Donald Trump, presumably because of his sharp decline in the polls, has recently decided that a strong law-and-order stance against recent protests will help him in his re-election bid, but he is wrong. This strategy is not without precedent though; the GOP has long used “law and order” as a wedge issue in elections. Ronald Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial run, Nixon’s 1968 campaign for president, and even Trump’s own 2016 presidential campaign, famously used tough-on-crime rhetoric to great success. Reagan and Nixon in particular stoked fears of spreading civil insurrection to achieve decisive victories. However, like so many things, Trump is bucking this norm as well.
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Despite Trump’s surprising win in 2016 and his zealous base, he has never been particularly popular. According to the polling website fivethirtyeight, his approval ratings have hovered between 47% and 37%. In fact, what is more notable than his enthusiastic base is the extent to which he has energized his opposition.
In a self-inflicted wound, Trump’s attacks on Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter have kept the issues of systemic racism and police brutality in the spotlight for much of his presidency. And despite his best efforts, the more he has tried to make it a wedge issue, the more the country has turned away from him. According to PEW Research Center, in 2016 only 40% of Americans surveyed supported the Black Lives Matter movement. Four years later, the same poll finds that 67% of Americans support the movement. In addition, support for the movement crosses demographic and partisan lines. So, despite Trump’s best efforts to demonize the protest movement, support for it has grown by roughly 25 points.
Not only is support for the protests widespread, it is also deep. Nearly 40% say they strongly support the protests. According to several data firms, the latest protests are likely the largest the U.S. has ever seen, and even the level of militancy and property destruction has not really bothered many Americans. A Monmouth University poll conducted shortly after the uprising in Minneapolis found that over half of the country felt that the torching of the police precinct building in that city was justified.
Not only is there widespread support for the protests, six in 10 Americans say they disagree with the way Trump is handling them. Instead of empathizing with protestors and with those being abused by police, he demonized them. He tried to shift blame by invoking the right-wing fantasy of an Antifa boogeyman and declared that Black Lives Matter is a symbol of hate. Further, in a particularly clueless stunt, he sent federal troops to Portland and other cities, where they used tactics against protesters that smacked of foreign authoritarian regimes, not how Americans want to see themselves. The move was lambasted by many politicians and pundits, including many of his own allies.
Trump has tried to claim the mantle of the tough guy and be the law-and-order candidate. However, it is not working as he intended. Instead he is seen as taking the side of bullies who abuse their power. Unlike Reagan and Nixon’s similar past campaigns, Trump is the incumbent candidate, so the rhetorical strategy of cleaning it up for law and order doesn’t work. His failure on this issue is clearly reflected in his declining poll numbers: since May his approval rating has taken a nosedive. People across the country are clearly fed up the lack of accountability in police forces and the unending images of violence against the black community, and are clearly fed up with Trump’s incompetence as well.
Jonathan Christiansen is an adjunct sociology lecturer at UCCS. His scholarly work focuses on social movements and political economy. He is also a longtime activist and founding board member of the Chinook Center.