As the atmosphere inside and outside of Donald Trump’s rallies took a violent turn this weekend, the comparisons grew between Trump and two figures from an earlier era of tumult: President Richard Nixon, and George Wallace, the conservative populist politician whose 1968 campaign for president drew on cries for “law and order.” Trump’s language has clearly been harkening back to that tumultuous Vietnam War period, even using the same phrases.
“There has to be some decorum,” he said in St. Louis on Friday. “There has to be some law and order in our country.” He has repeatedly referred to his campaign as speaking for the “silent majority,” echoing Nixon’s rallying cry to the white middle class. Trump’s deliberate choice of words have raised urgent questions about whether he is making a similar racialized appeal.
To put these recent developments in proper context, however, we need to take a look at the evolution of the term “law-and-order politics,” which did not always contain an exclusively racial message. Law and order as Wallace defined it included a range of cultural as well as racial themes. Historian Dan T. Carter draws this distinction, noting that Wallace supporters were concerned with the “erosion of the cultural values that underlay the social system.”
In his history of American populism, Michael Kazin also observes that the law-and-order message of that period was related to racism, but not simply an extension of segregationist sentiment. “Slovenly and unpatriotic protesters” were as much a target of this rhetoric in the 1960s and ’70s as were racial minorities, Kazin writes. In other words, the first definition of law and order was closely linked to a broad social context, a reaction to activists who challenged American foreign policy, traditional gender roles, and other aspects of the social order alongside race issues. These questions are specifically evoked by Nixon’s use of the term “silent majority” in a speech about Vietnam – the contrast in that speech was drawn between counter-culture protesters and the mass of “ordinary” Americans still leading orderly and traditional lives.
During that period, even as early as 1968, Nixon and other mainstream politicians sought to draw a distinction between crime and race, making a point of saying that toughness on crime was good for black communities.
Vietnam protesters and unrest at college campuses gradually faded from the national agenda, but crime and its racial subtext stayed on. Concerns about crime played a prominent role in subsequent presidential campaigns, perhaps most famously and vividly with the 1988 “Willie Horton ad.” Law-and-order politics evolved away from cultural questions and toward a narrower conversation about crime and punishment. This conversation, research shows, has been characterized by avoidance of overt racial terminology but undergirded by an indelible linkage to race.
Investigating the manner and timing of how crime became a political issue, the Yale political scientist Vesla Weaver theorizes that the tough-on-crime movement represents an effort by the losers of the civil rights struggle to redefine the policy debate.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the politics of crime turned distinctly punitive and remained racially coded. Hillary Clinton’s reference to “superpredators” when talking about crime (which has come up repeatedly in the current campaign) was made in 1996. On the campaign trail and in office, Bill Clinton worked to shore up his “tough on crime” credentials. As the legal historian Ian Haney Lopez writes, “Clinton flew back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of a mentally impaired black individual, Ricky Ray Rector,” and he advocated for a number of federal measures, including federal “three strikes” law.
Political psychology research suggests that the racially coded messages underlying decades of crime messages worked: Mark Peffley and Jon Hurwitz found that “when many whites think of punitive crime policy to deal with violent offenders, they are thinking of black offenders.”
In 2016 we have seen the return of protest movements that challenge laws, institutions, and, most recently, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Polls show that many Americans are uneasy about the protest politics of the Black Lives Matter movement, and concerned about its potential to inspire violence. Other law-and-order concerns touch on the war on terror and the treatment of suspected terrorists, argue Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, who have studied the politics of authoritarianism. These themes, of course, have also anchored the Trump movement.
In other words, as many have already observed, coded racial language has given way in 2016 to more overt appeals to resentment and exclusion. As Trump rallies attract protesters who object to these messages, racial tension has fused with the old 1960s definitions of law-and-order politics: disdain for those who question tradition and support for the use of force to keep order. Over the past 50 years, law-and-order politics has evolved to mean different things. The 2016 definition has arrived.