My career as a historian of white backlash might have begun the day that, as a teenager precociously obsessed with people like Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, and Eldridge Cleaver, I asked my parents if they had any interesting stories to tell me about the 1960s. The only one my mom could come up with was the day in 1967, two years before I was born, when there were riots in the inner city of Milwaukee. My parents invited all of their friends in our suburban neighborhood, who couldn’t go to work at the businesses they owned in the city, over for a pool party.
That was probably when I first became aware that there were two sides to the 1960s: the movements for social justice and the anti-authoritarian rage on one side, and on the other the people for whom such disorder spurred confusion and fear for their white-picket-fenced safety.
I later learned researching my book Nixonland that Milwaukee’s authoritarian mayor, Henry Maier, eventually declared a version of martial law so strict and fierce that mothers could not go out to buy milk for their children. Klansmen, however, weren’t hassled for defying the lockdown; they rolled around town with shotguns poking out car windows. The Milwaukee police burned down a house with a mentally disabled man inside. They claimed it was a nest for a sniper. The next year Mayor Maier was up for reelection. He won with 80 percent of the vote.
People are thinking of stories like that now, during a week that school kids might study some day. President Trump, after all, responded to the uprising in Minneapolis by tweeting something Miami’s racist police chief said during riots in 1968: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Conservative Republicans (and right-wing Democrats) have a long and sordid history of exploiting riots for political gain. Richard Nixon knew what to do when, during a wave of urban uprisings in 1966, Vice President Hubert Humphrey said that “the National Guard is no answer to the problems of the slums.” Humphrey predicted “open violence in every major city and county in America” if conditions didn’t improve—then added, exuberantly but injudiciously, that if he lived in a slum, “I think you’d have more trouble than you have had already because I’ve got enough spark left in me to lead a mighty good revolt.”
Nixon took to the pages of a newsweekly for a guest editorial asking: “Who is responsible for the breaking of law and order in this country?” Hubert Humphrey for one, he answered. And Robert F. Kennedy, who had said—responding to a comment by former president Dwight D. Eisenhower that the 1965 Watts uprising stemmed from a “policy of lawlessness”—that “there is no point in telling Negroes to obey the law. To many Negroes the law is the enemy.”
Nixon was laying the groundwork for his 1968 presidential run. When he originally began doing so, it seemed likely his main appeal to the electorate would resemble that from his last presidential campaign in 1960: He was a statesman with deep foreign policy experience. That he chose a different approach this time was attributable to the tutelary example of a political neophyte: Ronald Reagan, who had just won a shocking upset in the California Republican gubernatorial primary with a law-and-order, white-backlash campaign.
So it was that in 1968, after two more summers of fire and blood, running against none other than Hubert “Mighty Good Revolt” Humphrey, Nixon aimed straight for the amygdala of those frightened white suburbanites. His most famous campaign commercial was a montage of riot scenes over a jittery, shrieking electronic soundtrack, the camera lingering on the naked white torso of a mannequin. Then came Nixon’s voice: “So I pledge to you, we will have order in the United States.”
It worked, and the lesson appeared plain enough: A politics of empathy of the sort that Humphrey and Kennedy had attempted—and Joe Biden is attempting now—is a political nonstarter.
It’s simply incorrect to argue that mass political violence inevitably spurs a backlash that benefits conservatives. By 1970, Nixon sought to nationalize that year’s congressional elections as a referendum on law and order—even intentionally spurring crowd violence against himself for the cameras to capture. A columnist reported, “Nixon’s advance men this fall have carefully organized with local police to allow enough dissenters into the staging areas so the president will have his theme well illustrated.”
