Steve contrasts this year’s race with Kennedy versus Nixon…no, not that one, the other one…
Next to making bets on VP picks, a favorite game of political pundits is to find the closest historical parallel to the current election. These pundits cum quasi-historians bray, smugly self-satisfied, in saying things like “Why, this election is shaping up to be identical to the legendary battle between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden in 1876!” The justification for such arcane speculation is how the supposed lessons of history are revelatory about contemporary times; it’s the old “those who ignore George Santayana are condemned to hear about him repeatedly.”
Increasingly in the bloody recent weeks I have heard the eerie echoes of a most tumultuous of times. We see the stark racial chasm in our society revealed in trigger-happy cops and deranged avengers. We watch the country torn apart not by war per se, but by questions about how to effectively wage war with an enemy with no traditional armies, territory, or tactics. We have an electorate parsed into a supposedly “silent majority” (comprised, ironically, of an aging white minority) on the one hand; and a growing union of disenfranchised minorities on the other.
It sounds like the 1960s to me, and the election before us feels increasingly like the one destined to have been defining election of that era, Kennedy vs. Nixon.
No, not that one. To be clear, I am not talking about 1960, when John F. Kennedy eked out a win over Richard Nixon by the margin of a Cook County morgue.
I am talking about the election that never happened… the one that was well on track to take place between Robert F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon at the point when Kennedy was murdered in a Los Angeles hotel after winning the all-but-decisive California primary. In the course of the last few blood-soaked weeks from New Orleans to Minneapolis to Dallas to Nice, a new narrative is emerging, and George Santayana is lurking. Here is why.
1968 was a time like no other.
There were long-simmering racial tensions that finally exploded into full-on riots in cities across America when Martin Luther King was killed in April.
There were young Americans united in angry defiance of their government, protesting as their friends and family members were shipped off to slaughter in an ill-conceived, undefined, unwinnable fiasco in Viet Nam.
In the face of this two-front insurgency, a place unmarked on any map called “Middle America” suddenly came into being; it was a place where those clinging to the status quo reacted in fear to the threat these rebellions represented to their comfortable way of life. Christened (yes, that’s particularly apropos) the silent majority, this white suburban mainstream sought the protection of a candidate who stood for a return to “law and order;” a candidate who offered an honorable path forward in Vietnam, a tough-guy candidate who trash-talked the naïveté and weakness of the milquetoast Ivy League Eastern effete establishment liberals in government and journalism. Morally bankrupt and lusting for power, Richard Nixon astutely reprogrammed his political persona, tailoring a campaign of pandering that offered, above all, protection for the threatened “silent majority.”
In our 2016 revival, Donald Trump is now ever-more-clearly stepping into the role Richard Nixon. Trump has been visibly struggling since he secured the Republican nomination, as he is desperate to strike a stance that enables him to continue to “let Trump be Trump,” while secretly accepting that he must appease his closest advisors, the party brass, and even his own family members who are begging him to appear more presidential.
It is sad and ugly to realize that precisely in the carnage of New Orleans, Minneapolis, Dallas, and now Nice, France, Donald Trump has seen and is seizing his opportunity to simultaneously be Trump and yet take a significant step toward appearing more Presidential. He is using the very words Richard Nixon spoke: “I am the law and order candidate.” In his language, tone, and content, he is channeling Nixon’s core campaign message of 1968.
Nixon used the “law and order” mantra as code for bringing the cops down hard on the Blacks in Watts and on the hippies protesting the war. Simultaneously, he promised a magical way out of Viet Nam… a “secret plan” for a fast and honorable exit. Using Catch-22 logic, Nixon explained that he could not implement the “secret plan” until he was President, but he could not reveal it to voters before he was President, lest letting the “secret” out would render the plan unusable. If this sounds like Trump’s shockingly oversimplified approach to the Middle East – “we’re going to bomb the shit out of ISIS” – well, you’re beginning to see the parallel.
