by Michael C. Dorf
When the speakers at last week's Republican National Convention were not trying to persuade America that there exists a hitherto-unseen Donald Trump who is a competent and compassionate human being, they were mostly issuing a not-at-all-veiled warning to suburbanites that Joe Biden's America will feature widespread and nonstop violence. As numerous commentators observed, the message is odd. Trump is warning that what people are seeing on the news from Portland, Chicago, Kenosha, and other "Democrat-run" cities will happen if Biden is elected, but of course, the people are seeing what's happening now, in Donald Trump's America (except for the video clip of Barcelona in 2019 that the RNC aired).
Trump came into office promising to end "American carnage" that did not exist. He's running for re-election warning that his opponent will bring about carnage even as he himself has done just that. Who would possibly buy that argument?
Here I want to suggest--worry might be a better word than suggest--that millions of Americans might buy it. Do you remember your President Nixon? He ran for office in 1968 in an extraordinarily violent time because of high-salience assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy as well as an upward trend in violent crime, punctuated by civil unrest and violence sparked by institutional racism and police misconduct (as detailed in the Kerner Commission Report released that year). It is easy to see how Nixon's tough-on-crime message as part of his "Southern Strategy" resonated with white voters. It's harder to see why Trump's 2016 racist message on crime did, in light of the fact that crime rates were very low during the Obama years.
But I'm not interested now in contrasting Nixon's 1968 campaign with Trump's 2016 campaign. Instead, I want to compare their messages in, respectively, 1972 and 2020. One might well think that voters would have punished Nixon in 1972 for the failure of his get-tough approach. After all, violent crime continued its steady rise from Nixon's inauguration in 1969 through the election in November 1972 (and beyond). And yet Nixon won re-election in a landslide. Did voters stop caring about crime? That's highly doubtful. A more plausible explanation is that bad as crime was under Nixon, voters worried that it would be worse under McGovern.