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Donald Trump Is No Richard Nixon

The Republican candidate is embracing an electoral strategy that worked just fine in 1968. Too bad it's 2016.

AFP/Getty Images

In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa on Saturday, Donald Trump took a strong “law and order” line, declaring, “The first civil right is safety.” As Maggie Haberman of The New York Times shrewdly noted, Trump was echoing a 1968 ad where Richard Nixon exploited concern about crime and riots by stating, “The first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence.” This wasn’t the first time Trump has mimicked Nixon. Back in July, Paul Manafort, then Trump’s campaign manager, said that the Republican nominee was modeling his convention speech on the one Nixon gave at the 1968 convention. “We looked at previous conventions speeches,” Manafort said. “The one he focused on, though, was Nixon in 1968.”

The 2016 campaign is often compared to the 1968 election. “We’re living in neo-1968,” Stephen Marche lamented in Esquire. These analogies are a bit overdrawn: Fortunately, this year hasn’t seen a repeat of the major assassinations of 1968 (Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy) nor mass riots in many cities. 

But to the extent that “neo-1968” is a useful concept, it’s actually a reassuring one. If Trump is trying to be Nixon Redux, it’s because he’s surrounded himself with 1960s and 1970s relics. Trump’s closest advisers tend to skew old, and for them the Nixon administration was their youth. Which also means that their sense of American politics is long out of date. 

Manafort himself started his political career in the wake of Nixon’s resignation, helping the Republican Party rebuild after Watergate. Roger Ailes, the disgraced former head of Fox News who is now helping Trump with his debate preparation, entered the political world in 1968 by helping Nixon adapt to a medium he was uncomfortable with, television. Roger Stone, Trump’s freelance hatchetman, got his start as a political dirty trickster for Nixon, a period of his life memorialized by the Nixon tattoo on his back. 

For men like Manafort, Ailes, and Stone, the Nixon years were formative. “I never had a political thought until they asked me to join the Richard Nixon presidential campaign,” Ailes has said. His biographer Gabriel Sherman argues that Ailes “imbibed Nixon’s worldview, learning how to connect to the many ordinary Americans who felt left behind by the upheavals of the 1960s.” 

Nor was Ailes the only Republican operative for whom 1968 was formative. As Michael Cohen argues in his thoughtful and revelatory new book American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division, the formula Nixon developed to win that election has become the script for the Republican worldview of the last 40 years:

Out of 1968 a defining political narrative would emerge. The political stereotypes that have characterized American politics over the past 40 years—the “strong and resolute,” “touch on crime,” “defender of cultural values,” “small government” Republican, as opposed to the “weak,” “unpatriotic,” “tax and spend,” “big government,” liberal elite,” beholden to the special interest” Democrat—emerged or were reinforced. Since 1968 they have become the prism through which Americans view both political parties—and in turn their own government. 

There are many reasons why adopting Nixon’s strategy won’t work. The demographics of the electorate have changed dramatically. In 1968, whites were more than 90 percent of the electorate. They are likely to be only 69 percent of the electorate in the coming election, a much less favorable terrain for advocating a politics of white resentment. Moreover, the salience of “law and order” is different in an era of steeply rising crime, like the 1960s, than it is in contemporary America, where the crime rate has been, with a few blips, going down since the early 1990s.  

But perhaps the biggest problem Trump faces is that he’s used racial dog whistles with much less tact than Nixon. Nixon borrowed his “law and order” pitch from George Wallace, but was careful to strip it of overt racism. Trump has followed a different course. He talked like George Wallace during the primaries and tried to reinvent himself as Nixon after he secured the nomination. 

In a telephone interview, Michael Cohen cogently explained why Trump’s attempt to mix Wallace and Nixon isn’t likely to work. “Nixon ends up to a large extent imitating a lot of Wallace’s rhetoric,” Cohen noted. “I think the thing people forget about 1968 is that Nixon didn’t really run a divisive campaign in 1968. He talked about ‘law and order’ but ‘law and order’ was a legitimate issue, crime was a legitimate problem in 1968. He tried to stay away from being a divisive figure in part not to offend Democrats who might be thinking of voting for him. He genuinely saw the benefits of trying to be a unifying figure.”

Cohen added, “It says a lot about the trajectory of the Republican Party that Nixon took bits and pieces of Wallace’s rhetoric and used it to his benefit but it wasn’t his entire message. Now it’s become the entire message of the Republican Party. The resentment, the playing on white fears and white anxiety. I think one reason why the Republicans have become so marginalized as a party on a presidential level is because they’ve basically become the party of people like Wallace, a divisive and polarizing figure.”  

The 37th president of the United States was famous for his reinventions, offering a “new Nixon” for almost every electoral season. In fact, in 1968 Ailes advised Nixon to brazenly offer contradictory messages to different audiences, secure in the knowledge that no one would figure out they were being fooled. As Gabriel Sherman records in his biography of Ailes, under Ailes’s tutelage “Nixon could also calibrate his response to the sensibility of different audiences. Thus he would affirm civil rights in Chicago, but hedge on school integration weeks later in Charlotte.” 

Trump has been trying something similar, speaking about Mexican rapists one day and tweeting about his love of taco bowls on other occasions. This is the Trump who tweeted in February, “I have a lawsuit in Mexico’s corrupt court system that I won but so far can’t collect. Don’t do business with Mexico!” A few months later he adopts the posture of a statesman by making a quick trip to Mexico. The problem is that Trump lives in the age of YouTube and screenshots, so his various shifts have become part of the permanent record. 

Even a quick-change artist like Nixon would have hesitated at all the pivots Trump has attempted. And even more so, Nixon would have realized that you can’t go the full George Wallace in the primaries, then transform into a respectable politician two months before election day. In 1968, Nixon and Wallace got a combined total of nearly 57 percent of the vote. Donald Trump is likely to get far less than that, because at the end of the day 2016 is not 1968.