The facile theory goes like this: America is polarized today, like in 1968. Cities are burning from coast to coast, like in 1968. Trump should project toughness, like Nixon in 1968. And Republicans will win, like they did in 1968.
There are a couple of key flaws in that analysis. Yes, America is polarized today — but not like in 1968. Today’s polarization is tidy by comparison. Our political parties fully reflect our cultural divisions. As a result, Trump won’t enjoy one of Nixon’s most important advantages: a split opposition. Law-and-order Nixon, with his 43 percent of the popular vote, won only because of a Democratic crack-up.
Nixon offered an alternative to Democrats in chaos. In 1968, the Democrats had defenestrated their incumbent president, Lyndon B. Johnson, over the war in Vietnam. They had waged a long and divisive nomination battle that ended only with the assassination of a leading candidate, Robert F. Kennedy. They had staged their convention in the middle of a riot in Chicago. And they had suffered the loss of the once “solid South” to a third-party candidate, George Wallace.
By contrast, in 2020, Trump is the chaos. Though he talks endlessly of long-ago Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Trump’s the one in the White House, where he has been for nearly 3½ years. His role is closer to the part played by Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Though Humphrey was not, technically, the incumbent, he carried an incumbent’s baggage — and what a load it was: Vietnam, urban riots, campus uprisings, an exhausted New Deal.
Trump’s toting the baggage now. He’s the unhappy owner of this unsettled year.
In 1968, Nixon represented change — a change from anarchy to the comparatively placid days of the 1950s, when young Richard Nixon was Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. Enough voters associated the Nixon brand with a calmer, quieter, more competent time. Trump is many things, but never calm, never quiet. As for competent — well, just look around.
No matter how they package their messages, incumbents ultimately run on More of the Same. They try to make their challengers appear risky in comparison with the known quantity, the steady hand on the wheel. That’s a very bad place to be, politically speaking, in a year of sickness, unemployment and unrest, a year of palpable unhappiness.
And it’s an unfamiliar place for Donald Trump. In his long and colorful life, the one thing he has never experienced is accountability. Through bankruptcies and divorces, through busted friendships and cratered companies, through fabrications and prevarications, there has never been a problem he couldn’t turn his back on.
So he’s an easy mark for the advisers who tell him to run like an outsider from inside the White House. Yet the presidency is not like a bankrupt casino or a second wife. It’s a stewardship that belongs to the American public, and over the course of an entire term the public forms a pretty strong opinion about how well it’s being handled. In poll after poll, voters have been telling Trump for quite some time that they don’t like the way he governs — even when they like certain results. Right now, they don’t even like the results.
Nixon had another outsider’s advantage. Besides law and order, he touted a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. Later, we learned that the plan was secret because it didn’t actually exist. But in 1968, Nixon’s secret was tantalizing indeed, and it helped him to his narrow victory, because Americans wanted the war to end and a secret plan was better than no plan at all.
Trump loves secret plans and magical solutions. Remember his plan for ending North Korea’s nuclear program? And his plan for bringing China to heel? His plan for a wall paid for by Mexico? His promise that the coronavirus would magically disappear?
Remember “I alone can fix it”?
Sadly for Trump, only challengers are judged by their plans and promises. Incumbents must run on results. Voters say to incumbents: If you’ve got a plan, let’s not wait until Election Day. Go right ahead and solve these problems.
The advisers egging Trump on as he tweets his tough-guy nonsense about MAGA gangs and vicious dogs, about ominous weapons and STRENGTH, seem to think that he’s still the unconventional outsider of 2016. Something’s changed since last time, though: Trump became president, and he will be judged on the results. For the first time in his life, he’s accountable.
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