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How Trump's 'Law And Order' Strategy Differs From Nixon


The ongoing protests in the U.S. have reminded many people of another year of unrest and conflict - 1968. One intriguing similarity is that in both '68 and 2020 you could find the Republican presidential candidate running on a platform of law and order. Here's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Richard Nixon, as a candidate, found a simple, compelling message in the late 1960s - restoring order to American life. Here's Nixon accepting the 1968 GOP presidential nomination.


RICHARD NIXON: As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on...

GONYEA: Throughout that campaign, Nixon stayed relentlessly on message. Here's the candidate summing it up on CBS's "Face The Nation" program.


NIXON: As far as this problem of law and order is concerned, I am for law and order.

GONYEA: President Trump is working his own version of the same script on Twitter this past week. He channeled Nixon with an all-caps blast that simply said, law and order. And last Monday, with a peaceful demonstration underway across from the White House, he spoke in the Rose Garden.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters.

GONYEA: But as he spoke, Park Police and military personnel aggressively moved on the protesters, clearing the way for a Trump photo-op at a church. Now, five months before Election Day, all of this remains volatile and unpredictable when it comes to what it all means politically. The president, though, is betting he can turn it to his advantage. In 1968, it worked for Nixon.

Historian Rick Perlstein is the author of the book "Nixonland."

RICK PERLSTEIN: And the reason it succeeded was he was able to tie the last eight years of Democratic liberal governance in America to these breakdowns in law and order that people needed only to, you know, turn on their TV or look out their window to see.

GONYEA: But Trump is the incumbent. All of this is happening on his watch, including the pandemic and the economic crash. Vincent Hutchings, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, says there's another major distinction that makes it harder for Trump to repeat Nixon's success.

VINCENT HUTCHINGS: Nixon was dealing with an electorate that was almost exclusively white because, of course, it wasn't as diverse racially and ethnically a country as it is now.

GONYEA: In 1968, nearly 90% of voters were white. In 2020, that number is projected to be down to just 66%. Hutchings says a more diverse populace makes a law-and-order campaign a harder sell. But Rick Perlstein also stresses that Nixon coupled his law-and-order message with a promise of calm once he took office. Trump thrives on division, but his campaign does have a strategy of playing up his more unifying words. Here is a new campaign ad.


TRUMP: We must all work together as a society to expand opportunity and to create a future of greater dignity and promise for all of our people.

GONYEA: Here's one other echo from the Nixon era that's worth noting. Once in office, Nixon did not restore calm. Vietnam War protests continued, so much so that at one point, White House security was beefed up by city buses parked end-to-end around the entire grounds. This past week, new barricades again went up around the White House campus, this time comprised of tall metal fencing and cement barriers.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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