Ahead of the Republican national convention in Cleveland this week, Donald Trump is doubling down on a phrase burdened by the country’s history of racial strife.
“We have to bring law and order back to this country,” the presumptive nominee said on Fox & Friends Monday morning.
The words “law and order” recall the racially charged politics of the tumultuous civil-rights era. The phrase was frequently used by politicians in the 1960s who opposed the civil rights demonstrations, and seemed to imply that African Americans were inherently unruly and dangerous.
Some law-and-order policies, such as the the crime legislation President Clinton signed in 1994, have had support from black voters who hoped that policing and strict punishments for criminals would control violent crime in their neighborhoods.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Yet Trump’s resurrection of the phrase, with all its connotations, could prove especially divisive at a time when crime rates are historically low and when many in both parties are calling for a less punitive criminal justice system.
“I don’t know of many African-Americans and Latinos who heard Mr. Trump’s words and did not recoil at the thought that we’re returning to an era we thought was behind us,” Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., told the Hill last week.
Some political scientists argue that many GOP politicians and a few Democrats frequently use coded, racially neutral phrases to manipulate white voters’ racial anxieties.
According to this theory, white voters feel uncomfortable talking openly about race and do not want to make decisions based on prejudice, but politicians can exploit their unconscious biases as long as they avoid racially explicit language.
In a study of the 1988 presidential election, for example, Princeton University’s Tali Mendelberg concluded that President George H.W. Bush’s campaign violated an unspoken rule against discussing race openly with a notorious advertisement about convicted murderer Willie Horton, a black man.
The advertisement seemed to improve Bush’s standing in the polls, up until Democrats pointed out its racial content, at which point voters turned back toward his opponent, Michael Dukakis. White voters were swayed by the spot until they were told it violated the norm of racial equality, Mendelberg wrote.
For her, the episode demonstrated the utility to conservative politicians of what is often called “dog-whistle politics.” The phrase “law and order” could be an example.
These days, however, Trump might have less cause for concern than Bush did in 1988, when Democrats were able to neutralize the Willie Horton spot by forcing a national discussion of its racial connotations.
Recent research suggests that Americans have become more comfortable with explicit conversations about race. Nicholas Valentino, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, and his colleagues conducted an experiment showing that offering subjects two versions of the same fictional news story about President Obama’s health reform policy, one with explicitly racial language and the other without, had no effect on their political attitudes.
Valentino argues that Americans have become more comfortable talking openly about race and racial conflict. If so, Democrats such as Cleaver could find it difficult to counter the appeal of Trump’s rhetoric simply by pointing out its complicated history.
Paul Manafort, an adviser to Trump, told the Washington Examiner in an interview that a focus on law and order would be a theme of the GOP convention this week.
“Lawlessness in the cities is something that we needed to focus on,” Manafort said.