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opinion

Last month, American presidential historian Michael Beschloss tweeted out of a photo of a former U.S. president, looking old and out of step while on a concert stage with a group of hip musicians and cool kids in bell bottoms. Caption: “Nixon tries to fit into 1972.”

Richard Nixon, the 37th U.S. president, didn’t exactly click with his era’s youth culture. But just as every viral photo is worth a thousand words, what’s outside the frame is sometimes worth ten thousand more.

Not long after that 1972 photo was taken, the Republican incumbent was re-elected in an unprecedented landslide, winning nearly 61 per cent of the popular vote and capturing every state except Massachusetts. Mr. Nixon even won a majority of the youth vote.

Just so we’re clear, Mr. Nixon was, without getting into all the details, a terrible president. But an election isn’t about who’s right; that’s for posterity to sort out. An election is about who gets the most votes.

Mr. Nixon won two elections in a row, powered by a group he called his “silent majority.” In a country that was at the time wracked by very public unrest and upheaval, some of it violent, some of it out in the streets and much of it having a racial dimension, Mr. Nixon took advantage of that fatal alchemy, running as the law-and-order candidate.

That was a long time ago, but not so long ago that you can’t hear the echoes. Donald Trump certainly can. So can many American voters in the swing states that Mr. Trump surprisingly won or nearly won in 2016, from Pennsylvania to Florida and Michigan to Minnesota.

The vast majority of Americans, of all races, were shocked by the video of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police; there is simply no defending it, and even Mr. Trump hasn’t tried. As a result, to the extent that the protests sparked by Mr. Floyd’s death are peaceful, and to the extent they focus on police misconduct against all citizens and racism against African-Americans, they will be successful.

However, to the extent that peaceful marches get pushed off TV screens and social-media feeds, and replaced with images of violence – whether through violent overreactions by the police or looting and arson by opportunists and agitators on the extreme left or right – the public perception of the story will change. And Mr. Trump, who is always happy to see a situation radicalized, will be a beneficiary.

It’s one reason why prominent African-American Democrats from places where peaceful protests have been followed by rioting and looting, from the mayor of Atlanta to the mayor of St. Paul, Minn., immediately decried the lawlessness as unacceptable, and entirely counterproductive. Burning down a store, or a neighbourhood, doesn’t improve policing or end racism, or bring justice to anyone.

A peaceful protest is a right; a riot isn’t. Marching is a right; looting isn’t. That’s not just the law, it’s how most people, and most voters of all races, see things, whether in the U.S. or Canada. Along with scenes of destruction in some American cities there have also been remarkable instances of peaceful marchers preventing others from using their protest as cover for criminality.

Some say that groups of extreme right-wing provocateurs are behind the violence; others claim that the extreme left-wing group Antifa, as it has done before, is taking advantage of the situation to practise its politics of window-smashing and slogan-spraying.

It almost doesn’t matter whether it’s one, the other, or both. Antifa and right-wing militias are flip sides of the same coin. They’re a tiny, silent minority – an extreme fringe of people who cannot get elected to anything, and who reject democratic politics and liberal ideals. Groups like Antifa only make appearances at riots because, beyond breaking stuff and hoping to provoke a backlash, they have nothing to say.

Mr. Trump has spent the past few days tweeting furiously at Democratic mayors and governors, urging them to use maximum force, while himself threatening on Monday night to deploy U.S. troops. He too wants to provoke a backlash – whether that’s police going overboard, or Democratic politicians reluctant to criticize rioters, for fear of sounding like the President.

Mr. Trump has nothing useful to say about how to fix what ails America. However, he knows rather a lot about how to use what’s ailing America to further his own re-election chances.