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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Could Trump win on fear factor?

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: September 13, 2020, 6:02am

It might work. No, really, it might work. If 1968 is any indication, Donald Trump’s efforts to scare Americans into voting for him just might work.

Because in 1968, America was beset by racial conflict, rioting in cities, police brutality, deeply divided political parties and a lingering war. Sound familiar? Sound like 2020? Sound like a harbinger of today’s political climate?

Of course, there was no pandemic or recession in 1968. Today we are facing a virus that has contributed to the deaths of about 200,000 Americans and precipitated the steepest economic decline in 90 years. And in 1968 there were the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.

So, there are differences between the chaos of 1968 and the chaos of 2020. But there also are similarities, including a presidential candidate’s efforts to foment and prey upon fear.

In 1968, Republican nominee Richard Nixon seized upon a “law and order” platform to appeal to what he called “the silent majority” of voters. But there was more to it than a suggestion that lawless protesters marching in streets and burning cities were outnumbered by law-abiding citizens sitting at home watching on TV.

As Marquette University professor Julia Azari explained to The Washington Post, “law and order” is “often a way to talk about race without talking about race. But its 1960s meaning also meant all people who were challenging the social order. As we’ve moved away from the era when politicians were making obvious racial appeals, the appeals have become more coded. The question becomes whose order, for whom does the law work?”

Now, impeached President Trump is employing the same tactic. Trump several times has tweeted “LAW AND ORDER” while conducting a campaign based solely on fearmongering. And why not? He can’t run on the economy, which has been devastated by the pandemic. He can’t run on his response to coronavirus, which has been shameful. He can’t run on his ability as commander in chief, not after calling military personnel “suckers” and “babies” and “losers.” He can’t run on his promise to build a border wall, a tiny fraction of which has been constructed and which most certainly is not being paid for by Mexico.

All he has left is fear. And it just might work. As Azari added, “Tactics of fear or appeals to restore the old social order — those are usually successful.”

So, the Trump campaign and right-wing media are promoting videos showing rioting in cities and burning vehicles while pretending that is what America will look like during a Biden administration. The irony: This is America during a Trump administration. We don’t need to imagine discord and violence under Biden; we’re living it because we have a charlatan in the White House.

It defies reality to suggest Trump is the one to repair law and order when he is the one who broke it. When a refrigerator technician comes to your house and breaks a shelf and dents the door and leaves the compressor on the floor, you don’t bring them back to fix it; you find somebody competent.

That is the primary difference between the elections of 1968 and 2020. Nixon was running for his first term and could blame the chaos on the Johnson administration; Trump has nobody else to blame, so he appeals to base instincts. “Make no mistake, if you give power to Joe Biden, the Radical Left will defund police departments all across America,” he said at a campaign rally. “They will pass federal legislation to reduce law enforcement nationwide. They will make every city look like Democrat-run Portland, Oregon. No one will be safe in Biden’s America.”

None of which is true, except the part about Portland having a Democratic mayor; the city council is nonpartisan. Biden and other Democratic leaders have rejected calls to eliminate police departments.

And so Trump inartfully employs a cynical but time-honored strategy to instill fear and repeat the results of the 1968 election. And it just might work.