better than his opponent how to spread his message through the complex networks of online “influencers” — many of whom promote conspiracy theories — through which more and more Americans receive their news.
History strongly suggests that pandemics tend to widen class and ethnic divisions. Covid-19 is no exception. Small wonder a hideous incident of police brutality ignited a wave of outrage: harder hit by the disease, harder hit by the lockdown and the recession, African-American communities were ready to boil over. Scenes of mayhem in nearly every major city in America ought not to bode well for an incumbent on whose watch excess mortality has already surged by 26%, and who is now presiding over an unemployment rate three and a half times higher than in 1968.
Yet the return of the culture war might just prove to be the deus ex machina that extricates Trump from the quagmire of Covid-19. If so, Trump’s many detractors in the commentariat - who have long hoped that he is Richard Nixon without the second term - may come to rue the day they drew the wrong historical analogy.
Editor's note: This opinion essay generated a lively rejoinder on Thomas Sugrue's Twitter feed. HNN readers are invited to read the whole essay as well as the thread and judge the merits for themselves.