There are many differences between Trump and Nixon, and all such analogies can be easily dissected and dismissed, so I’ll offer up the first. Richard Nixon cleverly delegated his hate rhetoric to his vile crook of a Vice President, Spiro Agnew, a political hack put on Nixon’s ticket largely to serve as propaganda minister, pumping up the venom and anger of the “silent majority.”
Donald Trump, on the other hand, seems to singularly relish the task of doing his own dirty work. He did not need an attack dog for vice president; his choice, Mike Pence, appears to have undergone a charisma-bypass operation. Nixon was a legitimate expert on government who sought a running mate skilled in the dark art of manipulative communication; Trump is a black belt in manipulative communication who sought a VP who could provide legitimacy on governance.
Taken individually, Trump’s assertions -- Mexicans are rapists, all Muslims must be viewed as possible suicide bombers, women should be punished for abortion, “Black Lives Matter” is racist -- make his campaign platform appear to be a wild, unrehearsed, shoot-from-the-lip, xenophobic Million Bigot March.
But imagine, for a moment, that Trump is able to create an organized thesis that integrates each of these themes under the notion that the country is being overrun by criminals (undocumented aliens, Muslim jihadists, African-American avengers, Mexican drug runners), and that what’s needed is a “law and order candidate.” He creates the opportunity to solve a myriad of problems:
- He can create a single, coherent (yes, it is possible to be both appalling and yet coherent; see Berlin, 1933), integrated campaign message instead of his current random projectile policy vomiting.
- He can strike a more presidential tone. You can say a lot of things about Richard Nixon, but his articulation of a “law and order platform” had stature and gravitas.
- He can appear to be in favor of something instead of merely being against everything. Just as the “anti-abortionists” learned that there is more marketing savvy in defining themselves in a positive stance (“pro-life”), Donald Trump is realizing that being “pro law and order” is far more palatable to the unconvinced Republican centrist than being “anti-“ every minority in the United States
So Donald Trump is channeling 1968 Richard Nixon, “the law and order candidate.” It is no doubt likely that ISIS will stage more attacks between now and November, and every time CNN sends Anderson Cooper to report live from the latest carnage, the “law and order candidate” is going to sound more and more right. Let’s not quibble with the detail that it was the slogan of the only president ever to resign in disgrace; Richard Nixon won by using it.
Meanwhile, in 1968, there was a Democratic candidate for President who was incredibly polarizing. You loved him or you hated him. His enemies thought that the only reason he even had a chance at being president was because he was an immediate relative of a popular former president. Though long-associated with a different state, this candidate ran for and won a seat in the U.S. Senate from the state of New York. His rhetoric was idealistic, but his reputation was of a pure hard knuckles political player who ruthlessly got his way. Many felt that he was the merely entitled heir to a political family dynasty that felt that it was above the rules; a man who could not be trusted.
Today, people remember Bobby Kennedy through rose-colored glasses, but at the time, he was considered a flagrant opportunist who totally co-opted the politics of his more liberal rival, Eugene McCarthy, for his own political gain.
Now, read those last two paragraphs and think “Hillary Clinton” every time you see “Bobby Kennedy.” It becomes a very interesting parallel.
- Immediate relative of a popular president. Check.
- Associated with a different state, but elected to the Senate from New York. Check.
- Incredibly polarizing. Love her or hate her. (I think you can check that one with an underscore, italics, and an exclamation point).
- Rhetoric is idealistic, but a hardball political player. Check.
- Heir to a political family dynasty that is viewed to see itself as above the rules. Check.
- Co-opted the policies of a more liberal rival for political gain. Check.
Well, for starters, we’ll never know. Bobby Kennedy was killed the night he won the California primary, when he seemed to be a steamroller on the way to the nomination. What we do know is that in the wake of his death, the sitting Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, was handed the nomination by the convention bosses, and he ran a lame campaign, trying to avoid abandoning the “stay the course in Vietnam” stance of his boss, Lyndon Johnson. But in the final weeks of the campaign, he suddenly shifted course, came out against the war, and his momentum surged. Many political observers believe that if the election had been just one week later, the tide toward Humphrey and his anti-war stance was so strong that he would have overtaken Nixon and won the Presidency.
