If Donald Trump Is George Wallace, Who Will Be Richard Nixon?

by Reihan Salam

Josh Barro of the New York Times argues that though reform conservatives find Donald Trump’s rhetoric counterproductive, he could prove “a useful stalking horse for the reformocons even if they think he has bad policy ideas, says a lot of offensive things, can’t win an election and wouldn’t be a good president.” Among others, Barro interviews David Frum of The Atlantic, who offers the following provocative historical comparison: Trump might be the George Wallace to another candidate’s Richard Nixon. While Wallace spoke to the raw anger of populist voters, Nixon sought to channel this anger in a more inclusive direction in his 1968 presidential campaign. As Theodore Johnson recently observed in Politico, Nixon pulled off a difficult feat: he “presented himself as progressive enough on civil rights to attract some black voters and white moderates, yet bona fide enough in his racial conservatism to appeal to so-called soft segregationists.” Nixon’s emphasis on law-and-order is widely and correctly understood as part of an appeal to Wallace voters, yet he also made a concerted effort to win the support of the emerging black middle class by speaking to their concerns about law-and-order and their aspirations for a better life. And as Johnson makes clear in his essay, this effort made a difference in a number of closely-contested states. Nixon failed to build on this opening, and one wonders how differently modern American political history might have unfolded had the GOP captured the support of the black middle class in a more durable way. 

How might conservatives in 2016 learn from 1968? According to Fred Bauer, Trump is best understood as a savvy political entrepreneur who is taking advantage of a cleavage between the GOP’s donor base and many of its rank-and file voters. While affluent Republicans are more inclined to believe that an agenda built around “more guest workers, further cuts on capital-gains taxes, a vague celebration of the values of entrepreneurship (say, by trumpeting Uber), a gradual increase in the Social Security retirement age, Medicare reform, an abandonment of social issues, anti-Obamacare rhetoric, and hawkish talk about international affairs” will be enough to win a majority, this agenda is not at all attractive to grassroots Republicans and the working-class swing voters who stayed home in large numbers in 2012. With this in mind, Trump is offering a more assertive nationalism, a hard-edged opposition to immigration, and a defense of social insurance programs that benefit older Americans. This brand of populism might appeal to a broad swathe of older conservative voters. But it also alienates swing voters who might embrace a more inclusive blend of conservatism and populism.  

In an ideal world, the rise of Trump would force elite conservatives to recognize that voters, including GOP voters, care more about wage stagnation than about high-end tax cuts, and that the GOP base is not reflexively opposed to the safety net, provided it encourages those who can work to do so, and that it provides a decent minimum for those who cannot. As Ramesh has argued in this space, a conservative agenda that recognizes these realities, and that speaks to the economic fears and aspirations of working- and middle-class voters, would attract the support of far more voters than a politics of anger. Without belaboring the point, I believe that there are more black, Hispanic, and Asian voters who are open to voting for a more populist GOP than is commonly understood. Conservative populism is the way to appeal to these voters and the voters who’ve been most energized by Trump.

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