That this was a wrong, and overly simplistic, conclusion is suggested by another of that year’s election results—Bobby Kennedy’s. Campaigning in a Black neighborhood in Indianapolis for the Democratic primary in Indiana, a racially diverse bellwether state, he received word of Martin Luther King’s assassination before it had become public—before his audience knew. So he broke the news to them in a tender, improvised rhetorical masterpiece in which, for the first time publicly, he reflected on the assassination of his brother and the pain of losing someone you love to violence. The fact that Indianapolis was one of few big cities not to face rioting that day is often attributed to Kennedy’s speech. And though the reasons are many and complex, and still debated today, he won the primary.
Once, in San Jose, disappointed that no one heckled Nixon during a speech, his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, gave protesters time to mass outside afterward, then had the president leap up on the hood of his limousine in their midst. He was obliged with the expected hail of rocks while jutting out his chin and making his trademark two-handed V-salute, providing footage that made all the evening newscasts. “That’s what they hate to see!” he exulted.
But Republicans that year underperformed expectations. When disorder is all around them, voters tend to blame the person in charge for the disorder—and, sometimes, punish those who exploit it for political gain.
It’s also not correct to argue that such disorder harms prospects for progressive change. Sometimes, in fact, it has spurred it. Political scientist David Srketny credits the urban disorders of the 1960s with moving corporations to commit to affirmative action. Riots following the Rodney King beating are credited with spurring Congress to pass legislation granting federal oversight over police departments—a power that lasted until Jeff Sessions, as Trump’s attorney general, rolled it back. And the event that we now honor with Pride parades was not only a riot, but a particularly ugly one: the folks who set it off trapped cops raiding their bar, and then tried to burn it down. But no one would deny Stonewall led to progressive change.
The politics of riots are complex, ambiguous—and especially, in our present circumstances, unpredictable. Though it’s become commonplace to place Trump in a long lineage of right-wing racism-exploiters that runs through Nixon and Reagan, it’s also important to grasp the real discontinuities. Unlike any Republican president before him, Trump is risking the consequences of being openly racist. Nixon—and even, in his 1968 and 1972 presidential runs, George Wallace—at least paid lip service to the goal of racial justice. That’s because even white people who regularly said and did things harmful to Black Americans didn’t want to believe that association with a particular candidate marked them as racist.
So they made it a priority to have Reagan campaign before Black audiences—for instance before the Urban League at its annual convention in New York, even though they knew they would only win a tiny fraction of Black voters. “We weren’t expecting to pick up any Black votes in New York,” one adviser noted. “We just want to show moderates and liberals”—if it were 2020 he would say “suburban voters”—“that Reagan wasn’t anti-Black.”
The day before his Urban League appearance, as it happens, Reagan gave his infamous speech in Mississippi at the Neshoba County Fair, in which he championed “states’ rights” with Confederate flags behind him. He stood just a few miles from the site of the most infamous lynching of the 1960s, and in a place where barnstorming politicians had for decades deployed states’ rights rhetoric as a synonym for racial dominance.
That speech is widely credited with setting the tenor for Reagan’s campaign, especially in the South. But my research suggests things were more complicated. The backlash to Reagan’s most explicit foray into race-baiting was so immediate and so intense, it was widely judged by Republican strategists as a mistake. One Mississippi GOP official, in fact, worried that Reagan’s rhetoric was so embarrassing to moderate white Mississippians that it might throw the state to Jimmy Carter.
It didn’t—but where Barry Goldwater got 87 percent of the vote in Mississippi in 1964, in 1980 Reagan only edged Carter by one percent. White Southerners, by 1980, dearly wished to see themselves as “colorblind.” A racist dogwhistle that was too easily audible wasn’t useful.
So in Reagan’s homestretch swing through Texas, the campaign put a Black state legislator up front at their rallies, including one broadcast on statewide TV, for maximal prominence in reaction shots of the crowd. I’ve seen that trick pulled off at every Republican convention since—until, that is, 2016.
It’s often said that Donald Trump takes the dogwhistle and turns it into a train whistle. Looting, shooting: Sure, he, too, apes Reagan in attempting public appeals to African Americans, the better to soothe those suburban whites. But “MAGA loves the black people” does not appear to be doing the trick.