Would Bobby Kennedy have won? He had split from LBJ on the war long before Hubert Humphrey did, so it is very fair to infer that a campaign entirely centered on abandoning the current course in Vietnam could have swept him into the White House. My point: just because Nixon beat Humphrey on his “law and order” platform does not mean that Nixon would have beaten Bobby Kennedy. In that match-up, the savvy money was on Kennedy.
So is there any learning for today? Any relevance?
For those who worry about the prospects of a Trump presidency, this analogy is cause for worry.
The good news for Donald Trump is that asserting himself as the “law and order candidate” is, indeed, an effective way to seamlessly unite his now disparate and desperate flavors of bigotry. Being the “law and order candidate” allows him to unify all of his “greatest racist hits” – his thinly veiled disparagement of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, his assertion that “Mexicans are rapists and drug kingpins who are stealing our jobs,” and his call for a ban because all Muslims must be assumed to be radical jihadists. It’s a neat marketing trick. He is not against all these minorities; he is for “law and order.”
We are in a time in America now that is an eerie echo of 1968. And in 1968, the “law and order” candidate won. Think about that.
However, there’s compelling logic that turns the analogy at a right angle and creates a very positive case for Hillary Clinton.
First and foremost, a better candidate than Hubert Humphrey would very likely have beaten Nixon. Hillary Clinton may not have the charisma of Bobby Kennedy, but she surely is not a weenie whiny 20 watt wimp from the extremely liberal land of fire and Wellstone.
More significant: the dramatic shift in the demographic composition of our nation. In 1968, the “silent majority” was an apt phrase encapsulating conservative Middle-American values. Donald Trump’s “silent majority,” however, is certainly silent, but more importantly, is it not the clear majority. While being the “law and order candidate” may make him appear more presidential, it is doubling down on his base, not expanding it. If Donald Trump defines himself as the “law and order candidate,” he not simply conveys who he includes, he clearly declares who he excludes. He cannot win by pandering to a not-so-silent minority.
But – mark my words, Professor Santayana -- Hillary Clinton must sit up and take notice on one critical point.
Donald Trump has never played nice, but now he is going to start playing Nice. The Obama administration has been correct to avoid a head-first, ill-considered, unilateral, Cheney/Rumsfeld style rush of ground troops into Iraq and Syria to take the war to ISIS. But the danger is that to the average American, it could easily appear that the United States is not doing enough and does not have a plan for dealing with a growing wave of brazen, non-traditional assaults.
The sorry truth is that right now in some dusty subterranean room in Raqqa, Syria, the ISIS brass is debating which candidate they’d rather have win the U.S. Presidential elections. Given that the goal of ISIS is a global holy war between Islam and Christianity, it’s a fair guess that they’d prefer the candidate whose game plan is to “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” as this would lead to precisely the wholesale civilian carnage that could actually turn the Mideast fully against the United States. And, in that room in Raqqa, what if they see that every time there is a Nice or an Orlando or a Paris, Donald Trump’s “law and order” polling numbers jump? They will know exactly how to make their dreams come true: more mass murders, more suicide attacks, each ever more brazen, each calibrated to achieve new levels of death and carnage.
Hillary Clinton needs to articulate a plan that sounds more effective to the American people than “a secret plan” did in 1968 or “bombing the shit out of ISIS” does in 2106.
We will never know who would have won the Kennedy v. Nixon that never happened in 1968.
But we did learn something, Mr. Santayana, and we better pay attention: in times of crisis and chaos, “law and order” is a very effective campaign promise. Hillary Clinton needs to take Trump’s new campaign promise seriously and figure out how to blunt its impact, or history could well repeat itself.
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