U.S. President Doanld Trump speaks after the successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the manned Crew Dragon spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Earlier in the day NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley lifted off on the inaugural flight and will be the first people since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 to be launched into space from the United States.
Trump tells governors they must 'dominate' protesters
02:54 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

On Monday night, President Donald Trump addressed the nation with words presumably meant to reassure: ” I am your President of law and order.”

Whether Trump realized it or not – and my guess is he did – by invoking the idea of being a “law and order” president, he was tapping into a long history of presidents leaning on the idea of strict adherence to the rule of law to squelch civil disobedience often by minority communities in the country.

The use of the phrase “law and order” came into common presidential parlance during the late 1960s as President Richard Nixon sought to soothe a (white) populace unnerved by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the protests and riots that broke out in reaction to King’s slaying. (There had been more than 150 race riots in the country in 1967 alone.)

Here’s part of Nixon’s acceptance speech at the 1968 Republican National Convention:

“Because, my friends, let this message come through clear from what I say tonight. Time is running out for the merchants of crime and corruption in American society.

“The wave of crime is not going to be the wave of the future in the United States of America.

“We shall re-establish freedom from fear in America so that America can take the lead in re-establishing freedom from fear in the world.

“And to those who say that law and order is the code word for racism, there and here is a reply:

“Our goal is justice for every American. If we are to have respect for law in America, we must have laws that deserve respect.

“Just as we cannot have progress without order, we cannot have order without progress, and so, as we commit to order tonight, let us commit to progress.”

Nixon repeatedly insisted throughout the fall campaign that “law and order” was something all Americans wanted – and that it had little to do with playing on the racial animus and fears of white Americans directed at black Americans. In response to a question from a black panelist at a debate that year, Nixon sought to find a middle ground away from the clear weaponizing of race espoused by George Wallace, who was running a third-party bid for president.

“I have often said that you cannot have order unless you have justice, because if you stifle dissent, if you just stifle progress, you’re going to have an explosion and you’re going to have disorder,” Nixon said. “On the other hand, you can’t have progress without order, because when you have disorder, and revolution, you destroy all of the progress you have.”

But once elected, Nixon returned to just the sort of purposefully racialized language that he had insisted he wasn’t using. “Law and order” evolved into the “silent majority” – Nixon’s signifier for the older, whiter Americans who might not be as outspoken as the younger, more diverse elements of American society but who comprised a majority that elected him and could reelect him.

(Worth noting: Nixon’s initial invocation of the “silent majority” in a speech in 1969 had nothing to do with race. He was seeking to justify his renewed commitment to winning the Vietnam War and contrasting anti-war activists with the “silent majority” of Americans who supported his stance.)

The political efficacy of Nixon’s call to “law and order” was not lost on those Republican politicians who followed him in the presidency.

Ronald Reagan, who, on the day of King’s funeral in 1968, called it a “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break,” took up Nixon’s “law and order” mantle when he ran for and won the White House in 1980. (Reagan lost the nomination to Nixon in 1968.)

In office, Reagan’s law and order focus was at the heart of his much-touted “war on drugs” – a deeply controversial program that led to an eight-fold increase in incarceration between 1980 and 1997, a massive surge that most directly impacted the black community.

In George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, the call to law and order again took center stage. That race pivoted on an ad run by Bush supporters that painted Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis as soft on crime – using a black man named Willie Horton who was let out on a weekend pass program approved by Dukakis and stabbed a man and raped his girlfriend.

The ad was effective, although widely renounced in retrospect for playing on racist stereotypes. Horton, sporting a beard and an Afro, was shown on screen throughout the ad. The message was crystal clear.

As Michael Nelson, who edited a book of essays on H.W. Bush’s presidency, told The New York Times’ Peter Baker in 2018: “In some ways, the Willie Horton ad is the 1.0 version of Trump’s relentless tweets and comments about African-Americans.”

Trump took what Nixon, Reagan and H.W. Bush had done on “law and order” and, as he does with everything, took it to its logical extreme.

“We must maintain law and order at the highest level or we will cease to have a country, 100 percent,” Trump said in a 2016 speech just days after a gunman had killed five police officers in Dallas. “We will cease to have a country. I am the law and order candidate.”

In his inaugural address, Trump painted a grim picture of an America under assault – and himself as the one person who was ready to clean up the streets. Here’s the key bit:

“But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

Trump’s campaign – and his presidency – has trafficked heavily in fear: Of people who don’t look like you, of foreign countries, of losing what you have to someone who doesn’t deserve it. The subtext has become text.

Need more proof of that direct line between Nixon and Trump on using race to divide us? The President provided it himself on Tuesday morning.

“SILENT MAJORITY!” he tweeted.

Yeah, that about covers it.

CNN’s Allison Gordon contributed to this report.