The Trump campaign set “Make America Safe Again” as the theme of the Republican convention’s first night well before the attack that killed three police officers and wounded three others in Baton Rouge. But that attack, and the earlier shooting in Dallas that killed five officers, added weight and a new emphasis to Trump’s promise to protect Americans.
That wasn’t always the idea. Donald Trump himself started using the phrase “make America safe again” at the end of last year, but at the time, in the aftermath of the Paris massacre, it was a pledge to destroy the Islamic State and prevent terrorist attacks in the United States. Now, after Dallas and Baton Rouge, things are different. In a Sunday evening interview on Fox News’ “Hannity,” top Trump campaign official Paul Manafort said the make-America-safe idea has taken on an additional meaning.
“When we were putting the program together, we were talking about it from a national security standpoint, but we also felt that lawlessness in the cities is something that we needed to focus on,” Manafort said. “So we’re going to address that in the program, and unfortunately it’s even more appropriate tomorrow.”
Indeed it is. The question for Trump, who came of age in a time when Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew promised to restore law and order in the violent and chaotic year of 1968, is whether calls for order will have the same force in a demographically different America. Newt Gingrich, a finalist for Trump’s vice presidential running mate ??? and who came of age in the same time ??? believes it will.
“It’s the law-and-order candidate versus the Black Lives Matter candidate,” Gingrich told me in a phone interview Sunday. “Barack Obama has put together the worst race relations in years, and Hillary Clinton has been pandering to Black Lives Matter.”
One member of the extended Trump circle called the idea of law and order “more of a mindset than anything else.” In emphasizing it, Trump is telling Republicans, independents, and, he hopes, some Democrats that he will always side with the forces of order in troubled times.
But what, specifically, could Trump pledge to do? How could he add substance to a generalized pledge to restore law and order? “A president who is pro-police in the Giuliani tradition is a big step in the right direction,” Gingrich said, suggesting that Trump 1) announce that as president he would use all the resources of the FBI to track down those involved in violence against the police; 2) investigate domestic anti-police radicalization in a way similar to foreign Islamist radicalization; and 3) declare that any violence at protests at the Republican convention will not be tolerated.
It’s dismissed as crass and insensitive, but there’s no doubt both Republican and Democratic operatives are weighing the effect of Dallas and Baton Rouge on the current debate. At the very least, there seems little doubt that attacks on police are intensifying a national anxiety that was already high. (In the new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 68 percent of respondents said they believe events in this country “have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track.”)
Emphasizing law and order undoubtedly fits Trump’s worldview. But it also fits his campaign. “A very strong theme” given recent events, said one member of TrumpWorld. “This totally helps Trump,” said a source inside the GOP.
There’s a similar view among Republican strategists who aren’t involved in the campaign. On Sunday I asked Curt Anderson, who ran Bobby Jindal’s presidential effort, how he saw the law and order issue playing out in a Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton race. Via email, here is Anderson’s entire response:
Everything that is happening in this messed-up world is helping Trump. Terror attacks in California, Nice, Florida….lunatics shooting cops in Dallas and Baton Rouge….all of it. It all helps Trump. If anyone cannot see this, they are willfully blind. Does it help enough for him to win? I dunno. But it clearly and obviously helps him. Why? Because he = strength, she = weakness. Period. Not complicated. He makes simple, straightforward declarative statements. She makes long, convoluted, and sophisticated arguments with a lot of caveats. Also ??? “Black Lives Matter” could be an albatross around the neck of a lot of Democrats.
Democrats will undoubtedly hit back hard. Bakari Sellers, the South Carolina Democrat who appears on CNN, on Sunday denounced Trump’s “1968 George Wallace-style rhetoric.” But Republicans have a new, and many believe, potent theme. Look for it to dominate Monday night at the convention and resonate far beyond that.