The Protests and the President

Amy Cobb, Director of Engagement and Special Projects

The murder of George Floyd has resulted in protests across the country. In this episode of EJB Talks, Associate Dean Stuart Shapiro, author of the Not Normal blog on the Trump Administration, discusses the president’s response to the protests and the likely electoral implications. With the protests layered on top of a still-persistent pandemic and a deepening economic recession, will the president’s militaristic response to civil disobedience result in more unrest? Will it help him win re-election?


Stuart Shapiro
Welcome to another episode of EJB Talks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the Associate Dean of the Faculty at the Bloustein School. And the purpose of this podcast is usually to talk with my colleagues about issues affecting people in New Jersey, the United States, and the world.

Today, we’re going to do something a little different. This podcast originally grew out of Facebook Live events that I did in the pre-COVID era, about presidential politics and the unique nature of the Trump administration. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we moved to a podcast format and began– instead of having me talk–interviewing my faculty colleagues and some of our alumni about how the fields of policy, planning, and healthcare were responding to the virus.

Now we have another crisis. For the past week, protests over the murder of George Floyd have roiled the country. At the Bloustein School, a place where we put diversity and social justice at the center of our mission, we feel this deeply as Dean Thakuriah, my boss, said this week, “…we must all stand up for our colleagues and fellow students of color. Go outside to your community and see how you a health professional, a planner, an analytics specialist, or someone in policy or public service, can respond to the horrific displays of racism we have witnessed.”

So for the next couple of podcasts, we’re going to pivot from COVID-19–although it may certainly come up–to discuss the Floyd murder and the ensuing protests. On Monday, we will have one of our alumni come by to discuss the protests and what they mean to the communities, and I urge you to tune in to what I think will be a great discussion. Today, we’re going to go back to having me talk, and I’m going to stay in my specialty area and talk about the protests from a macro-level perspective. And discuss the President’s response to the crisis.

Well, I guess the word response is putting it generously. I suppose one could say that pouring gasoline on a fire is a response to a fire. A man who, in his entire adult life has fostered division, is bringing that skill set to the worst civil unrest we’ve seen since the 1960s. The result is tensions running higher than they have since that historical and tumultuous decade. I’ll go on in a bit. But to give the conversation some structure, we’re going to have Amy Cobb, who used to help guide the Facebook Live events and is now a producer of these podcasts, step out from behind the glass and ask a few questions. And I’ll move from host to guest. Hi, Amy.

Amy Cobb
Hey, Stu. Thanks for having me on this side of the glass for today. I’m just going to ask you a couple of brief questions that I know you’ll be able to give us some perspective on. I think at this time, I’d like to get some more of your feedback regarding historical perspectives. And, maybe you can give us some good historical analogies for us to think about and discuss.

Stuart Shapiro
Sure. So there, there are a couple that comes to mind. It really does feel like we are at an inflection point right now. One has occurred several times in the history of this country. We have the pandemic going on, we have a massive recession going on, and now we have the protests over the Floyd murder. As some people have literally mentioned, it’s as if we combine all the worst aspects of the 1929 recession, the 1918 flu, and the 1968 riots. And all of those, I think, to some degree, provide some lessons and some guideposts for where we are right now.

Most immediately and most relevantly, particularly as it pertains to the protests, are the 1960s and 1968 in particular. When many major cities had riots, the Republican Party led by Richard Nixon campaigned on a law and order platform, which was barely-guised language for racism and such; borrowed heavily from George Wallace, who had been the segregationist governor of Alabama, and running for the Democratic nomination. Nixon indeed won in 1968, and it’s clear his law and order platform was important as far as that’s concerned. So it is easy to see both in the protests. and in Trump’s response to the protests. harkening back to 1968 and the election then. There are some differences though. And one can push the 1960s analogy a bit too far. Indeed, when Nixon was running on a law and order platform, he was complaining about a democratic presidency. Trump doesn’t have a democratic presidency to run against. He’s tried running against governors and mayors, but most of them are fairly popular. People tend to ascribe conditions as a whole to the President. And it’s very hard for the President to say things are bad, you should elect me and they won’t be bad anymore. And that’s essentially the argument Trump’s trying to make. And there are at least initial signs in the polling data that it’s not really resonating. And so that’s probably the biggest difference with the 1960s.

