NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O n the campaign trail in 1968, a bold memo by a young aide, “Middle America and the New Republican Majority,” started circulating among the Nixon strategists. It argued for a new strategy to fight the Democrats on their own turf, to turn Democratic causes into existential threats, to present their vision of progress as a promise of collapse. Nixon himself was not naturally inclined to turn politics into a conflict of visions, but he saw how Reagan gained from the approach and decided to steal it. It worked, not only against Reagan in the primary but, more importantly, against his Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey.
The strategy reached a kind of formal perfection in a famous ad in which the Nixon campaign displayed a motley collection of shouting protesters, burning buildings, and bloodied faces. The music was straight out of a horror movie, with dissonant chord clusters played at uneven intervals over a snare drum. And then Nixon: “I pledge to you, we shall have order in the United States.”
Today, when the same images and the same foreboding fill the daily news, many have wondered if we are back in 1968, with Trump plotting to use the national protests to turn the election in his favor. True to form, the president sounds more and more like Nixon, filling endless tweets with the capitalized political slogan: “LAW & ORDER.”
There is a difference, of course. The historian Kevin Kruse argued last week that the message worked for Nixon only because he was the outsider running against the incumbent vice president. At first, this seems plausible. How would a sitting president be able to complain of the chaos reigning in the country, and how could he convince his fellow citizens that the person who presided over the violence and the lawlessness was the best candidate to put an end to them?
Reading the documents from the time, however, you realize that things were not as simple. The average American watching the Democratic Convention in Chicago on television was not trying to assign blame for the social unrest. Was Lyndon Johnson too weak? Few thought that. What captured the country’s attention was the question — a very different one — of which candidate was in a better position to deal with the sources of trouble. And what the Chicago convention showed was that the Democratic Party carried those sources within itself. As the police charged over the protesters, many inside the hall denounced the “Gestapo tactics” of Mayor Richard Daley.
Trump might not find it too difficult to make a similar argument. If the powerful social movement growing in America today continues to develop in a more radical direction, Trump will be able to ask the American public whom it trusts to contain its excesses.
An updated version of Nixon’s campaign ad might look something like this: an image of the slogan “Defund the Police” painted on the streets of Washington, followed by a decision of the city council in Minneapolis to do just that; clips from the looting in Manhattan a week ago; the protests in North Carolina, where lines of people wash the feet of the organizers and ask for forgiveness; and so on and so forth. The main message has already been rehearsed by Trump strategists. Not an ornate Nixonian pledge but something much blunter: Jobs Not Mobs.
On top of this, Trump had the extraordinary good fortune that the protests will absolve him from his own — very serious — responsibility in the rapid progression of the COVID-19 epidemic. Two weeks from now, when new cases and new deaths start to spike, he will be able to present himself as the voice of reason and science against the fanaticism of his opponents. To go back to our campaign ad: The images from the masses screaming and singing at the protests can be juxtaposed to images of the consequences as they start to be felt in hospitals all over the land. Trump needs only to say that he defended reopening the country with order, while Democrats wanted to open it with chaos. It will be the most purely Nixonian part of his message.
Where Trump may well fail is in the second half of Nixon’s strategy, at least as important for his 1968 victory. As he tried to portray his opponent as the voice of unreason, Nixon had to soften his own image. No point calling the other side mad if you sound just as mad yourself. He did this by moving to the center on Vietnam and by appearing on a goofy, left-leaning comedy show to laugh at himself in the famous “Sock it to me” cameo. And, of course, Nixon could play good cop to George Wallace’s segregationist rhetoric.
This week Trump will start to test his ability to appear more normal. It is far from clear that he can do that. Perhaps he lost the hunger for winning that Nixon never lacked. He needs to make some calls for unity, pass police reform, and even, as some have suggested, give a major speech on race. The expectations for such a speech would be so low that Trump would almost certainly exceed them and gain a few points from the gambit.
As difficult as he may find it to soften his image, Trump will be helped by the protests, just as Nixon was helped by what Norman Mailer called the “nihilistic of the young.” Many of Trump’s excesses already seem less eccentric when placed in the context of our discomposed times. Many on the left are literally arguing for abolishing police departments everywhere. Others may merely want to reduce their budgets, but this will sound just as intemperate to many Americans worried about unemployment and crime. At a time when the whole country thinks that police departments need to be reformed and improved, you need more-generous budgets, not cuts made for ideological reasons.
The media continue to present the protests as a peaceful and heartwarming movement bringing the country together, but there are growing signs that Americans are having second thoughts. Proposals such as defunding the police are not only extreme but seem disconnected from the moral argument inspiring the protests. With Mayor Bill de Blasio now embracing a version of the platform — over the weekend, he committed to move resources from the New York Police Department to youth and social services — the Democratic establishment is starting to look vulnerable. These tendencies are bound to grow in coming weeks, but Democrats will find it impossible to retract their full support for a movement they made their own. Trump can sit back and watch the logic of every millenarian social movement unfold. For the first time in many months, he seems to have a strategy.