Donald Trump had been silent on Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men who were killed this week by police. But he acknowledged their deaths on Friday as part of a statement on the sniper attacks that killed five police officers and injured seven more in Dallas.
Here’s the whole thing (though the original statement wrongly identified Sterling, who was in front of a convenience store when he was killed, as one of “two motorists“):
If Trump’s recurring use of “law and order” feels familiar, it may be because it was the dog whistle of choice among 1960s-era politicians who sought to frame the activism of the civil rights movement as criminal mischief, and to stoke white anxiety about black Americans.
Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon may be most closely identified with law-and-order politics, but coded racial messaging was, and continues to be, a bipartisan pastime among white people, elected and civilian, of both parties.
But as a basis for comparison, this speech from Nixon at the 1968 Republican National Convention basically reads as Make America Great Again 1.0 (emphasis mine):
America is in trouble today not because her people have failed but because her leaders have failed. And what America needs are leaders to match the greatness of her people. And this great group of Americans, the forgotten Americans, and others know that the great question Americans must answer by their votes in November is this: Whether we shall continue for four more years the policies of the last five years.
And this is their answer and this is my answer to that question. When the strongest nation in the world can be tied down for four years in a war in Vietnam with no end in sight. When the richest nation in the world can’t manage its own economy. When the nation with the greatest tradition of the rule of law is plagued by unprecedented lawlessness. When a nation that has been known for a century for equality of opportunity is torn by unprecedented racial violence.
Trump has likewise made “lawlessness” a major theme of his campaign, particularly when he talks about protests in response to police violence against black people.
“That first night in Baltimore, they allowed that city to be destroyed,” Trump said of the April protests and riots in Baltimore in response to the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of spinal injuries while in police custody. “They set it back 35 years in one night because the police weren’t allowed to protect people. We need law and order.”
“The silent majority is back, and we’re going to take our country back,” Trump said in a July speech in Phoenix quoting yet another Nixonism.
And while Trump may borrow Nixon’s coded language in some speeches, it is often delivered alongside his more explicitly racist pronouncements, making his intended message clear.
Throughout his campaign, Trump has talked about immigrants primarily in terms of criminality (“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”), just as he’s talked about Muslims primarily in terms of criminality (“A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”), just as he’s talked about majority-black cities like Ferguson primarily in terms of criminality (“There are places in America that are among the most dangerous in the world. You go to places like Oakland. Or Ferguson. The crime numbers are worse”).
In this context, law and order—and the silent majority that will “restore” it—means something incredibly specific.