A second difference is if you look at the makeup of the protests–and I was at one last night, I know you were to–and it varies, of course from city to city and locality to locality. But the people out protesting are a much more diverse lot of individuals than one saw in the 1960s when the protests were race-based because they were protesting against awful, awful racial conditions. Now, when the protests are against police treatment of African Americans, we’re seeing a more diverse coalition. Still led, of course, by African American community leaders, but it’s drawing a much more diverse audience. And so that makes it different than the 1960s as well.

Trump has talked about activating the military to try and suppress the protests. It’s really an open question as to how the military will react to it. But one other historical analogy that comes to mind is, in the height of the depression, economic conditions much like we’re seeing, although worse than what we have right now. In 1932, President Hoover sent the military under General Douglas MacArthur, who would later be very, very famous in World War II and Korea–he sent the military to act, to break up Hoovervilles, little shanty towns set up by veterans who were upset that they weren’t getting the money owed them for their service in World War I. They had set up shanties in Washington, DC, protesting Hoover, calling them Hoovervilles. And Hoover sent the military in to break that up. It did not go over well with the public. And obviously, the people protesting are different than we’ve got now. But it’s another measure of the challenge Trump faces in trying to put down the protests. He may anger as many people as he, as he satisfies, I don’t think that will stop him from doing it, or trying to do it. Some of this may be bluster. Some of the protests may die out on their own over the next week or so. And then he’ll claim victory, saying, Oh, it’s because I threatened to send the military in that they died down when that really had nothing to do with it. In some ways that may be the best outcome from all perspectives.

Amy Cobb
So you kind of answered my next question about Trump’s response, but maybe I could get you to talk a little bit more about, specifically, his responses over the last few days. You talked about the military, I believe, is it a second in command–and please pardon me for the name–resigned yesterday because of what Trump had wanted the military to do? I mean, there are people in positions that are starting to take positions, but I don’t necessarily want them to leave. So Trump’s response, and how it will play out, is really important based on who we have serving and in positions in Trump’s administration right now. Can you speak to that at all?

Stuart Shapiro
Sure. I mean, it really is going to come down to sort of individual decisions of people in power. Yesterday, as you noted, a senior adviser, James Miller, resigned from his post at the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, protesting the actions of clearing Lafayette Park in DC with tear gas, allowing Trump his photo op in front of the church holding a Bible in a very awkward pose. And so the defense official certainly cited the Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s participation in that action. And so I think that’s important. You know, obviously, he’s not a key official or anything like that. Esper today said that he is opposed to invoking the Insurrection Act to put down the protests, which puts him in direct contrast to what Trump has said. So there’s another action, Esper, I think has probably, you know–not to speak highly of any of the things he’s done as Secretary of Defense–but he’s probably had some realization that he’s in a position where perhaps his subordinates in the military are not comfortable going after American citizens and he wants to keep them out of that position. And so doing, he took a position directly counter to the president. The president won’t be happy with that. I don’t think he’ll challenge Esper though.

With Trump, I think what we’ve learned over, you know, the three and a half years he’s been president, and his entire character behind that is someone who is a bully, and when challenged bullies tend to back down. And so I think Trump–most of Trump’s response–was bluster. Some of it was actual action. Certainly, there were tanks rolling through the streets of DC and one never wants to see that. We saw that yesterday. And I do think certainly there are probably those in the military, and particularly on police forces, that are somewhat sympathetic to Trump’s position. And we may have incidents arise out of the signals that they’re taking from the president. So I don’t want to minimize the danger that we’re facing there. I don’t think we will see a wholesale military presence within the country. And I think Esper’s comments this morning probably point us towards that.

