“Law and Order”: Some Historical Perspective

Tricky Dicky

Earlier today I posted a video of Richard Nixon’s acceptance speech at the 1968 GOP convention.

I also tweeted this last night during Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the 2016 GOP convention:

Over at Politico, historian Josh Zeitz offers some context on just what Nixon meant by “Law and Order.”

Here is a taste:

Safe from what? By almost any measure, the United States is safer than it has been in decades. Notwithstanding localized spikes in urban homicides, for the past decade the crime and violent crime rates have hovered at near-50 year lows. And despite the recent tragedies in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the same is true of the number ofpolice officers killed in the line of duty.

If the country is calm by comparison, why would Trump sound a cry for “law and order” once again? The answer may lie with the first successful soothsayer of the “Silent Majority,” Richard Nixon, who in 1968 created the very playbook that Trump seems to be recycling. Nixon came to power in an era of profound discord, marked by urban riots, anti-war protests (some, violent), and an unraveling of longstanding social and cultural mores. Then as now, crime was a powerful proxy for other concerns. But even with all that to worry about, Nixon’s appeal wasn’t just about crime. His political insight was that crime was a powerful proxy for other anxieties.

Running for president in 1968, Richard Nixon sought to exploit very legitimate popular anxiety over crime and disorder. Needing to distance himself from far-right third-party opponent George Wallace, whose own law-and-order venom was a transparent cover for racial incitement, Nixon walked a thin line between statesmanship and demagoguery, promising to speak for the “forgotten Americans … non-shouters, the non-demonstrators, that are not racists or sick, that are not guilty of crime that plagues the land. This I say to you tonight is the real voice of America in 1968.”

By focusing incessantly on racially coded issues like crime and urban unrest, Nixon signaled to white voters that he offered a respectable alternative to Wallace. Campaigning throughout the upper South, he endorsed the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which banned segregation in public schools, but also assured white voters that he felt it was wrong for the federal government to “force a local community to carry out what a federal administrator or bureaucrat may think is best for that local community.” Even the conservative Wall Street Journal criticized Nixon’s “harsh and strident efforts to capitalize on deep-seated discontent and frustration. This is the Richard Nixon who tells a whistle-stop rally in Deshler, Ohio that in the 45 minutes since his train left Lima, one murder, two rapes and 45 major crimes of violence had occurred in this country—and that ‘Hubert Humphrey defends the policies under which we have seen crime rise to this point.’” The former vice president was peddling a brand of “extremism [that] seems not only unnecessary but self-defeating. … In a society already deeply divided by fear and mistrust, Mr. Nixon’s hard line seems sure to deepen the divisions.”

Nixon was not the first Republican candidate to fuse rhetoric about law and order to a racial message. As early as 1964 conservatives began trying to exploit grassroots concerns about integration by using code words like “welfare,” “morality” and “crime” to tap into white—and suburban—racial resentments. That year, conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign sponsored a 30-minute televised infomercial entitled Choice, which juxtaposed imagery of nude dancers and pornographic literature with film footage of black urban rioters. The subtext was unmistakable: the same liberal forces that were unraveling the moral fabric of American society were driving racial minorities to lash out violently against public authority and private property. Though Goldwater claimed to be personally opposed to segregation, he played fast and loose with racial incitement. The New York Times observed that as the fall campaign wore on, Goldwater “began to link directly his ‘law and order’ issue—in which he deplores crime and violence—with the civil rights movement, mentioning the two in juxtaposition.” During a speech in Minneapolis, he “mentioned ‘gang rape’ and civil rights disturbances in the same paragraph.”

Read the rest here.

One thought on ““Law and Order”: Some Historical Perspective

  1. Notwithstanding localized spikes in urban homicides, for the past decade the crime and violent crime rates have hovered at near-50 year lows. And despite the recent tragedies in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the same is true of the number of police officers killed in the line of duty.

    If the country is calm by comparison, why would Trump sound a cry for “law and order” once again?

    Because cops are being assassinated and “urban” America lives in fear and murderous horror.

    And Europe is going to hell but some folks want to duplicate it. Some of us think this is unacceptable.

    As for Nixon, the article makes only passing mention of the “era of profound discord, marked by urban riots, anti-war protests (some, violent)” and completely ignores the hippies going berzerk at the 1968 Democratic convention, which is the real story but consigned to footnote status in favor of the obligatory charges of racism.

    The weaponization of history continues apace. I am not impressed.

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