The year 1968 is gouged into American history as a troubled time. The United States was embroiled in an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, race riots churned through American cities, and two heroes, Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy, fell to the bullets of assassins. The monumental progress on domestic legislation led by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson between 1964 and 1966 had given way to chaos, division, and dissent.
Enter Richard Nixon. The Republican nominee, after a failed bid for the presidency in 1960, promised to bring peace in Vietnam and restore order at home. ‘Tricky Dick’, as he would come to be known, earned a mixed record on both accounts, but his sweeping victory in 1968 was at least in part a result of his ability to present himself as the ‘law and order candidate’.
Jump forward 48 years and Donald Trump is attempting a Nixon Twist in this election cycle.
After a bruising and controversial Republican primary season, Donald Trump was officially announced as the 2016 Republican nominee for president. Many within the Republican Party have vocally hoped that he would tone down his fiery, often divisive language that characterised his campaign, and adopt a more optimistic, welcoming tone.
His prolonged shout of a speech at the Republican National Convention dispelled such hopes.
With fear of terrorism growing and civil unrest boiling over due to police shootings of young black men and the assassination of police officers, Donald Trump has sought to claim the mantle of the ‘law and order’ candidate. Instead of moving to a more conciliatory position – to win over women, hispanics, and young people – he has focused on amplifying the anxiety felt by Americans.
His speech was an aggressive, meandering exhortation of threats to America, underlined by a hostility to his Democratic opponent that is almost unprecedented in national politics. The earlier speeches by former rival Chris Christie and former Mayor of New York Rudy Guiliani set the tone for the Convention: Christie stage managed a crowd chant of ‘lock her up’, and Guiliani pumped his fist in rage from his vitriolic pulpit.
With exception of the more positive speeches by Donald Trump’s children and wife, the Republican National Convention was not an echo chamber of American anger: it was a loudspeaker.
Trump has actively chosen to ignore a 25 year decline in violent crime and instead focus on a recent uptick in urban criminality in order to justify his clenched fist approach to politics.
For white male Americans, Trump’s brand of machismo in the face of civil and international unrest seems to be working. Since Donald Trump is directly benefiting from the sense of unrest and anxiety, it is in his interest to whip up anger and concern over terrorists, immigrants, and crime.
Some political commentators have warned of a rise in ‘Caesarism’, whereby Americans are willingly surrendering certain ideals or moral standards for the sake of electing a strongman individual who promise he, alone, can solve every problem despite lacking detailed or practical solutions. This is exactly the sort of populist king that the Founders has hoped to prevent rising through the American constitutional structure.
Another important way in which Nixon’s 1968 campaign is remembered is as the moment the Republican Party made a concerted shift towards a ‘southern strategy’. The southern strategy meant the Republican Party essentially yielded support of non-white Americans to the Democrats, in order to mobilise and excite white Americans, predominantly located in the south.
Donald Trump has also doubled down on white support. The RNC audience was disproportionally white, and his platform frequently scapegoats hispanics, Muslims or inner city African Americans. If it isn’t these groups, Trump will blame the liberal media, government officials, or political correctness; anything that empowers his pitch to white America and allows him to ignore the complexity of today’s problems while providing simplistic answers.
While Richard Nixon claimed to be speaking for the ‘silent majority’, Donald Trump told his not-so-silent support base ‘I am your voice’.
Donald Trump is taking certain parts of Nixon’s 1968 strategy and laying it over the ethnic and socio-economic contours of America in 2016. Perhaps most worrying, and unlike Nixon, he has actively sought to portray his political opponents as enemies of America. He has insinuated that Barack Obama favours Islamist regimes and deliberately allowed attacks to be perpetrated in Orlando and San Bernardino. His GOP lieutenants now tell his angry support base that Hillary Clinton belongs in jail or convicted of treason.
Trump’s Nixon twist thrives off chaos internationally and internally. The more uncertainty creeps into news headlines and popular media, the more Trump calls upon America to place their faith in his strongman politics, his own personal Caesarism. If 2016 continues to see civil unrest and international terror attacks, Trump might just take the White House.