Longfellow could once say that “hardly a man is still alive” who remembered Paul Revere’s midnight ride in 1775. Today, Longfellow gazing on the presidential campaign could be forgiven for exclaiming “hardly a pundit working today seems to recall that hate elected Nixon in ’68.” If they did, they’d quit saying of the Trump campaign that they’ve never seen anything like this. In fact, Trump seems to have memorized large chunks of the Nixon playbook. Except Trump is executing them with a lot less finesse. It is like Nixon on banned substances.
The amnesia is not exactly a surprise. Chuck Todd and Megyn Kelly weren’t even born in 1968, and George Stephanopoulos, Joe Scarborough, Halperin and Heilemann were between the ages of seven and three when Tricky Dick pulled off his greatest illusion. What they missed was a poisonous election year, exploited with Machiavellian mastery. An anti-war faction in the sitting president’s own party had persuaded Lyndon Johnson not to seek re-election. Martin Luther King Jr. had turned his attention from desegregation and voting rights to racial inequality in economic terms and in the military in Vietnam. Bobby Kennedy was sounding similar themes in an insurgent campaign to deny Johnson’s Vice President the nomination. Both were gunned down before the conventions arrived. Inner city neighborhoods erupted in flames.
At the Democratic convention in Chicago, antiwar and civil rights protesters were met with armed force by the Chicago police which alleged an anarchist or communist conspiracy. After the fact, an investigation called it a police riot that inflicted on a largely peaceful assembly tear gas, beatings and the tossing of tie-dyed hippies into paddy wagons by their long hair. All of which played into the hands of the Republican candidate. His convention was also targeted but was cordoned off in a hermetically sealed area unreachable by protesters. He ran on the promise of a restoration of law and order which was benign enough to many Americans, but code to others for a crackdown on “un-American radicals” and uppity black folks. This was the beginning of the orchestrated culture war whose bard was Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan, a war between sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and American values and traditions.
Nixon claimed to speak for the silent majority who “obey the law, pay their taxes, go to church, send their children to school, love their country.” By implication if you were against him you were against obeying the law, and against God and country. In a similar example of jujitsu, he began to flash the “V” sign that had meant victory in war for older voters, but that had become the peace sign for young antiwar protesters. Again he was forcing the electorate to choose Churchillian victory with him or craven surrender with his enemies. He had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam, his foes wanted to cut and run. Hubert Humphrey was soft on communism. “The long dark night for America is about to end,” he told the voters. But implied our national descent would only stop if they voted him, not for Democrats. In a brilliant maneuver, he promised to end the draft in favor of an all-volunteer army, in effect defanging the anti-war movement.
Electorally, he deployed the Southern Strategy which was aimed at appealing to conservative whites who opposed desegregation. Since this was the first presidential race since the Civil Rights Act enfranchised millions of black voters, this was a potent flash point. He was for “neighborhood schools,” and against “forced busing,” code for opposition to civil rights. But alongside the racist George Wallace who was running as a third party candidate, Nixon managed to look moderate, which reassuring segregationists. Between them, Nixon and Wallace denied Democrats every state in the old Confederacy except for Johnson’s Texas. The South has been the bedrock of the Republican Party ever since.
And now we have Trump who is appealing to the same atavisms as Nixon, but far more crudely. He has a plan to defeat ISIS, but it is no secret. Bomb the hell out of them and banish all Muslims from America. He does have secret plans to beat our global competitors, to close our borders to immigrants, to keep out undesirables, to win. Trust him. His divisive and inflammatory rhetoric provokes protests, which he can then exploit by encouraging his crowds to share his desire to punch the disruptive oddballs in the face. And so they do. And this allows him to say the protesters caused the trouble because they are in effect anti-American, — or at least anti-Trump which comes to the same thing. He speaks for the average Joe, after all. Older, conservative, less educated, less affluent white men who feel the country is going in the wrong direction and leaving them behind. They are against gay marriage and abortion and illegal immigrants and Muslims and Washington ccompromisers and taxes and uppity blacks like Obama and assertive women like Hillary. Trump is for winners (him) and against turning the country over to losers (everybody else).
Like Nixon, Trump encourages his crowds to distrust and dislike the press because it tends to notice when he is making up statistics or distorting reality. Nixon had Spiro Agnew denounce the press as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Trump does it himself, inviting his crowds to take out their venom on reporters in the hall. Nixon kept a secret enemies list of people to get even with. Trump trumpets his. Indeed, his campaign is largely one long enemies list
Both men ran campaigns based less on hope and progress than on animus and a return to a supposedly superior status quo ante. Nixon’s politics was us against them and embraced the so-called paranoid style that blames all civic woes on dark forces, conspiracies, plots, outsiders, aliens, minorities, un-American malcontents who were mocked and marginalized. If it wasn’t for them, all would be well. Sound familiar?
And Hillary is poised to become the symbol of failure and weakness and surrender and losing, Hubert Humphrey to Trump’s Nixon. And for those who don’t remember, that didn’t end well.