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The Time a President Stoked a Protest So He Could Play the ‘Law and Order’ Card

The throngs of protesters who stormed Capitol Hill late last month didn’t succeed in keeping Brett Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court. But they did furnish Donald Trump and the Republicans with an election-season message to energize their base. Ever since Americans saw the atria and corridors of the Senate buildings teeming with foot soldiers of the resistance, the president and other Republicans have been trying to stoke fears of social chaos with overblown rhetoric comparing Democrats to a mob. “The only way to shut down the Democrats new Mob Rule strategy is to stop them cold at the Ballot Box,” Trump tweeted earlier this month—a warning echoed in GOP political ads across the country. He unveiled a hashtag aimed at Democrats: #JobsNotMobs.

Trump, of course, is far from the first politician to use the fear of the rabble to boost his party’s fortunes. Occasionally, Democrats have positioned themselves as the upholders of decorum—a firewall of sanity against the unhinged radicalism of frothing Goldwaterites in 1964 or lunatic Tea Partyers in the Obama years. And this fall, with Trump applauding a congressman who beat up a journalist and pipe bombs targeting Democratic officials, they certainly could position their party as the defender of lawfulness. But overall it’s usually been conservatives who’ve run on law and order, for conservatism at its core prizes stability over change, uniformity over fractiousness, control over expressiveness. Calvin Coolidge, for example, brandished the “law and order” slogan expertly as governor of Massachusetts in the wake of the 1919 Boston police strike, even using it to launch a presidential boomlet.

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In modern times, the phrase is associated with no one more than Richard Nixon—the president Trump resembles most. Like Trump, Nixon ran for president on a promise to protect the peace-loving public from Democrats who would coddle the libertine and the lawless. Like Trump as well, he dusted it off for the midterm elections that arrived as the opposition was surging—in one instance stoking a liberal protest so that he could capitalize on the backlash, with his speechwriter William Safire, a former public relations man, calling it “the most serious mob attack on a national leader in American history.”

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America may feel as if it’s unraveling today, but things were worse in 1968. Mass protests against the Vietnam War continued to swell in size and took on an increasingly radical tenor. Revolutionary zeal ran much hotter than it does today. The Weathermen and the Black Panthers make today’s “antifa” gangs look downright toothless. On campuses, student strikes, canceled classes and building takeovers were all but replacing homecoming as an annual ritual. Urban riots, also a rite of summer by 1968, got started early that year, after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April, and continued through the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August. Throw in a rising crime rate, and it was easy to understand the yearning for a president who would restore calm and safety. (Then, as now, there was right-wing vigilante violence, too—such as at George Wallace rallies, where audience members pummeled protesters, or at the “hard hat” riot of 1970, when pro-Nixon construction workers roughed up antiwar marchers.)

Intuitively understanding this hunger for stability, Nixon promised “law and order” in his campaign speeches that year. Like the best slogans, this one worked on many levels. It resonated with voters who were concerned about the spike in violent crime, scared by the uprisings in inner-city black neighborhoods; resentful toward what they saw as spoiled college kids wasting their parents’ tuition dollars; or put off by opposition to the war. There was also, of course, a none-too-subtle racial element in the appeals.

Nor was law and order just about physical disorder. Broadly, it was about psychic disorder too—a call to beat back the cultural impulses that were bringing radical changes in music and fashion, family dynamics and parenting styles, attitudes toward racial and sexual difference, and so much else. After Nixon’s election, he continued his appeals to aggrieved traditionalists on dozens of issues. Yet none resonated as viscerally as that of lawlessness.

That came in handy in 1970, when Nixon’s approval numbers were falling, anger was mounting over his failure to end the Vietnam War, and the Republicans’ midterm prospects were looking bleak. To rally his voters, Nixon used a trip to San Jose, California, to reinforce his image as the protector of civil order. On Thursday, October 29, just days before the elections, he arrived at San Jose’s municipal auditorium for a speech to find demonstrators massed outside. Inside the arena, even as he and other politicians spoke, the protesters battered the walls from outside, disrupting the speeches inside. After his speech, Nixon left the building via the rear door, where he was met by a crowd of perhaps 2,000 demonstrators, cordoned off by police barricades, chanting and hoisting signs.

The mood was ugly. The protesters shouted profanities. Signs compared the president to a Nazi or flaunted obscene images. Nixon, who had in the past baited hecklers to profitable effect, clambered onto the hood of his limousine and thrust out his arms to make the double-V for which he was known. “This is what they hate to see,” he whispered to one of his entourage, as overheard by a reporter. Suddenly, a refrigerator’s worth of projectiles sailed through the air—eggs, tomatoes, vegetables—along with a hail of rocks. Nixon darted into his car as the Secret Service arranged an emergency evacuation. On the staff bus trailing behind, speechwriter Safire watched stones strike the windows, spewing glass. Another car, ferrying aide H.R. Haldeman, was also hit by a rock, then stalled and was rear-ended.

