World·Analysis

Trump tried a law-and-order message written in 1968. It's falling flat in the U.S. of 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump turned to a timeworn playbook as race-related unrest swept the streets, down to tweeting old Richard Nixon catchphrases about law and order. But the old playbook isn't working. His poll numbers are down. And the country has changed since 1968.

U.S. president sinks to his lowest approval ratings in 16 months

Trump, seen here outside St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington on June 1, has spent far more time talking about violent protesters than about peaceful ones. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump dusted off old Richard Nixon catchphrases as civil unrest swept the streets, tweeting "LAW & ORDER!" and "SILENT MAJORITY!"

It appears the old playbook isn't working.

The country looks different than it did in 1968, when Nixon was elected president. The level of unrest is different. Attitudes on race are different. 

And the electorate is responding differently. 

It was in that 1968 election that Anne Goodnight began voting Republican, spurred by frustration with the escalating Vietnam War.

Now it's goodbye from 75-year-old Goodnight.

"I thought I would give him a chance [in 2016]," the Florida retiree said of Trump on Friday.

"[But several] months into his presidency I thought, 'What have I done? This is a terrible mistake.' I would vote for a dog-catcher now before I vote for Trump. I will vote for Joe Biden."

People raise their fists as they take part in a 'Silent March' against racial inequality and police brutality that was organized by Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County on June 12 in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)

She unleashed a list of personal and policy attributes she found distasteful in the president, from his lavish use of trade tariffs, to his parsimony with the truth.

She added a recent one — involving race relations — and made sure to mention that she was speaking as the granddaughter of a Confederate soldier.

Goodnight said the country needs a new attitude on race, and she said Trump should have been more supportive of the Black Lives Matter protests.

'It's backfiring'

In a week where the military and NASCAR stock-car circuit moved to ditch Confederate symbols, Trump defended them.

"It's backfiring in his face," said Jay Grewe, 46, a military veteran who grudgingly voted for Trump in 2016, and is now done with him.

"I think people really see it for what it is."

There's no law-and-order bounce for Trump in the polls. On the contrary, he's continued a slide that predated the protests by several weeks.

Trump now has his lowest approval ratings of the last 16 months, according to two major polling-aggregation websites

He's trailing Biden, his likely general-election opponent by eight percentage points in an average of polls compiled by RealClearPolitics. 

Warning signs are even starting to flare up in the epicentre of a critical Trump stronghold: Florida retiree country.

The head of the Democratic organization in the massive Villages retirement complex that spans three counties said people are driving to her office to ask to be re-registered as Democrats.

WATCH | Top U.S. general apologizes for appearing in Trump church photo-op: 

The top soldier in the U.S. backs away from the president's response to the protests. Meanwhile, Donald Trump announces a campaign rally that may throw gasoline on the fire. 2:00

One striking interaction happened immediately after Trump floated using the military to put down protests.

"I had a guy show up two weeks ago. Career in the military. Thirty-something years in the Air Force," said Chris Stanley, president of the Villages Democrats. "He came in to register. I said, 'Gee — you must really like Biden.' 

"He said, 'No — I just really hate Trump.'"

Data supports Stanley's claims of a momentum shift.

Several surveys, going back months, show Trump trailing badly among seniors at both the national level and in Florida.

He's also behind in most polls in most swing states, and has been trailing badly among college-educated voters, women, and virtually every major demographic group except non-college-educated white men.

A long-term shift

So, what's going on?

There's a longer-term issue and a shorter-term issue for Trump. 

The longer-term issue is the country's changing demographics, chronicled in the Republican Party's post-mortem following its 2012 election loss.

A political demographer said in an interview that Nixon's law-and-order platform, and overall 1968 election message, was predicated on the electoral math of a more segregated country.

WATCH | Richard Nixon's 1968 advertisement for a 'law and order' president: 

Many cities back then were predominantly Black, suburbs were almost exclusively white, and the country was a combustible cauldron of racial rancor late in the Civil Rights era.

All these variables have shifted — at least a little.