As Greg Sargent has noted in the Washington Post, Trump in 2018 turned up the volume on the train whistle—“relentlessly painting nonwhite immigrants as criminals and murderers.” What happened? The fallout of support among educated white suburbanites handed Republicans defeat after defeat.
Will the awful events in Minneapolis and Louisville and Atlanta and New York (and who knows how long the list will be by weekend’s end?), and the president’s racist grunts in response, beat out compassion, context, and empathy? Predictions are perilous. But history suggests that, even among voters bunkered behind their picket fences, they might not.
Nixon lacked the cable network’s advantage, but are its viewers misled?
When President Richard Nixon’s Watergate misconduct was being dissected before congressional committees in 1973 and 1974, Republican support for him collapsed because most Americans shared news sources and inhabited a similar political reality.
In short, facts mattered.
Aides to Nixon did propose to him a plan to create sympathetic television news coverage; Roger Ailes backed the idea; and it eventually evolved into Fox News. And today Fox gives President Trump an important defense system that Nixon never had.
Fox was the most popular television network for watching the first day of impeachment hearings this week, with 2.9 million viewers (57 percent more than CNN had), and Fox viewers encountered a very different hearing than viewers of other channels.
With Rep. Adam Schiff on the screen, Fox News’s graphic declared in all caps: “TRUMP HAS REPEATEDLY IMPLIED THAT SCHIFF HAS COMMITTED TREASON.” At a different moment, the screen warned: “9/26: SCHIFF PUBLICLY EXAGGERATED SUBSTANCE OF TRUMP-ZELENSKY CALL.”
Fox downplayed the news and undermined the witnesses. While Ambassador William Taylor was shown testifying, the Fox News screen graphic declared: “OCT 23: PRESIDENT TRUMP DISMISSED TAYLOR AS A “NEVER TRUMPER.” It also suggested his comments were, “TRIPLE HEARSAY.”
Researchers have found that Fox News isn’t very effective at informing Americans. A 2012 study by Fairleigh Dickinson University reported that watching Fox News had “a negative impact on people’s current events knowledge.”
The study found that those who regularly watched Fox News actually knew less about both domestic and international issues than those who watched no news at all. N.P.R. listeners were particularly well-informed, the study found, but even people who got their news from a comedy program like “The Daily Show” — or who had no news source whatsoever — knew more about current events than Fox viewers.
That may be correlation rather than causation, but at the least it suggests that viewers of Fox News don’t actually learn much.
Yet if Fox News doesn’t inform citizens, it does sway their votes. Two Stanford scholars, Gregory J. Martin and Ali Yurukoglu, published a paper in American Economic Review in 2017 suggesting that without the network, the Republican share of the vote for president would have been 0.46 percentage points lower in 2000, 3.6 points lower in 2004 and 6.3 percentage points lower in 2008.
Let’s pause here to acknowledge that Fox News has some excellent reporters, and let me just say that I’m jealous of Chris Wallace’s interviewing skill. It’s unfair that the real Fox reporters are tainted by blowhards like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, who engage less in journalism than in presidential public relations.
There’s no easy solution at a time when we’re all so polarized, but we can try to stand up for democratic and journalistic norms. It’s of course true that I live in a glass house. I’ve made countless mistakes in my career, and this newspaper makes them almost every day.
Yet that shouldn’t have stopped us from criticizing Father Charles Coughlin’s anti-Semitic radio broadcasts in the 1930s, and it shouldn’t stop us today from pointing out that Fox regularly hands the microphone to a guest, Joseph DiGenova, who might have made Joe McCarthy blush with this absurd anti-Semitic rant: “There’s no doubt that George Soros controls a very large part of the career Foreign Service at the United States State Department.”
