Election 2020

Will protests help Donald Trump as they did Richard Nixon in 1968?

Mr Trump’s rhetoric is designed to project strength in the face of lawlessness. New research suggests that Republicans have in the past benefited from violence and disorder


The death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has sparked protests across America. President Donald Trump responded not by soothing tensions, but by inflaming them further—at one point threatening to deploy active-duty troops to quell the unrest. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he tweeted on May 29th, echoing a well-known phrase dating back to the civil-rights era.

Mr Trump’s rhetoric is designed to project strength in the face of lawlessness. New research suggests that Republicans have in the past benefited from violence and disorder.

A paper by Omar Wasow of Princeton University finds that non-violent protests held between 1960 and 1972 boosted local support for civil-rights issues, whereas violent ones had the opposite effect.

This may have been a deciding factor in the 1968 presidential election between Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic vice-president and a staunch advocate of civil rights, and Richard Nixon, a Republican who like Mr Trump promised to restore “law and order”.

Running several different models, Mr Wasow estimates that counties that experienced non-violent protests shifted towards Humphrey by about 2.5 percentage points. Those which experienced violent protests, in contrast, shifted towards Nixon by around 2 to 6.5 points, depending on which dataset and model is used (see chart, showing two calculations).

This swing was enough to flip Delaware, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey and Ohio in favour of the Republicans, giving them control of the White House.

One goal of violent protests is to attract media attention and they received even more coverage when police officers also resorted to violence. Mr Wasow writes that civil-rights leaders were aware of this, and chose the cities of Selma and Birmingham, Alabama, to stage marches precisely because they knew that police there would respond with brutality even as they told their followers not to be the first to use force.

It is far from clear that today’s protests will have the same political consequences as they did in 1968. The civil-rights marches of the 1960s and 1970s were far larger and better-organised, but also much more destructive and violent. Moreover Nixon ran as a Republican challenger to an incumbent vice-president, which allowed him to cast himself as an agent of change. Today the parties’ roles are reversed. Voters who are unhappy with the way the authorities are handling the protests and civil strife are likely to place some of the blame on the sitting president. Mr Trump’s hopes of emulating Nixon may be worse than he thinks.

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