"This is a different America than we had back in 1968," said William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"Nixon was able to take advantage of that wedge — and that wedge doesn't exist anymore nearly as much."

He said Americans are now likelier to be a neighbour of, married to, friends with, or related to someone from another ethnic group. And they expect politicians to be more sensitive to racial injustice.

"[People are] not very sympathetic to just saying, 'Well let's bring in the troops.'"

Protesters gather near Trump Tower as part of a solidarity rally calling for justice over the death of George Floyd, and to highlight police brutality nationwide on Friday in New York. (Frank Franklin II/The Associated Press)

A lightning-quick shift  

The country's new demographic realities didn't disappear just because Trump managed to win an election with one of the lowest popular-vote shares in U.S. history.

One public-opinion researcher said demographic change alone can't explain the striking public response to Black Lives Matter protests.

Robert Griffin compared demographic change to a melting iceberg — it happens slowly. 

What we're witnessing now, he said, is more like a thunderous and fast-moving triumph of political activism.

He cited one finding from his work at the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation in Washington, and its Voter Study Group which does weekly tracking of nearly 11,500 American voters.

He said unfavourable opinions of police jumped from 23 per cent to 36 per cent in one week.

"This is the single biggest shift we've [ever] recorded [on any topic] in the survey," he said. 

"We haven't seen a one-week, 13-point shift among anything … The speed that this is moving at is just tremendous." 

His project also found that 53 per cent of Americans agreed Black people face a great deal or a lot of discrimination, compared to 19 per cent who said they face little or none at all.

'Mixed messages'

Zechariah Fung, a 23-year-old Arizonan who did not vote in 2016, said Trump's response to this crisis has been all over the map. 

"[He's] very unclear, sending mixed messages," Fung said. "That's not leadership."

The president has promised an executive order on police reform and said he generally opposes police use of choke holds.

Yet in the same Fox News interview where he criticized choke holds, he defended their use in some situations: "I mean we have real bad people."

Trump says he supports the peaceful protests. Yet he barely mentions them and constantly condemns protest violence.      

He's retweeted an attack on George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police in the case that touched off the protests.  

Former Trump supporter Grewe said his breaking point came a while ago.

A lifelong Republican, from a Republican military family, and admirer of Ronald Reagan, the 46-year-old Air Force veteran said he began disliking Trump when he criticized the late senator and fellow veteran John McCain.

He voted for him anyway, describing himself as a socially moderate, economically conservative Republican.

Early in Trump's presidency, he decided he'd do the previously unthinkable for him and vote Democrat if the party nominated a moderate in 2020.

He lamented what he called Trump's authoritarian impulses.

But he said this election is about something more basic: elementary decency. Grewe has children and can't imagine telling them to look up to the current president.

"I'm at a point where I'm just so disgusted by him as a human being," said the computer sales executive.

He said coming out as a party-switcher has caused fights. 

Swing voters: A rare political animal

In a deeply divided, bitterly polarized country, swing voters are a relatively rare breed: since last year, the head-to-head poll numbers for Trump and Biden have each budged, at most, five percentage points.

"I've gotten in a number of arguments with family members and friends because they look at me and say, 'How could you? How dare you? How could you vote Democrat?'" Grewe said.

It's the same in the Florida retirement community.

Stanley said she gets bombarded by worldwide media seeking to track down that rare political animal, coveted by every campaign: the Florida swing voter.

WATCH | Trump preps 'law and order' campaign, more Republicans speak out:

As protests continue across the U.S., President Donald Trump readies a "law and order" re-election campaign, while prominent Republican Colin Powell backs the Democratic candidate Joe Biden for president. 3:04

But she said they're mostly a shy breed because there are social costs to emerging in the open, especially in a tight-knit seniors' community.

"You're probably going to lose your golf group. You're probably going to lose your social group. You may not be included in the neighbourhood parties," she said.

Stanley figures her community will shift a few percentage points toward Biden. Another active Democrat in that Florida community, Marsha Shearer, predicted some ex-Trump supporters just won't show up this year. 

"They'll stay home — and that's good enough," Shearer said.

"But to say that out loud would put their social standing at risk."

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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