Michael W. Flamm is professor of history at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is author of Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s (Columbia University Press, 2005) and the forthcoming In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.
Republican Richard M. Nixon narrowly managed to win the 1968 presidential election by exploiting the issue of law and order amid a climate of fear and insecurity. Now Republican Donald J. Trump has declared that he is the candidate of law and order in 2016 and vowed to secure the borders, prevent terrorism, and end violence against the police.
Could Trump win the presidency on this platform? The latest polls indicate that he has a reasonable chance. But despite what some pundits have pronounced, a closer analysis of the historical analogy between 2016 and 1968 reveals significant differences and suggests that law and order may not give Trump the decisive edge it provided Nixon.
First and foremost, the nation seemed on the brink of chaos and collapse in 1968. Crime in the streets was rising and protests on campus were commonplace. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led to riots in more than one hundred cities, including Washington. The murder of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and clashes at the Democratic Convention in Chicago eroded popular faith in peaceful change and the political process.
Society was also evolving. The sexual revolution and the drug culture were spreading. The women’s movement was growing. And the hippie phenomenon was emerging. For moral traditionalists, it was the perfect storm.
In that troubled climate, law and order was the perfect slogan for Nixon. Amorphous and abstract, it served as a Rorschach test for anxious voters, who could project onto it whatever fear was uppermost in their minds at the moment. For Trump the slogan could also serve as a vehicle for white voters with concerns about globalization or immigration.
But a major problem for Trump is that the “fear factor” does not loom as large today, even though a large majority of Americans believe that the nation is on the wrong track. Anxiety over crime is not as acute. Urban unrest is nowhere near the magnitude it was in the 1960s. The war on terror is not on the same scale as the war in Vietnam. And although cultural battles over transgender bathrooms and gay marriage continue to rage in the red states, social change has widespread acceptance.
Moreover, Trump is no Nixon. For better or worse, the reality-TV star lacks conventional political experience and acumen. By contrast, the former vice-president was an astute professional who benefited from an image makeover by Roger Ailes, the campaign’s television producer (and, until recently, the chairman of Fox News). On the air, the “New Nixon” was calm, cool, and collected under pressure—the opposite of Trump.
At present Trump also has a skeleton staff, with few seasoned operatives besides top aide Paul Manafort. Nixon by comparison had a highly-skilled team of experienced professionals—not to mention the talented newcomer Ailes, a former advertising executive who in 1968 created a lurid series of innovative commercials unlike any seen before.
The most effective was “Order,” which featured a photo montage of police and protestors, discordant music, and jump cuts. The final image set the stakes: “This Time Vote Like Your Whole World Depended on It.” Yet by 2016 the average voter has viewed countless numbers of political ads, making it harder for any candidate to break through the clutter and reach them.
Demographics are another important difference between then and now. Nixon’s objective was to reach middle-aged and middle-class white voters in Middle America, especially the suburbs. For Trump the path to power is similar, but today more than 30 percent of the electorate is non-white, roughly three times what it was almost fifty years ago.
The dynamics of the campaign are still another point of contrast. Although the 2016 election features a Green candidate (Jill Stein) and a Libertarian candidate (Gary Johnson) who may influence the outcome in one or two states, it is effectively a two-person race between Trump and the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
But in 1968 it was a three-way race, at least in the South. The independent candidate, Alabama Governor George Wallace, had a well-deserved reputation as a racist extremist, which enabled Nixon to present himself as the moderate alternative. Often he spoke of law-abiding “forgotten Americans” as black and white, native- and foreign-born—inclusive rhetoric Trump has so far not employed.
The third candidate in 1968 was Democrat Hubert Humphrey, a staunch liberal unwilling or unable to take a tough stance on law and order. As a result, Nixon easily captured the center from the “Happy Warrior,” who never found a clear or consistent voice on the issue, which was far more immediate and visceral to older Americans than the distant Vietnam War.
“There is no doubt that this perceived ‘soft’ position on law and order is hurting Humphrey far more than any position he does or does not taking on bombing pauses [in Vietnam],” conceded the candidate’s pollster in October 1968. The hardened Clinton is unlikely to make a similar mistake on security matters this year.
Of course, unforeseen events could alter the political equation. The terrorist killings at an office party in San Bernardino and a night club in Orlando have brought the threat of ISIS home—and more attacks are no doubt planned. The targeted shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge were more than human tragedies—they powerfully symbolized the “thin blue line” between civilization and anarchy.
Trump has promised to restore order. But he has not leavened his dark message of doom and gloom with any real sense of hope. His slogan—“Make America Great Again”—also harkens back to the past. By contrast, Nixon looked to the future as he emphasized that America was a great nation that could and would overcome the crisis of authority and security it faced.
At the Democratic Convention, Clinton echoed Nixon by painting a more positive portrait of America than Trump. And she offered a sense of optimism about the future while drawing upon the past to offer a rebuttal to him. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” she said, repeating Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s advice amid the Great Depression.
The presidential race between Trump and Clinton may well hinge upon whether those famous words have the same effect in 2016 as in 1933.