The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Richard Nixon charted the path for Donald Trump’s reelection

It’s going to require shouting ‘socialism’ less and touting victories more

President Richard M. Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew wave to a cheering crowd Nov. 7, 1972, at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington after their reelection. (AP)

During the course of Pat Buchanan’s campaign for the 1992 GOP presidential nomination against incumbent George H.W. Bush, the former speechwriter to Richard M. Nixon ran on a platform titled “Putting and Keeping America First.” Buchanan’s themes included such issues as the construction of a wall on the Mexican border, taking a more aggressive position in the negotiation of trade deals and convincing America’s global allies to take greater responsibility for their own defenses. Nearly a quarter-century later, Donald Trump turned the ideas into a strategy to win the White House.

Now it appears that the president may be once again be turning to Buchanan for inspiration, this time drawing on the strategy that helped Nixon win a landslide reelection in 1972. In his State of the Union address and other appearances, Trump accused the Democrats of being “the party of socialism” and “outside of the mainstream.” By attacking Democratic challengers like Sens. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) as extremist threats to the nation’s future, Trump is once again capitalizing on the Buchanan playbook, demonizing the opposition just as Buchanan advised Nixon to do more than 40 years ago. But that’s not how Nixon won, and if Trump wants to be reelected, he would be wise to follow the strategy Nixon ultimately used.

In 1972, Nixon, like Trump today, was running for reelection against a crowded field of Democratic candidates debating the future of liberalism. Unhappy with the president’s agenda, a slowing economy and the unending war in Vietnam, candidates from across the political spectrum competed for the Democratic nomination. In the end, it was antiwar South Dakota Sen. George McGovern who emerged as the front-runner, with a grass-roots movement of young liberals who appreciated his moral clarity, empathy for the disadvantaged and commitment to change the business-as-usual system of politics.

McGovern threatened to be a formidable opponent. Despite the diplomatic successes of Nixon’s trip to China and the SALT I nuclear agreement with the Soviet Union, Buchanan believed Nixon faced a real challenge from what White House advisers viewed as “a candid, honest, straightforward, citizen politician.” So Buchanan crafted a plan to undermine McGovern’s campaign by portraying him as “both an extremist and as the pet of the national liberal Establishment.”

This attack built on Nixon’s 1968 strategy to recruit disaffected Democrats, alienated by Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, into his coalition. Nixon’s reelection, Buchanan believed, depended on his ability to once again galvanize this “silent majority.” And what better way to do so than to characterize McGovern as a liberal threat to their interests? Buchanan, recounting these efforts in his 2017 book on the Nixon White House, recalled that in 1972, they wanted even those voters in the middle who may have soured on Nixon to throw up their hands and say “we just can’t take a chance with this guy, we have to vote for the President.”

In short, Buchanan argued that Nixon needed to “ ‘scare the hell’ out of the American people about George McGovern” and convince them that his policies would be “an utter disaster for the country.” The president agreed. In June 1972, Nixon dictated a “Personal and Confidential” memo to his campaign chief, John Mitchell, in which he echoed Buchanan’s argument. “I think the way we can do it is to have people who not only are for us but also by having people in our organization who are really stirred up about the great danger of McGovern becoming President.”

While Nixon embraced Buchanan’s pugnacious plan, he also accepted the advice of pollster Robert Teeter to personally focus on the issues and remain above the fray. Based on polling from the time, Teeter’s advice seemed logical. Following Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to the People’s Republic of China in February 1972, Gallup listed his approval rating at 56 percent. When Gallup released another poll two months later, following Nixon’s successful summit with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, the results showed that 62 percent of the public approved of the president’s performance.

Nixon’s hybrid strategy left the job of branding McGovern as an opponent of the American economic system to his campaign while he himself remained presidential and focused on selling his agenda and his triumphs. This model proved highly successful, propelling Nixon to a smashing victory.

President Trump has difficulty making Nixon’s claim to foreign policy success. His disruptive foreign policy has not only heightened tensions between the United States and its allies, but also has created dissension and debate among the American people about the nation’s role in the world.

He may have an opportunity, though, to tout his economic initiatives. Like Nixon before him, Trump campaigned in 2016 as the champion of those Americans who believed their economic and social concerns had been neglected by a Democratic administration. The president’s regulatory rollbacks and tax cuts can be credited with helping to cut unemployment to below 4 percent. In fact, a recent Gallup poll showed that the public approves of the administration’s management of the economy by 54 percent.

And yet, rather than offering an optimistic message of cohesion, Trump has asked his aides to come up with suggestions for how he could “create chaos” during the Democratic primaries, according to a recent report. This might be an element of a useful strategy. As the primary season approaches, the conflicts and rivalries likely to divide the Democratic Party seem to have much in common with those of 1972. But to be effective, Trump must heed the lessons of 40 years ago: While the president enjoys nothing more than getting down into the muck against his political enemies, he would be wise to follow Nixon’s lead and simply remain above the fray, while leaving the dirty work to his campaign.