The Referendum Trump Wants

It's not 1968, no matter how much the president wants you to think so


In word and deed, the president has embraced Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign slogan, which appeared at the end of Nixon’s television ads that fateful summer.

Disgraced and discarded on the heels of his excruciating defeats in the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 California gubernatorial election, Nixon’s brand was wounded. Yet, in 1968, the same circumstances that proved catastrophic to Lyndon Johnson and his Democratic coalition conspired to produce a Nixon rebirth.

Nixon’s pitch was simple: a Democratic victory would hasten the apocalypse. At first glance, you could hardly blame voters for buying it. America was deeply divided on the war in Vietnam, civil rights, counterculture, and Johnson’s Great Society. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were slain only two months apart. Cities were burning, seemingly overwhelmed by riots and surging crime.

“The First Civil Right” encapsulated Nixon’s strategy. The ad, set to jarring music, features still images of young activists clashing with police, buildings aflame, and bloodied protesters. The first civil right of every American, Nixon proclaims, is to be free from domestic violence.

The choice was clear: Hubert Humphrey and the Democrats were dangerous agitators who loved chaos. Richard Nixon stood for law and order.


A half-century later, we too have a choice. Donald Trump badly wants for 2020 to be 1968. But in ways that would make even Nixon blush, Trump openly courts and even encourages violence and unrest. He knows that if protests are seen as a crime issue, he benefits. If they’re seen as a legitimate extension of the fight for racial and social justice, he suffers.

What we lose in an increasingly polarized country is the ability to hold two truths in our head simultaneously, even if they conflict with our default partisan convictions. Trump wants you to make a black-and-white judgment call—you’re either for the radical leftists who want to destroy America, or for freedom, order, and respect for authority.

Of course, reason and sense point us to the truth. We can both loudly demand real change to combat racial inequities, police brutality, and systemic racism and condemn looters and opportunists who destroy property and co-opt peaceful demonstrations for personal or political gain.

And let’s dispel with the notion that cities are being overrun. I’m writing from Seattle, where, despite what you may have heard, rabid socialists aren’t roaming the streets with mobile guillotines. Crime rates, while up modestly in recent years, remain far below the levels seen decades ago. That’s not to say that violence isn’t searing, tragic, and avoidable; it’s merely a reminder that it’s not new to this moment.

The referendum America faces in 63 days is on Trump and the pandemic, not on protests. It is a referendum on a man who would rather prey on white anxiety and fear than answer for his role in the slow-motion disaster that has beset our country for six months.

Nearly 200,000 Americans are dead, abandoned by a White House that couldn’t be bothered to make a coherent plan to slow the disease that killed them.

Trump wants you to look away. He wants you to forget he’s president. He wants you to think he’s the only thing standing between you and the monster under the bed. It’s a laughable way to frame a reelection campaign, and we know better than to buy it. - MS

Portions of this essay were adapted from previous work I published on presidential rhetoric.

Photo: Tom Brenner, Reuters

How we got here

In a 1977 study, “Commission Politics: The Processing of Racial Crisis in America,” Michael Lipsky and David J. Olson reported that, between 1917 and 1943, at least twenty-one commissions were appointed to investigate race riots, and, however sincerely their members might have been interested in structural change, none of the commissions led to any. The point of a race-riot commission, Lipsky and Olson argue, is for the government that appoints it to appear to be doing something, while actually doing nothing.

Jill Lepore has a fantastic history of government commissions focused on riots. The sad and sobering conclusion? Reports too often become alibis for inaction.

Lepore also explains why we can’t overlook the role of slavery in the origins and history of police power.

Revisiting police unions

… when police have greater access to collective bargaining, it correlates with a long-term increase in police killing of civilians, specifically nonwhite civilians. Strong union towns like Chicago often have a more dangerous police culture than cities with weak labor laws do. In Dallas, for instance, the main police union is not the sole bargaining agent. Several different groups, including fraternal organizations of African-American and Latino officers, sign off on union contracts. The result is both more transparent and markedly less violent policing.

At nearly every turn, police unions fight reform.

The meaning of John Lewis

A few years ago, before I left Washington, D.C., I had a chance to briefly meet John Lewis at an event in his honor. It was probably no more than a minute, but he made it count. He asked me where I grew up and why I was working in politics and public policy. I don’t even remember what I said. It was his warmth and thoughtfulness that stood out.

Adam Serwer’s reflection on Lewis’ legacy is a perfect tribute.

There’s no better way to honor John Lewis’ memory than to vote. Here’s a great state-by-state guide to casting your ballot this year.