It was the title of a speech by then-Gov. (and later President) Calvin Coolidge in 1919. He was talking not of race but of the disorder surrounding the Boston police strike.
But it was in 1968 — in the aftermath of the riots triggered by the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.; in the aftermath of a Democratic convention during which the Chicago police took on 10,000 anti-war protestors and three of the nation's best-known television anchors were assaulted by police on the convention floor; and in response to the third-party candidacy of segregationist Gov. George Wallace — that Richard Nixon adopted "law and order" as the message of his campaign. It was a key element of his "Southern strategy," the year the white South began the migration from the Democratic column to the Republicans.
And it was in 1988 that then-Vice President George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign manager, Lee Atwater, told reporters that he would make William Horton, a mean-looking Black man (at least mean-looking in his mug shot, featured in one of the ugliest ads in our time, made by legendary segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms) who had raped a woman while on prison release under a furlough program into Bush's opponent's vice presidential candidate.
So it should come as no surprise that President Donald Trump, cratering in the polls, should turn to "law and order." At a time when the country has come together, rather stunningly, to begin the painful process of reckoning with the racial divide, Trump's campaign is trying to play the race card in a desperate effort to hold on. There was some looting by thugs who took advantage of the opportunity that protests provide. It happened down the street from where I lived.
But it is not 1968, even though Trump is doing his best to make it look that way. And it is not 1988.
If you look at videos from 1968 from a distance, it almost looks like Portland, Oregon. But only from a distance. In 2020, the protestors aren't poor Blacks. They aren't hippies with long hair. They are overwhelmingly white. The front line is mothers in masks. The Portland mayor (unlike then-Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago) is not directing the assault on protestors; he's one of the protestors, and Trump's troops directed their tear gas at him. Look closer and the differences are clear.
Even more important, this country is a different place than it was in 1988, when Willie Horton worked so well for Bush. In 1988, 85% of the voters were white; 10% were Black; and 3% were Hispanic. In 2016, the number of white voters as a percentage of the total was down 15 points. Blacks were 12%. Hispanics had jumped to 11%, with Asians and Other totaling 7%. In 2012, Black turnout was even higher. Or, as one Republican observed morosely on election night that year, if Massachusetts then-Gov. Mitt Romney had faced an electorate that looked like that of 1988, he would have won; and, yes, if Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who lost in 1988, had faced an electorate that looked like that of 2012, he would have won.
America is in a different place socially and politically than it was for past players of the race card. And there aren't enough white male voters for the old strategy to succeed. Trump has said in the past that his base would stick with him even if he were to commit murder on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. He may be right: While nearly 2 out of 3 Americans believe everyone should be required to wear face masks in public, a rather astounding 36% still approve of his handling of the pandemic, and 32% approve of his handling of race relations. That is Trump's base.
It isn't big enough.
Susan Estrich can be reached at email@example.com.