When Attorney General William Barr testified on Capitol Hill last week, House Republicans played a video that compiled dramatic footage of violence breaking out in demonstrations across the country. And though the video was presented as a defense of the Trump administration’s aggressive police response to the recent wave of protests for racial justice, it served another purpose: waging yet another dog-whistle “law and order” campaign in an election where race and racism are (explicitly) center stage.
Since Richard Nixon, presidential campaigns fixated on law and order have served the purpose of stoking white fear and galvanizing supporters by using racist, coded language. They tend to exaggerate levels of crimes — often depicting Black urban areas as especially lawless — and promise to bring violence to an end by imposing the rule of law. (Even dating back to the Civil War era, politicians exploited white people’s fears of slave rebellions to ramp up support.)
“It’s been devastatingly effective,” said Jeremy Mayer, a George Mason University professor who has studied the role of racism in presidential campaigns, adding that it’s how President Trump got elected. “Trump talked about crime as if it was skyrocketing, and the data on that in 2016 just didn’t back him up.”
This election cycle, however, that strategy of galvanizing white voters might not work because of white people’s changing views on law-enforcement agencies — not to mention the fact that Trump is the one presiding over the supposed lawlessness he is railing against. Since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May, white Americans have been exposed, almost on a daily basis, to the kinds of police tactics that have long terrorized Black and brown neighborhoods, both by attending the Black Lives Matter protests — which a majority of white people support — and through videos on social media.
Last week, for example, the New York Police Department deployed plainclothes officers in unmarked vans to suddenly and forcefully apprehend protesters, and the incident was recorded and shared online. Although this may have been shocking to some viewers, it’s a familiar sight for many people in Washington, D.C., who know this police tactic as a “jump-out.” It’s been used in the city since the 1980s, and is a form of stop-and-frisk policy that racially profiles residents and ambushes them in unmarked police vans. It has sometimes led to fatal interactions, leaving Black and brown residents — who are confronted by police for no reason other than being Black or brown — living in fear. (The Metropolitan Police Department claims to have discontinued the practice since 2015, though there is evidence that it occasionally still happens.)
The more that white people are inundated with videos of police misconduct, and the more that Black Lives Matter protesters get their message out, the less confidence white voters have in law enforcement, a reality that recent polls confirmed. In 2015, for example, 41 percent of white people thought police violence was “not at all serious,” compared with only 26 percent in 2020; 39 percent of white people thought police were more likely to use deadly force against a Black person in 2015, compared with 54 percent today; and while five years ago, only 32 percent of white Americans thought the criminal justice system was too lenient toward police, 62 percent now believe that is the case.
That said, it’s important not to underestimate the power of white identity politics. Although the typical law and order campaign might not be as effective this year as it has been in the past, “events can change that overnight,” Mayer said.
“Aside from the very hard-core racists — the KKK members, the Nazis — even people who have deeply racist views like to think they’re not racists,” he added. “So they’re not going to say explicitly racist things, but appeals to white fear may insidiously work on them in a way that doesn’t show up in polling and that will show up on Election Day.”
That’s what Trump is banking on. In recent tweets — and thinly veiled attempts at courting white suburbanites — he implied that desegregation would lead to more crime (it would not), and that, if elected, Joe Biden will “abolish” the suburbs (he will not).
But given white people’s shifting views on law enforcement, and the continued display of violence by police forces, it seems unlikely that a traditional campaign for law and order will gain traction among many white constituents beyond the president’s base. After all, how do you win a law and order campaign when the public is growing more fearful of empowered and seemingly reckless law-enforcement agencies? The short answer is you can’t — though the long answer might surprise us come November.