Trump is doing the only thing he knows how to do really, which is divide. This is to mobilize his base to try and get them revved up and excited about the election, angry about the protests, hold the specter of racial tension over the country. And to paraphrase something he said in the 2016 campaign, leave people with the belief that only he can fix it. Obviously, in a democracy, that’s a very dangerous belief for anyone to have about a president of any ideological, any ideological strife. And so, having Trump, who clearly embraces the ideas of authoritarianism–even if he may not fully understand how to implement them– having him in that position right now, is clearly dangerous. That said, you know, I think the military will resist his attempts to use them as a prop and such. Will there be exceptions to that? Absolutely. And my hope is that we have the minimum number of exceptions and the minimum number of damage caused by interactions between either the military or the police and the protesters.

Amy Cobb
So I would be remiss–since usually, you and I are really talking about the election–to not ask you about your thoughts on what this could mean, with regard to the presidential election. You and I have both talked about this being the absolute least predictable year we’ve ever seen. But, you’ve been around, and I’d like to hear what you’re thinking right now?

Stuart Shapiro
Sure. Yeah, couple of thoughts. First of all, is the centrality the importance of this election. You know, I talked about how we’ve been through crises before. And in most crises, there is a critical election. In 1860, we elected Abraham Lincoln. And the course of the country was forever changed as a result. It’s hard to imagine where things would have gone had Stephen Douglas or someone else been elected president in that election. In 1932, in the depths of the recession, the depression excuse me, we elected Franklin Roosevelt and had another major change and major pivot. In 1968, when the riots in Newark and Detroit and other places were going on, we elected Richard Nixon. And certainly that was a response that had long term effects and indeed, I sort of attribute the movement towards republicans and conservatives over the subsequent generations and elections to that 1968 election and the strategy pursued by Nixon.

2020 we have a very similar election, I think. And one, that–and I try to refrain from hyperbole–but if Trump is given four more years in the Oval Office, it is somewhat scary to think about what someone who has the belief system and knowledge level that he has, would do. Particularly now that most of the restraints, most of the people that he appointed that might serve as breaks to him, are gone. And so yeah, this is a crucial election. And I think Trump is in trouble in the election. And pardon me, some people will say, oh, you’re a crazy optimist with that. But his approval ratings are not moving up. They are moving down if anything. They’re back in the 42 level. And that’s an awful position for an incumbent president to be in. It makes him look a lot more, from an electoral perspective, like President Carter, like the first President Bush heading into reelection. That it makes him look like President Obama, President W. Bush, or President Reagan or Clinton heading into reelection. So he faces a very difficult climb.

Now under normal circumstances, I think even at a 42 chance of getting re-elected because, we still have the onslaught that he will undoubtedly unleash on Biden, vice president Biden, the Democratic candidate. And that will make the election much closer than a 42% approval rating base may appear. But he also has a big challenge and that, the protests this week only add to that. But still, the fundamental challenge is, the underlying condition of the economy. And when come July, August, September, and people aren’t going back to work, and the economy is not restarting the way that he hopes it will, Trump is the person–much like he is the person on the hook for the chaos in the country–he’s also the person on the hook for the economy in the country. It’s very hard for him to complain about the economy when he is the president under whom the economy fell apart. He’ll blame the virus; he’ll blame shutdowns, he’ll blame China, he’ll blame Biden. But all of that is a very difficult sale for him to make in an electoral climate that also contains a virus that has not gone away and may resurge in the fall. And the protests that we have seen, the debates over police mistreatment of African Americans, and the tensions that that has created.

If you were going to draw up a situation in which you would not want to run for reelection, we’ve pretty much got it right now. That’s not to dismiss his chances by any means. He’s the incumbent. He has tremendous resources. He’s got a base that loves him and will turn out for him. All of those things will keep him in in the race till November 5, but he has a very much an uphill climb.

Amy Cobb
Well, thank you so much Stu for coming on with me today. I really appreciate it, And as always, your insights make me think more.

Stuart Shapiro
Well, let me… I will slip back into the role of host emcee here and give a big thank you to the production team Tamara Swedberg and Karyn Olsen. And especially Amy Cobb, who stepped out in front of the microphone today. We will be back next week, as I mentioned with one of our alumni to have another discussion about the protests. And in that conversation, we will focus much more on the micro-level and what’s going on in communities, why the protests are happening, and possibly what we could expect from there. Stay safe, be careful, and I’ll talk to you next week.