While Democrats feel victimized by Fox News and allies like Rush Limbaugh, it’s also true that this right-wing cocoon is a disservice to its own true believers — because it feeds them misinformation. We saw that in the Iraq War, when Fox News anticipated that troops would be welcomed with flowers and that the war would pay for itself.
Early in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I spent a scary, violent day with U.S. troops, and that night we watched a feed of Fox News — and our jaws dropped as commentators ridiculed critics of the invasion and blithely insisted that Iraqis were welcoming us as heroes. The troops and I looked at each other in astonishment.
The right-wing media bubble and its conspiracy theories can even be lethal. During the 2009-10 swine flu epidemic, Democrats and Republicans initially expressed roughly equal concern. But then conservative commentators denounced the Obama administration’s calls for vaccination as a nefarious plot. Glenn Beck, then of Fox News, warned that he would do “the exact opposite” of what the administration recommended.
As a result, Democrats in the end were 50 percent more likely to seek vaccination than Republicans, according to the Journal of Health, Politics and Law. Some 18,000 people died in that flu epidemic, so it seems logical that some died because they believed Fox News.
I wonder if Fox viewers are again being misled when they watch Hannity celebrate the opening of the impeachment hearings as a victory for Trump and as “a lousy day for the corrupt, do-nothing-for-three-years radical extreme socialist Democrats.” That is, shall we say, a quixotic interpretation.
In the meantime, Fox News is aggressively defending Trump, joining in smears of public servants and playing a role in history that embarrasses many of us in journalism.
Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of a secret White House taping system in Senate testimony. Trump once suggested that he may have covertly taped his conversations with Comey, though on Thursday he denied doing so. Nixon claimed the special prosecutor’s office was made up of political partisans out to get him, and Trump calls Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his staff “very bad and conflicted people.” Both presidents have also sharply criticized the press, calling it the “enemy.”
As if all these parallels are not enough, Trump’s surrogates have raised the possibility that he will fire Mueller, too. Presidential confidant and Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy told reporters earlier this month he believed Trump was considering the dismissal. Incredibly, longtime Trump supporter Roger Stone, who himself worked on Nixon’s reelection campaign, has loudly encouraged Trump to reprise the Saturday Night Massacre by firing Mueller. This despite the fact that Mueller—tapped to lead the FBI by George W. Bush in 2001 and selected by Trump’s own deputy attorney general to lead the Russia inquiry, has been on the job for only a month and is still hiring staff.
If Trump’s actions seem like a ham-fisted imitation of Nixon’s, they are no laughing matter. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she is “increasingly concerned” that Trump will fire Mueller, and send a message that he “believes the law doesn’t apply to him, and that anyone who believes otherwise will be fired”—a perhaps unintentional allusion to Nixon himself, who once said that when a president does something, “that means that it is not illegal.” The usual limits on presidential power must apply to Trump, Feinstein argued: “The Senate should not let that happen. We’re a nation of laws that apply equally to everyone, a lesson the president would be wise to learn.”
The question is not whether Trump can fire Mueller—it is whether it would be a misuse of executive power for him to do so. Should Trump let Mueller go, it would spark a constitutional crisis the likes of which the country has not seen in four decades. The business of Congress would grind to a halt and the stock market would suffer a shock. With Comey’s dismissal as the backdrop, there could be an immediate resolution introduced in the House for Trump’s impeachment for attempting to obstruct a lawful, ongoing criminal investigation.
Rod Rosenstein, in his role as acting attorney general, followed the law in appointing Mueller to be special counsel to “ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election” and related matters. It should be remembered that Nixon was named by the Watergate grand jury as an unindicted co-conspirator in a conspiracy to obstruct justice, and that the House Judiciary Committee cited his interference with Cox’s investigation among the grounds for voting in favor of impeachment. And only former President Gerald Ford’s pardon precluded an indictment of citizen Nixon for obstruction.
