"Many of the same twisted traits": What the Nixon years tell us about Trump's 2020 campaign

"Are the white voters in the suburbs more afraid of Trump than they are of the protesters?"

Published June 18, 2020 5:23AM (EDT)

Richard Nixon   (Getty)
Richard Nixon (Getty)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

History often repeats itself. Just as the vast majority of civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protesters of the 1960s were peaceful, the majority of "Justice for George Floyd" protestors have been peaceful. But President Donald Trump, not unlike Richard Nixon in 1968, is using civil unrest to attack protestors in general and is aggressively campaigning on a law-and-order message.

The question, journalist Ed Pilkington asks in an article for The Guardian this week, is whether or not that type of message will work for Trump in November the way it worked for Nixon 52 years ago when he defeated Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey.

"Like today, 1968 saw racial tensions boil over in more than 100 cities," Pilkington explains. "Like today, the country was riven by such partisan divisions it seemed to be ripping apart at the seams. And like today, 1968 even had its own pandemic: the 'Hong Kong flu' that claimed the lives of 100,000 Americans."

Pilkington adds, "In the past few days, another aspect of the parallels between 1968 and 2020 has exploded onto the nation's consciousness: the warped character and dark scheming of their respective Republican leaders, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump."

The Guardian journalist goes on to note some of the things Trump has in common with Nixon. Of course, Trump is by no means a carbon copy of Nixon. While the Environmental Protection Agency started under Nixon, Trump has done everything he can to roll back environmental protections — and while Nixon favored universal health care, Trump has tried to get the Affordable Care Act of 2010 or Obamacare repealed. Many of Nixon's economic and environmental positions would be deal-breakers in today's GOP.

But as Pilkington notes, there are plenty of Nixon/Trump parallels.

"Nixon and Trump also share many of the same twisted traits," Pilkington observes. "For both of them, political power was something to be bent to their will for personal benefit. They both had a way of brooding inside the White House, allowing their resentments over how they were perceived by the public to ferment."

And, Pilkington stresses, Trump has been echoing Nixon's law-and-order rhetoric of 1968 — a parallel is not lost on veteran television journalist Dan Rather, who covered the turmoil of 1968 extensively.

Rather, now 88, told The Guardian, "I see it as a direct copy. Trump very clearly has decided to build his re-election campaign strategy around that of Richard Nixon and his 1968 campaign. The scene when he went to St. John's Church, demonstrating 'law and order' as he went, says to me that he has looked at the Nixon victory in '68 and said, 'This can be one of my paths to reelection.'"

But the burning question, according to Pilkington, is: will it work?  Eduardo Porter, author of the book "American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise," believes that it could. Porter told The Guardian, "It's all about sharing the bounty of citizenship. White Americans have a real difficulty with doing that."

Pilkington notes that demographically, the U.S. is much more diverse than it was in 1968 — and that today's younger Americans have a lot more experience with racial integration and multiculturalism. But Porter pointed out that voters who are older and more conservative are the most likely to vote, telling The Guardian, "That residual, more racially hostile part of the electorate is particularly riled and fearful right now, and I wouldn't find it crazy if they push Trump over into victory again."

But Timothy Naftali, a historian at New York University, isn't so sure that the 1968 Nixon playbook will work for Trump in 2020 — and he believes that Trump, unlike Nixon, will have a hard time portraying himself as an outsider.

"It shows the absurdity of the man that Trump thinks he can run as an outsider when he is the ultimate insider," Naftali told The Guardian. "He got it wrong. He clearly misunderstands the moment. The '68 analogy is a trap he is creating for himself."

Rather believes that suburbia will play a key role in determining whether or not the Nixon playbook works for Trump in November.

The 88-year-old journalist told The Guardian, "This election may well boil down to this: are the white voters in the suburbs more afraid of Trump than they are of the protesters?…. I want to believe that the combination of the fear and disgust that a lot of people have with President Trump's leadership will be a greater motivation than whatever racial fears they might have. I want to believe, and I do believe."

By Alex Henderson

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