Look closely at the three passages below. One is 48 years old, delivered at the August 1968 Republican National Convention. The other was expressed this week in Pittsburgh. One passage consists of the words of Richard Nixon. The other is from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Without the aid of Google, can you tell them apart?
- For every one violent protester there are thousands of moms and dads and kids in that same community who really just want to be able to sleep safely at night. ... We need a national anti-crime agenda to make our cities safe again. ... Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the violent disruptor, but to make life more comfortable for the African American parent trying to raise their kids in peace. ... Our country looks bad to the world, especially when we are supposed to be the world’s leader. How can we lead when we can’t even control our own cities?
- As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad.We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home. And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish. ... [L]et this message come through clear from what I say tonight. Time is running out for the merchants of crime and corruption in American society. The wave of crime is not going to be the wave of the future in the United States of America. We shall reestablish freedom from fear in America so that America can take the lead in reestablishing freedom from fear in the world. And to those who say that law and order is the code word for racism, there and here is a reply: Our goal is justice for every American. If we are to have respect for law in America, we must have laws that deserve respect. Just as we cannot have progress without order, we cannot have order without progress, and so, as we commit to order tonight, let us commit to progress.
Now, admittedly, the Fix stripped out some of each man's verbal habits, including Trump's much-favored superlatives and Nixon's "my friends." But in the absence of those tremendous hints, did you get it right? The first passage is Trump, and the second Nixon. The similarities in language and tone, even the shared themes, are not a coincidence.
It has been said many, many times by many, many political observers this year that Trump's campaign at times feels like an homage to Nixon, or even that Trump sometimes sounds and looks as if he is channeling Nixon and Nixon's infamous Southern Strategy. The essence of Nixon's much-discussed tactic boiled down to this: If Nixon could manage to speak to and even stoke white American fear of social change and crime, a message of particular appeal in the then-recently Jim Crow South, he could convert many of the country's longtime white Southern Democrats to Republicans. And with the right mix of language and data, Nixon could make his comments about crime, inner-city chaos and social upheaval seem factual rather than craven, compassionate and concerned rather than utterly bigoted.
Northeastern and other business-minded Republicans, as well as those with strong ideological convictions about free enterprise and social aid, could cast a vote in favor of those aspects of Nixon's message or with the sense that Nixon, perhaps, really cared. The combination -- particularly the Southern part -- was so effective that today some of Nixon's civil rights efforts while in office are scarcely remembered. Nixon's anti-city, anti-social assistance, anti-social change message survived his scandal-abbreviated tenure in the White House and has become part of Republican orthodoxy.
In the final stretch of his 2016 campaign for the White House, Trump has injected a dystopian, not entirely factual description of black life in America into his stump speech. And as protests and unrest related to police shootings have become fixtures in the news, Trump has taken to describing social upheaval in American cities as evidence that his blend of bits of fact and data with hyperbole and racial stereotypes is correct, more honest even than any other candidate. And, like Nixon, Trump and his advisers are almost certainly aware that this blend is anathema to many voters of color but that it is just truth-like enough that Trump can sustain the votes of Americans who share his view of black life and often harbor deep fear and disdain of cities (or the people who live in them). And they almost certainly understand that this blend is just approximate enough to compassion to give some white Americans concerned that Trump may be a bigot enough reasonable doubt to vote for him, too.
Consider this set of passages. Again, can you identify the speaker without a reference aid?
- Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country. Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities. Many have witnessed this violence personally, some have even been its victims. I have a message for all of you: The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. -- Donald Trump
- And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish. Did we come all this way for this?... Listen to the answer to those questions. It is another voice. It is the quiet voice in the tumult and the shouting.It is the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans -- the non-shouters; the non-demonstrators. They are not racists or sick; they are not guilty of the crime that plagues the land. ... Let's never forget that despite her faults, America is a great nation. ... America is in trouble today not because her people have failed but because her leaders have failed. ... When the richest nation in the world can't manage its own economy; When the nation with the greatest tradition of the rule of law is plagued by unprecedented lawlessness; When a nation that has been known for a century for equality of opportunity is torn by unprecedented racial violence; And when the President of the United States cannot travel abroad or to any major city at home without fear of a hostile demonstration -- then it's time for new leadership for the United States of America. -- Richard Nixon
The problems for Trump are manifold. First, white voters do not hold the sort of dominant, utterly determinate position in the electorate that they did when Nixon was campaigning in 1968. And crime overall is down, way down, from where it was in the 1960s. Some Americans are aware of both facts.
In a late August analysis of Trump's attempts to mimic Nixon and make use of his law-and-order path to the presidency, the New Republic described Trump's strategy as doomed for these very reasons. The writer, Jeet Heer, pointed to an even bigger and more obvious Trump fail:
[P]erhaps the biggest problem Trump faces is that he’s used racial dog whistles with much less tact than Nixon. Nixon borrowed his “law and order” pitch from George Wallace, but was careful to strip it of overt racism. Trump has followed a different course. He talked like George Wallace during the primaries and tried to reinvent himself as Nixon after he secured the nomination.
Trump has not only shared his preferred forms of group suspicion and suggestions of racial and religious profiling throughout his campaign on a kind of bullhorn. He's aimed them at an electorate in which more people are, at the very least, aware that his descriptions of black life are often inaccurate and offensive in a way that just happens to comport with stereotypes. This includes some of the white vote that Donald Trump Jr. has insisted his father will, like all other Republicans before him, win.
Of course, the strategy worked well for Nixon, until it did not. And for Trump, it's put him slightly ahead or not far behind Hillary Clinton in most polls. So its potency with white American voters then and now can't be completely discounted.