What Year Is It, Anyway?

by Daniel A. Rosen |

2020 is suddenly looking a lot like 1972. Admittedly, back then we weren’t warring against a global pandemic. But then, as now, a Republican president sought re-election in the midst of divisive societal turbulence, instead with a contentious foreign war as a backdrop. Then, as now, police violence against Black men brought a dividend of rioting in the streets. And then too, the Republican incumbent invoked more law and order as the cure-all for society’s ills, while our cities burned.

So…how’d renewing that President’s mandate work out for us?

“If the conviction rate were doubled in this country, it would do a lot more to eliminate crime” than LBJ’s War On Poverty, Nixon said during his 1968 campaign. The rhetoric is eerily similar to Trump’s 2016 invective against illegal immigrants. He needed a convenient bogeyman to get elected then, and he needs the rioters in the streets now too. Playing up the racist fears of middle-aged, white, suburban voters about black equality and empowerment is Trump’s only hope of being re-hired for another term.

After he won his first election by instilling fear in white suburbanites, Nixon doubled down on the “War on Crime,” locking up young black men at unprecedented rates. Minorities became majorities in our jails and prisons; men of color who made up a third of our population filled two thirds of our nation’s prison cells. In 1972, despite the failures of his policies in Vietnam and in America’s inner cities, voters gave Nixon four more years.

Ever since then, we’ve had a lot of law, and not much order. We’ve made noisy declarations of war on poverty, crime, drugs, gang violence, and pandemics. None of those problems were defeated, and the casualties of combat were primarily poor people of color in disadvantaged, inner-city communities. The language and tools of force have proved spectacularly unequal to the task of addressing persistent societal challenges.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump now sees his re-election as dependent on a Nixonian strategy of sowing fear and divisiveness among white voters. “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” Trump and Pence have both said. Given this Administration’s utter failure to address the pandemic and the economic collapse caused by that ineptitude, fear and blame are the only leverage Trump has left. But the scare tactic rhetoric will only worsen the problems that led us to this moment in the first place.

The virus is China’s fault. Democrat mayors are responsible for riots. The deep state is trying to bring him down, just by investigating treason or promoting science. But the failures have happened on Trump’s watch. Trump coddled China because he put corporate profits above American lives, and ignored the science until it was too late. He encouraged police to mistreat arrestees and championed brutality against protesters. He’s presiding over unnecessary death and destruction while pretending it has nothing to do with his leadership. The federal response is clearly making the pandemic worse and escalating the violence, and voters will hold him to account for it.

Today is the anniversary of the 1963 march on Washington, and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. If we’re going to reach back into our checkered past for inspiration, we would be far better served by recalling those ideals of brotherhood and equality. The unrealised agenda of Dr. King, John Lewis, the Voting Rights Act and the civil rights movement – not failed pandering to people’s basest fears – should guide us as we continue to struggle with difficult social issues.

Nixon eventually understood he couldn’t survive the scandal that dogged his re-election – but Trump has no such shame. He’d never resign power willingly. And when his many crimes are eventually exposed to the disinfectant of sunlight – as they inevitably will be – we can only hope he’s not still in office and facing a similar choice. Because this President has never put the best interests of the American people above his own political fortunes. For that, we have to look back a decade further to a different time.

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