Donald Trump views Richard Nixon’s acceptance speech at the 1968 Republican convention as a model for his own acceptance speech this week, his senior adviser tells us. That’s because Trump will be able to speak to a forgotten majority of Americans anxious about crime and disorder, just as Nixon did.
And, to take the comparison to 1968 even further, Trump’s senior adviser, Paul Manafort, says that any violence at the GOP convention will actually help Trump politically.
Manafort…shrugged off the possibility of protests engulfing the RNC, although he noted that disorder in the streets of downtown Cleveland, should it materialize, would likely accrue to Trump’s benefit.
“Frankly, that impact will probably help the campaign because it’s going to show a lawlessness and lack of respect for political discourse,” he said.
Trump, who said he plans to speak on the convention’s opening night Monday, will officially accept the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday….
“The speech will be him,” said Manafort, noting that Richard Nixon’s acceptance speech at the 1968 RNC is one Trump himself liked and may look to for inspiration.
In case you had any doubt that Trump views things in precisely these terms, this morning he kept up his strategy of explicitly trying to foment division. In an interview, he seemed to insinuate that Obama’s condemnation of the killing of police is suspect:
“I mean, you know, I watch the president and sometimes the words are okay but you just look at the body language,” Trump said. “There’s something going on. Look, there’s something going on. And the words are not often okay, by the way.”
So Trump, whose new convention theme is “make America safe again,” thinks this is 1968, and he’ll be able to do what Nixon did. In his 1968 acceptance speech, Nixon painted a picture of a country sliding into chaos and mayhem, referencing “cities enveloped in smoke and flame,” “sirens in the night,” and “Americans dying on distant battlefields.” And he vowed to stand up for “the forgotten Americans,” “the non-shouters,” and “the non-demonstrators.” Nixon added that “they are good people, they are decent people; they work, and they save, and they pay their taxes,” and they are “the real voice of America.”
As Michael Cohen put it in his terrific book on the 1968 campaign, this speech became the template for Nixon’s victorious campaign message, one that resonated with “millions of Americans” who “felt the country slipping away from underneath their feet,” one that “spoke to very real and very raw emotions in the American body politic.”
Yet there are many differences between 1968 and today that call into question whether such a strategy will work for Trump this time.
As Christopher Ingraham details, at the time, the murder rate was in the midst of a dramatic spike; now it is down at “historic lows last seen in the early 1960s.” What’s more, it’s worth recalling that in the late 1960s, the backlash against the big legislative and social achievements of the Civil Rights movement — many of which had happened only a few years earlier — was well underway among northern whites. The resulting social tensions arguably dwarfed anything we’re seeing right now, even amid the rise of Black Lives Matter, the police killings of black men, and the retributive killings of police officers. The year 1968 saw assassinations and race riots in scores of American cities. By contrast, as Jonathan Chait has explained, the scenes of unrest surrounding police-community violence mask the surprising degree of consensus right now on the underlying disputes themselves, with most people agreeing that both sides have legitimate grievances, thus making an effort to exploit these divisions less likely to gain serious traction.
In 1968, with hundreds of thousands of American troops in Vietnam, domestic unrest over the war was also on the rise. As the repeated allusions in Nixon’s acceptance speech show, both antiwar protests and urban racial unrest were crucial in feeding the sense of a country spiraling out of control. Lyndon Johnson, who had announced he would not seek a second term, saw his approval rating hit a low of 35 percent in August of 1968. Obama’s approval is trending upwards and is now in positive territory.
On top of all of that, it remains unclear whether a strategy emphasizing a supposedly forgotten, disaffected majority can work in an America that is demographically very different from the America of 1968. As political scientist Michael Tesler recently explained:
There are a number of reasons why rising racial tensions are unlikely to help Trump’s campaign. For starters, the Democratic Party relies much less on white voters than it did in 1968. The electorate was about 90 percent white in 1968, compared with an expected 69 percent in 2016.
Perhaps more important, race no longer holds the same capacity as a wedge issue to divide the Democratic Party. In the mid-to-late 1960s, white Democrats and white Republicans had similar positions on racial issues. White backlash against rising racial tensions, therefore, had the potential to push racially resentful Democrats toward the GOP.
Over the past 50 years, though, Democrats and Republicans have polarized over matters of race, with that polarization rapidly intensifying during Obama’s presidency. Democrats and Republicans now have very separate realities about race in the United States.
In other words, despite Trump’s hopes otherwise, this probably won’t have the potency as a wedge issue it had in 1968. Meanwhile, the declining importance of blue collar whites to the Democratic coalition, and the rising importance of college educated whites to it, might also be relevant here. Trump’s strategy seems likely to appeal more to the former, but it could conceivably further alienate the latter, who tend to be more culturally liberal and may not be as susceptible to Trump’s white grievance-mongering. As it is, Trump is already on his way to becoming the first GOP nominee in many decades to lose among college educated whites. They are likely, if anything, to be revolted by Trump’s efforts to capitalize on racial division (and would be unlikely to embrace Trump as a result of violence at the GOP convention). Further alienating that demographic will undermine Trump’s hopes of winning enough white voters to offset his deficiencies among nonwhites (which will be made worse by his neo-Nixonian strategy).
Last but not least, Trump is seen as a far more racially divisive figure than is Hillary Clinton. The new CNN poll finds that Americans say by 61-31 that Clinton would handle race relations better than Trump would. Notably, white voters say this by 55-38; independents say it by 64-28; moderates say it by 71-22; and even noncollege whites say it by 49-42. Putting aside the fact that social conditions just aren’t anything like they were in 1968, it’s hard to imagine that there are that many culturally conservative white swing voters out there who constitute anything like the “forgotten Americans” of Nixon’s time.