In the spring of 1968, in the wake of James Earl Ray’s assassination of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, race riots erupted in urban centers across the U.S., including in Washington DC, Detroit, and Baltimore. The civil unrest in American cities, in conjunction with the seizure of the USS Pueblo by North Korea in January, the Vietcong’s successful Tet Offensive in South Vietnam in late January and February, LBJ’s decision not to seek a second term in March, the killing of RFK in June, and the violent police suppression of protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, offered tangible, televised proof to the American electorate that the United States teetered on the precipice of social and political disintegration.
Hoping to win the November presidential election, GOP candidate Richard Milhous Nixon promised the American people he would restore the U.S. at home and abroad. In America, he would reestablish law and order – a Nixonian euphemism for keeping white suburbanites safe from the blacks living in America’s urban ghettos; he’d also put the brakes on the Civil Rights movement and the push for racial integration. In Vietnam, he would achieve “Peace with Honor,” which meant the U.S. would wind down its involvement in the war while still ensuring a South Vietnam free from Communist influence. If he won the White House, Nixon intended on putting what he considered the unruly rabble (blacks, liberals, and anti-war protesters) back in their respective boxes, while reasserting white, middle class, conservative dominance of the social and political order.
Nixon’s electoral strategy paid off. White racial fears, astutely promoted by Nixon, helped ensure Tricky Dick’s election to the presidency. The Trump campaign has determined that presidential electoral politics in 2016 will be similar to those that prevailed in 1968. The U.S. is again bogged down in an un-winnable war against elusive guerrillas in a distant land. And like the air war directed against the Vietcong, American airpower cannot defeat the ISIS insurgents. At home, America’s cities are rife with racial tension – including Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago. American party politics are in disarray. Just look at the chaos that gripped the House of Representatives this month while the Republicans scrambled to elect a new Speaker. And once more, the U.S.’s white population feels threatened by a minority population – this time it’s predominantly Mexican-Americans; although inner-city blacks are also frightening the white middle class.
Taking a page (well, actually a whole chapter) out of Richard Nixon’s 1968 political playbook, Trump has engaged in deliberate race-baiting. Recall his comment this past summer. He said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems…They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” He later remarked, “…you have people coming through the [Mexican] border that are from all over. And they’re bad. They’re really bad.”
Trump claims he has a plan to defeat ISIS – although he won’t provide any of its specifics – contending that he doesn’t want to tip off the insurgents on how his administration will destroy them. In 1968, Nixon said the same about the war in Vietnam – he had a plan to end America’s military involvement in Indochina on terms favorable to the U.S. Yet, candidate Nixon refused to provide details on how he would achieve “Peace with Honor.” We now know Nixon did not have a plan. Instead, he prolonged the war to ensure his reelection in 1972.
Trump has even gone so far as to label his supporters the “Silent Majority,” a term first popularized by none other than Dick Nixon in November 1969. Like Nixon, Trump wants us to believe that a quiet, often politically-inactive, majority of Americans support him. Then there is Trump’s insistence that those who criticize him are part of an effete elite. Nixon believed much the same in 1968 when he criticized the Eastern Establishment.
To great political effect, Nixon successfully framed the opposition to his candidacy and later presidency as a personal attack on him and all the apparent underdogs in the U.S. who were just like him. Trump, again like Nixon, is trying to frame his candidacy as that of an underdog and outsider. He wants America’s lower and middle class whites who feel shafted by the system, and economically-threatened by Mexican-American immigrants, to identify with him. But it’s unlikely Trump will succeed with his misleading self-protrayal. The problem is that Trump has always been a privileged elite – something Nixon only became after entering politics in the 1940s.
Trump’s risky Nixonian strategy may enable him to win in the early caucus and primary states, where whites outnumber blacks and Latinos/as by wide margins. According to the Census Bureau, the white population in Iowa stands at roughly 87.1%. In New Hampshire, whites make up 91.3% of the population. But on the national level, a Nixonian strategy will not work like it did in 1968. In 1968, whites made up about 87.5% of the total U.S. population. In 2010, that figure stood at 72.1%. Today’s population of blacks, Latinos/as, and Asians will determine the next president. If Trump wins the Republican nomination, he will have to pivot to the political center, and abandon his controversial racial posturing. Such a pivot will likely fail. Although Americans have short attention spans, made shorter by smartphones and computers, blacks and Latinos/as are not going to forget, nor forgive, Trump’s inflammatory statements when they enter the voting booth in November 2016.