As we watch cities burn across America, the question on many minds, especially those not in close proximity to the violence, is how the riots will impact the upcoming elections. The conventional wisdom says that the violent uprisings will benefit Donald Trump and the Republicans and there is some empirical evidence to back up that notion. However, there are other factors at play as well.
On one side, New York Magazine describes a new paper by Princeton Professor Omar Wasow, who studied riots of the 1960s and found that they provoked a right-wing response. Wasow found that nonviolent protests in the early 1960s resulted in increased sympathy for civil rights while increasing violence later the decade led to a backlash. Based on this argument, Donald Trump might stand to gain electorally from what many Americans see as an out-of-control threat to public safety.
Wasow found a statistically significant inverse correlation between violence and public support but looking at demonstrations in isolation may be oversimplifying the matter.
Lyndon Johnson was elected president in 1963 after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and was re-elected in 1964 on a pro-civil rights platform. Throughout most of his time in office, LBJ enjoyed a much higher approval rating than Donald Trump. It was only from 1966 on that Johnson sank to the low 40s where President Trump has been mired for most of his presidency. Johnson’s deecline correlates not only with the increased frequency of race riots but also with America’s increased involvement in Vietnam. Like President Trump, LBJ faced more than one serious problem.
Johnson’s race problems mounted in his second term. Los Angeles suffered though the Watts Riots in 1965 followed by riots in Newark, N.J. and Detroit in 1967. Confrontations between police and black citizens were the cause of all three incidents.
If any year in recent history can rival 2020 for sheer, unadulterated American misery, it would be 1968. That year saw the Tet Offensive which severely damaged public opinion on the war in Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April which was followed by riots in more than 125 cities, and a Democratic convention in Chicago where protesters battled police in the streets outside the convention hall. By March, LBJ had had enough and announced that he would not seek re-election.
In the election of 1968, the law-and-order candidate, Richard Nixon, who also campaigned on a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam, defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey. Part of Humphrey’s loss can be traced to a third-party bid by segregationist George Wallace who carried five Southern states. The bottom line here is that even though public opinion was swayed against Johnson and the rioters, there was a lot more going in the 1968 election than the politics of public safety and race.
The same is true in 2020. In addition to the rioting, Donald Trump faces a pandemic and an economy that is suddenly in freefall. On top of that, the US is dealing with an increasingly belligerent China and a long, tough war in Afghanistan.
A big difference between 1968 and 2020 is that LBJ and Humphrey were liberals who faced a challenge by a law-and-order Republican. In 2020, the law-and-order president is the incumbent who is presiding over the riots. This is a huge difference that could mean a dramatically different electoral outcome.
Since Donald Trump is the sitting president rather than a challenger, voters may judge him based on his actions rather than his rhetoric. So far, the president has not done much. The first protests began on May 26, the day after George Floyd’s death, but the president has been conspicuously absent apart from a steady stream of tweets. For the better part of a week, the president has not addressed the country to call for calm, instead tweeting that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” and suggesting that the protests were “professionally managed.”
Trump’s statements have been viewed by many as throwing fuel on the fire. Some, such as the “shooting” tweet and the another threatening White House protesters with “vicious dogs,” have racial overtones. In another statement this morning, the president attacked governors and big-city mayors facing the rioters as “weak” and accused them of “making yourselves look like fools.”
One of the few concrete steps that Trump has taken is to declare Antifa a terrorist group. The radical left group has a long history of violent behavior and has been implicated in the current uprisings. The move frees up law enforcement resources to combat the group but will do little to quell the riots in the short term.
Looking at the big picture, there are several possible outcomes for the riots. First, there is a possibility that the riots will have an impact similar to the Kavanaugh hearings of 2018. The Democratic treatment of Kavanaugh awakened Republican voters just in time to blunt what seemed to be a rising blue tsunami. The riots, especially if they last throughout the summer, may similarly galvanize Republican opposition and steer swing voters in the suburbs away from Democrats.
However, it is also possible that President Trump’s inability to rise to the occasion in a crisis will persuade voters that he needs to be sent packing. Mr. Trump was unpopular before this year and his lackluster responses to the pandemic, the economic crisis, and now the riots have not helped his case.
A third possibility is that in the dumpster fire news cycle of 2020, in which bad news is posted at an alarmingly fast rate, that other crises will have replaced the riots by November. There seems to be a good chance that, by the time we get to the polls, the riots may seem as distant as impeachment does today. The president was acquitted by the Senate less than four months ago but it seems like a different lifetime.
The one thing that we can know for sure is that no one knows how all this is going to turn out. We have opened a Pandora’s box and there is no telling what will come out of it or where it will take us. Anyone who thinks they know for sure is deluded.