Democracy Dies in Darkness

PostPartisan | Opinion

Donald Trump wants to copy Richard Nixon. Here's why he'll fail.

By James Downie

July 22, 2016 at 12:26 PM

Richard Nixon at a news conference on April 30, 1971. (Ellsworth Davis/The Washington Post)

The Donald Trump campaign has made no secret of its plan to copy the "law and order" strategy that Richard Nixon used successfully in 1968. Trump's acceptance speech Thursday night, which conjured a depressing picture of a United States on the verge of apocalypse, was perhaps the purest expression of this approach so far.

But there's a key portion of Nixon's strategy that Trump is forgetting — and it's a perfect example of why Trump's quest for the White House is doomed.

It's certainly true that Nixon emphasized "law and order" during his campaign, frequently with dark descriptions of a nation stuck in a deadly quagmire abroad and torn asunder at home. Unlike Trump's, his words could be based in reality: Violent crime more than doubled during the 1960s. (Furthermore, at the same time the Supreme Court was under fire for several key decisions defending the rights of suspects, most famously the Miranda decision.) On the stump, he would say, "In the past 45 minutes, this is what happened in America: There has been one murder, two rapes, 45 major crimes of violence, countless robberies and auto thefts."

But Nixon, ever the political shape-shifter, did not focus on the doom and gloom when it didn't fit with the occasion and the audience. His 1968 acceptance speech — which Trump campaign chair Paul Manfort said was a model for Trump's own speech Thursday night — had plenty of darkness, but it was paired with passages such as this:

My fellow Americans, tonight I accept the challenge and the commitment to provide that new leadership for America.

And I ask you to accept it with me.

And let us accept this challenge not as a grim duty but as an exciting adventure in which we are privileged to help a great nation realize its destiny.

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Donald Trump painted a dark picture of America during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, but some of his doomsday stats are rather dubious. The Post's Fact Checker examined 25 of his key claims. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

While Nixon changed his rhetoric, Trump kept it exactly the same. "Beginning on Jan. 20th, 2017, safety will be restored," he said, before running through a litany of misleading crime statistics. Illegal immigrants are being "released by the tens of thousands" and "many thousands" of Americans have had family members "brutally murdered" by illegal immigrants. Nixon, despite using statistics on the stump, dropped them for his acceptance speech.

Nixon knew that dark predictions of doom worked in ads that could be targeted to specific states and markets and with Republican audiences during the primary season and at his events but that this would not be best for a national audience. Anger and fear could get him part of the way to the White House, but not all the way.

There were some passages in Trump's speech that could be construed — if you tilt your head and squint just right — as notes of positivity, but by and large it was still focused on fanning the flames of rage in hopes of exploiting it for his own sake. This worked for him in the GOP primary; why, he thinks, should it not work in the general election?

The answer is a basic fact that Nixon understood yet Trump seems not to: General and primary electorates are two very different groups of people. Simply repeating the same simplistic message over and over again is almost never a winning path to the White House. Even the long-shot hope that a base-focused strategy will work would require a large and competent campaign operation that he simply doesn't have and will never build. What works with those already inclined to support you will not work with the 60 percent of Americans who do not even think he is qualified to be president.

But Trump has neither the desire nor the ability to change course and avoid a losing fate.


James Downie is The Washington Post’s Digital Opinions Editor. He previously wrote for The New Republic and Foreign Policy magazine.

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