History Teaches Us That Trump Won’t Win Running On Law And Order

Dennis Crawford
5 min readSep 4, 2020


The U.S. is currently experiencing its highest level of unrest since the early 1970s.

Trump is a long time racist and he is channeling his inner Richard Nixon in a desperate attempt to get re-elected. Earlier in the cycle, Trump tried to discredit Biden over a phony Ukraine “scandal,” his alleged poor health and his imaginary radical views. None of those lies worked because most of the press and approximately 60% of the voters have wised up to Trump’s lies and smears.

Currently, Trump is trying to win another four years as president* by posturing as some kind of advocate for law and order. That theme is a real disconnect because Trump is a serial law breaker and he has encouraged his followers to break the law. Will this new strategy work? If it worked for Nixon, will it work for Trump? Let’s take a little trip down memory lane.

The quintessential law and order campaign was waged by Richard Nixon in 1968. Nixon narrated a powerful television advertisement that had images of riots and burning buildings accompanied by jarring and dissonant music. In that ad, Nixon said: “I pledge to you we shall have order in the United States.” At the same time, Nixon claimed he would “bring us together.”

Nixon went on to win a very narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 election. However, Nixon’s law and order theme wasn’t the only reason for his controversial win. The biggest issue was the Johnson Administration’s mismanagement of the Vietnam War. Moreover, Nixon secretly sabotaged a peace conference between the U.S., South Vietnam and North Vietnam in late October.

This year isn’t 1968 all over again. Hubert Humphrey was essentially running as the incumbent. All of the unrest was occurring during the Johnson-Humphrey Administration. Moreover, there were many more white voters in 1968 than 2020.

Two years later — during the 1970 mid-term election- Nixon once again made law and order the central theme of the GOP campaign. Nixon referred to anti-war protesters as “thugs” and “hoodlums” and tried to conflate the Democrats with the violent protesters. The 37th president also labeled the Democrats as so-called “radical liberals.” Sound familiar?

Nixon used these divisive tactics in 1970 because the country was experiencing its first recession in ten years. The voters rejected Nixon’s inflammatory rhetoric and the Democrats maintained control of both houses of Congress that year. Nixon subsequently ran for re-election in 1972 on a peace and prosperity theme since the economy had improved and the Vietnam War was winding down.

Perhaps the most infamous campaign waged on crime and racial dog whistles was George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign of 1988. Michael Dukakis’ prison furlough policy was the pre-eminent issue of that campaign. (Interestingly enough, California had a similar furlough policy when Ronald Reagan was governor of that state.)

Bush regularly invoked the infamous Willie Horton in his stump speech and his campaign ran an ad on Massachusetts’ furlough policy. An ostensibly “independent” GOP group ran a highly controversial ad with Horton’s menacing visage that was racist in nature. At the same time, Dukakis didn’t take the attacks seriously and didn’t fight back.

2020 isn’t 1988 all over again. Bush was able to run on a peace and prosperity platform since unemployment had declined from 11% to 5% during the 1980s and the Cold War was coming to a close. In addition, there were a lot more white voters in 1988 than there are in 2020. Finally, Biden and his allies are running a vigorous campaign that routinely attacks Trump and his myriad failures.

Thirty years later, during the 2018 mid-term elections, Trump and the GOP ran again on a law and order theme. Initially, the GOP planned to run on the failed 2017 tax cuts and the alleged good economy. However, once that appeal to the voters fell flat, Trump and the GOP emphasized a caravan in Mexico that was bound for the U.S. in an effort to scare voters. Moreover, the Republicans also made a big deal about the MS-13 gang.

As we all know, those GOP efforts failed in 2018. The Democrats had their best showing in a mid-term election cycle since 1974. The Democrats picked up 40 House seats, 7 governor’s mansions and hundreds of legislative seats. (Not surprisingly, we never heard about the caravan again after election day 2018.)

Trump is reprising his 2018 law and order strategy in 2020 to distract voters from his mismanagement of the economy and the pandemic. It won’t work any better this year than it did in 2018. Already, fresh polling data taken after the Republican Convention demonstrates that Trump’s themes are already being rejected.

A brand new Morning Consult poll asked registered voters the following questions: Who do you trust more to handle public safety? The results were: Biden 47% and Trump 39%. After months of Trump’s demagoguery and lies, only 39% trust Trump more than Biden to handle public safety.

A new Fox News polls shows that Wisconsin likely voters favor Biden over Trump on the issue of policing and criminal justice by a margin of 47% to 42%. As former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer tweeted: A lot of those “Kenosha will doom Biden” takes didn’t age well.

On a national level, Biden’s pre-convention lead remains stable and well outside of the margin of error. Biden continues to lead Trump by 7 or 8 percentage points in the national head to head match ups. If Biden wins the popular vote by 7 points, he will tally over 300 electoral votes. In 2008, Obama won the popular vote by 7 points and beat McCain 365 to 173 in the electoral college.

Harry Enten of CNN summed up well the current status of the campaign in a tweet: “The President is down by about 8 nationally and trailing by say ~5 in the tipping pt state. The last 3 presidents trailing after the conventions went down to defeat. “

I’m confident but taking nothing for granted. I will continue to help our great Democratic candidates. Nonetheless, we Democrats must exude a sense of confidence and create a bandwagon effect. Everybody loves a winner.

I would recommend that you commit your time and/or money to good legislative candidates. We need a check and balance on Ricketts and his pro-life phonies in the unicameral.

I would urge all Democrats to help Alisha Shelton, Kate Bolz and Kara Eastman. Our candidates will fight for our values — Nebraska values — in Washington. Now let’s get it done!



Dennis Crawford

I’m an aspiring historian, defender of democracy and a sports fan.