In Watergate, there were several Republicans in both houses who are remembered for putting country above party loyalty. The die-hards who stood with Nixon until the end—not so much. If Trump were to fire Mueller to cut off a full investigation, it would fall to congressional Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, to determine whether the United States continues to be a nation of laws. Americans would see whether a new
- Howard Baker,
- Lowell Weicker,
- Tom Railsback,
- Bill Cohen,
- Caldwell Butler, or
- Hamilton Fish
would step forward and join with Democrats, who would no doubt sponsor an impeachment resolution. Or would GOP lawmakers simply go along with a foolhardy reenactment of the Watergate scandal’s Saturday Night Massacre?
When the history of the Trump administration is written, one moment in mid-2017 may be seen as decisive—a moment when a staff member saved the president from himself.
On June 17, according to the report by special counsel Robert Mueller released last week, the president called White House Counsel Don McGahn at home and ordered him to tell the Justice Department to fire Mr. Mueller, just as the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election was getting under way. Mr. McGahn declined to carry out the order.
Then, about six months later, when word of the president’s attempt to fire the special counsel leaked out, Mr. Trump met with Mr. McGahn in the Oval Office and pressured him to deny the account publicly. Again, Mr. McGahn refused.
Had Mr. McGahn agreed to do what Mr. Trump wanted—to have Mr. Mueller fired and later create a false narrative about the effort—the case that the president had attempted to obstruct justice would have been much stronger. As it is, Mr. Mueller declined to say whether the president had or hadn’t obstructed justice; the Justice Department has decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show he did so; and Democratic leaders in Congress, much as they are under pressure from activists in the party to impeach Mr. Trump, are skeptical they have a case for doing so.
The Trump-McGahn exchanges point to an important, larger truth: Presidents need people around them who aren’t simply yes-men and yes-women who will blindly do their bidding. They need aides willing to take the tough step of challenging the leader of the free world. One key question is whether Mr. Trump still has enough of them around him.
Anybody who manages an organization recognizes—or should recognize—the need to have subordinates who can walk the fine line between being loyal and being willing to tell the president he or she is making a mistake. Playing that role as a staff member is particularly tough in the rarified air of the White House—and especially in this White House, where the boss has shown a penchant for lashing out at anyone seen as disloyal.
Yet history is replete with examples of the need to have White House aides willing to stand up to the boss. “That lesson cries out” from the Mueller report, says presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
President Richard Nixon, a mercurial man, was self-aware enough to recognize his need for such staff work. When he was preparing to take office, he wrote a memo to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, specifically authorizing him to ignore orders that seemed impetuous or ordered in anger. “There may be times when you or others may determine that the action I have requested should not be taken,” Nixon wrote, according to a definitive biography by John A. Farrell. “I will accept such decisions but I must know about them.”
Mr. Haldeman and others acted accordingly, a practice that proved crucial as Nixon descended into depression amidst the Watergate crisis that ended his presidency. One Nixon aide recalled years later that the president, apparently drunk, encountered him in a White House hallway late at night during the opening phases of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and seemed to order him to unleash an American bombing attack on Syria. The order was ignored, and apparently forgotten by the president the next day.
Aides to President Ronald Reagan were frequently excoriated by conservatives for failing to “let Reagan be Reagan” when they pushed back against presidential instincts. Yet Mr. Reagan always defended his staff’s right to do so, and disputed the idea that he was being badly served by strong aides.
In his memoir, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounts a bitter argument with President Obama over implementation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that compelled military commanders to discharge or separate gays and lesbians from other troops if their sexual orientation became known. That policy was being disputed in the courts, and there was a movement in Congress to change the law. Mr. Obama wanted his defense chief to suspend implementation of the policy in the meantime.
Though he supported changing the law, Mr. Gates refused, arguing that existing law couldn’t simply be disregarded. Congress soon passed legislation changing the practice, which included a period to certify that a new policy could be implemented smoothly. It’s likely the change went down better with commanders because Mr. Gates had shown the need to abide strictly by law.