Nixon supporters rope off the doors to the San Jose Civic Auditorium

Nixon supporters rope off the doors to the San Jose Civic Auditorium, Oct. 30, 1970, to keep anti-war demonstrators out of President Nixon’s speaking engagement there. | AP Photo

Just as some conservatives last week spread rumors that a Democrat had sent the pipe-bomb packages in order to discredit the right, so in 1970 some of Nixon’s critics began whispering that the administration had engineered the San Jose incident to reflect badly on the left. Some took to calling the episode “the Nixon Hoax,” claiming that Nixon—abetted by a compliant press corps—had magnified, or even concocted the whole episode. Far from a mob riot, they said, it amounted to a run-of-the-mill protest in which no one got hurt. (No one was arrested for rock-throwing, after all, and no one was reported injured by a rock—though of course projectiles of some sort had shattered the window on Safire’s bus and nicked the cars in the presidential caravan.) Some speculated that the White House had even recruited members of the conservative group Young Americans for Freedom or other paid goons to pose as demonstrators in order to provoke the entire incident.

This unfounded conspiracy theory sprang from the fevered imagination of young leftists. But it contained a kernel of truth. Nixon, everyone knew, liked having boisterous crowds at his rallies because they made him look good—especially when he could scold the hecklers. Bill Gulley, a Secret Service agent, claimed that “knowing how the Nixon advance team worked,” he thought it “well within the realm of possibility” that the San Jose incident was “rigged.” Haldeman’s diary, published long afterward, was more precise, noting that while the White House hadn’t set up the incident, Nixon had been keen to provoke a response: “We wanted some confrontation and there were no hecklers in the hall, so we stalled departure a little so they could zero in outside,” he wrote. But when the violence came, it was more than they had bargained for—“rather scary, … as rocks were flying … Bus windows smashed, etc.”

Having escaped unscathed, Haldeman and Nixon and the team saw a payoff. Nixon’s stunt, Haldeman noted, “made a huge incident and we worked hard to crank it up.” He envisioned a “really major story” that “might be effective” on Election Day. After leaving San Jose for his home in San Clemente, in Southern California, Nixon began calling his aide “with ideas about how to push the line.”

Two days later, in Phoenix, Nixon gave another speech. He positioned himself as the bulwark against mob rule as he recounted the incident in San Jose. His language was more composed and deliberate than Trump’s has been this fall, but it similarly played up the peril and prevalence of mob violence from the left. He told his audience:

The crowd inside were exercising their right to peaceable assembly, as you are today. They were listening to political speakers. They were weighing the issues in the campaign of 1970. And outside the hall there was a mob of about 1,000, maybe a few more. We could see the hate in their faces as we drove into the hall, and the obscene signs they waved. We could hear the hate in their voices as they chanted their obscenities. … As we came out of the hall and entered the motorcade, the haters surged past the barricades. They began throwing rocks. These were not small stones; they were large rocks. They were heavy enough to smash windows, windows in the press bus, windows in the staff cars. They weren’t directed at me, though some did hit the presidential car. Most of the rocks hit the buses and the other cars behind.

Nixon encouraged his listeners to identify with the crowd inside the hall—“people like you”—who, he said, “were repelled by the atmosphere of violence and hatred that marred the event. And they thought to themselves, ‘Is this America?’” The audience cheered. And, as if to rebut his critics in the news media, he insisted, “‘Law and order’ are not code words for racism or repression. ‘Law and order’ are code words for freedom from fear in America.”

The night before the election, the White House paid for television time to rebroadcast the remarks. Ironically, its poor, grainy quality—a local Phoenix station had provided it—made many in the White House fear that it backfired; the Republicans lost many governorships and gave up seats in the House while gaining slightly in the Senate.

But if the effect of the San Jose incident and its aftermath on the elections was hard to discern, there was another, more subtle—and perhaps more important—shift in the political mood that fall. According to Safire, “‘elitism’ and ‘permissiveness,’ which had been sociologists’ terms, became household words. Radical chic, national guilt, self-hate became more suspect. A backlash against demonstrators, part of a general self-identification of Middle America, gained momentum, strengthening Nixon’s hand and presaging his easy domination of [Democratic presidential candidate George] McGovern two years later.”

The political atmosphere of the late 1960s and early ’70s, with its suspicion, fearfulness, paranoia, and extremism, is returning. Last time around, the social disorder, hyped by Nixon and his supporters, played into the hands of the right. It is not clear why this time it would be any different.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers, is a contributing editor at Politico Magazine. He is the author of several works of political history including, most recently, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.

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