In a recent 95-minute rant, Donald Trump amped up his outrageousness. It included the usual egomania, personal denunciations of his rivals, the angry calls for bombs away and mass deportations, the ethnic and racial animus and even the indictment of Iowa voters for stupidity if they were considering voting for anyone but him.
As usual the conventional wisdom suggests he’s a goner. The theme song of the Trump Can’t Last Choir should be John Lennon’s “I told you before, your can’t do that.” But so far Trump has appeared immune to the usual rules. How long can this go on? Maybe eight years. Something similar has happened before. In 1968, for instance.
Generally in presidential politics the perceived optimist defeats the pessimist, the safe, solid, reliable character the unhinged loose cannon, the likeable outpolls the prickly or unpleasant, and the sunny defeats the angry or mean-spirited. But not in tumultuous times.
By almost all these usual metrics, Richard Nixon should have had no chance for a comeback. He’d begun his career as an angry, redbaiting member of Congress, a master of the McCarthyite smear. Eisenhower reluctantly put him on the ticket to appeal to the paranoid wing of the party and to serve as an attack dog so people could continue to like Ike.
Nixon lost the presidency narrowly to Kennedy largely on style points. Kennedy seemed a sunny charmer, promising better days ahead. Nixon came across as a dark, doomy Uriah Heep. He completed his self-destruction by losing a bid for the Governorship of California and then angrily denouncing the press in his farewell concession.
Yet 1968 allowed him to pull off a miraculous resurrection because the country was deeply divided. Vietnam was a hemorrhaging wound that had already persuaded Johnson not to seek re-election. There was racial and campus unrest as well as a generational divide. Young and old, urban and rural, prosperous and struggling saw the world very differently.
The Democrats reflected these divides in a contentious primary process in which peace candidate Gene McCarthy challenged his party’s president, the idealistic Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and the winner of the nomination, Vice President Humphrey, was chained to Johnson’s unpopular war and to a civil rights record that divided the country.
Nixon ran on a secret plan to end the war, which turned out to be a fiction. He concocted the Southern Strategy to run a race-baiting, nativist campaign that appealed to the darker angels of our natures. He painted himself as strong and decisive and his rival as weak and pusillanimous. He warned that America was in decline, that giveaways to minorities were bankrupting the country and radical liberals were un-American. He appointed himself the paladin of the “silent majority.”
In effect he invented the culture wars trope by running as the exemplar of family values, tradition, God, law and order against liberals, hippies, peaceniks, commie sympathizers. He made inroads on the blue collar vote by implying he was the patriot, Humphry and the Democrats not. He played to fear, not hope. With all that, he still barely eked out a win. And the character this campaign revealed – angry, bitterly divisive, suspicious, ruthless – eventually doomed him.
And here we go again. The country is bitterly divided between haves and have-nots. It is war weary, yet fearful of an alien enemy at the gates. Demographics are changing dramatically in ways that are unsettling to an older generation. Old values seem to be under attack. The time is ripe for the rise of a demagogue. We could be looking at another 1968.
There’s one huge caveat when it comes to Trump. Nixon was a disciplined, organized, relentless, shrewd, Machiavellian campaigner. Trump appears to be far less disciplined and ad hoc, far more likely to go too far or wear thin. Some in the party and in the opposition begin to worry that there may be a far more dangerous, Nixonian figure waiting in the wings for a Trump misstep. And his name is Cruz.