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The Flawed Politics of a Law-and-Order Campaign

Richard Nixon tried to play on white fears about cities burning. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee success.

Hulton Archive/Getty
Richard Nixon and his running mate, Spiro Agnew, on the 1968 campaign trail

Five days of anguish and protest. Five nights of anger, broken windows, out-of-control police behavior, and the nauseating television images of teargassed citizens and burning squad cars. 

As Donald Trump played Nero to a burning Washington, and as the homebound Joe Biden offered a moving speech about “the soul of America,” thoughts inevitably drifted to the November election. Despite the polls consistently showing Biden with a healthy lead, skittish Democrats are worried that the urban uprisings will allow Trump to triumph with a guttersnipe “American carnage” campaign.

The parallel on everyone’s lips is 1968—that wrenching year of assassination, riot, racism, war, and the breakdown of the bonds that hold us together as a people. That was the year, as glib TV commentators explain, that Richard Nixon defeated Vice President Hubert Humphrey in a campaign built around law and order. Now Biden, a former vice president (get it?), is consigned to the hapless Humphrey role, while Trump, like Nixon, plays to white fears.

That, anyway, is the myth, although the reality was far more complicated. Looking back at the early Nixon years with a half-century’s hindsight actually offers reasons to hope. Even in 1968 and the divisive 1970 congressional elections that followed, voters were not easily gulled by Republican rabble-rousing.


Largely forgotten is how close the 1968 election was, thanks to a dramatic late charge by Humphrey and the partial collapse of George Wallace’s third-party campaign. As Rick Perlstein writes in Nixonland, “A few thousand more votes for Wallace in North Carolina and Tennessee, a shift of 1 percent of the vote in New Jersey or Ohio ... and the election would have been thrown into the [Democratic] House of Representatives.” 

In a tight election, almost everything is decisive. But the thing that probably did the most to doom Humphrey had nothing to do with race and riots: Nixon, using Anna Chennault as an intermediary, convinced South Vietnamese officials to scuttle their peace talks before the November election.

The riots in 1968—the cities burning after the April assassination of Martin Luther King and the pitched battles in the streets of Chicago as mostly white antiwar demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention were pitted against Mayor Richard Daley’s thuggish police force—were clearly significant, but in The Making of the President 1968, Theodore White gives almost as much weight to the cultural war provoked by student takeovers of elite universities like Columbia as he does to Nixon’s attempts to stir up racial animosity. (The student protests, he wrote, symbolized “the rejection of society by people who were brought up to inherit that society.”) 

The Nixon campaign artfully combined the two aspects of the law-and-order issue in powerful TV ads that depended on pictures and music far more than words. A typical spot showed angry white faces, while burning buildings were the only symbol of the violence that devastated the inner cities. In the voice-over for that ad, Nixon says solemnly, “Let us recognize that the first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence.”

Polling was far rarer in 1968 than it is today. A Louis Harris survey conducted in August, just before the Democratic convention, found that voters held contradictory opinions on questions related to national unrest. On one hand, voters tilted right, as 59 percent agreed that “Negroes who start riots” were a major cause of the breakdown of law and order. But in the same national survey, 73 percent of voters sensibly felt that “the rights of many people can be endangered in the name of law and order.”

In many ways, the midterm elections two years later (with 25 Democratic Senate seats on the ballot compared to 10 for the Republicans) offered a clearer test of the law-and-order issue. Nixon, now president, unleashed Vice President Spiro Agnew in a campaign that can be seen as a precursor to Trumpism. Taking the low road, Agnew vilified the news media, liberal intellectuals (“an effete corps of impudent snobs”), and antiwar critics, labeling Democratic Senate candidates as “hopeless, hysterical  hypochondriacs of history.” (New York Times columnist James Reston called that line “the worst example of alliteration in American history.”)

Concocting a toxic brew of rhetoric aimed at campus demonstrators (police and National Guardsman had murdered students at Kent State and Jackson State in May) and rioters and the fear of a rising crime rate, Agnew waged holy war on what he called “radical liberals.” Even though he was essentially only replicating what Nixon had done two years prior, this time it backfired, because Nixon, the incumbent president, could be blamed for allowing the nation to descend into chaos. By September 1970, only 39 percent of Americans viewed Nixon’s “approach to crime and law and order” favorably, according to a Harris poll.  

In the end, despite one of the most favorable Senate maps in history, the Republicans gained just two seats. Even more impressive was that the Democrats ended up with 11 additional governorships, the party’s biggest statehouse sweep since 1938.

No wonder The Wall Street Journal declared in its postelection analysis, “Mr. Nixon gave Democrats a bad fright with his law-and-order onslaught.… But despite scattered casualties among some prominent Nixon critics, the Administration’s strategy really didn’t work.” Within a few days, leaks from the Nixon White House made clear, as a Miami Herald story put it, “Law and order, the principal issue of the disappointing 1970 campaign, will be soft-pedaled.” 

More than five months before the 2020 elections, it is folly to predict how the events triggered by the murder of George Floyd will play out at the ballot box. And, of course, history is not destiny. But for those compelled to invoke Nixon parallels, remember that the politics of fear were ultimately judged a failure.