How Donald Trump is hoping to replicate the success of Richard Nixon

PUBLISHED: 17:19 25 June 2020 | UPDATED: 17:19 25 June 2020

US president Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office. Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

US president Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office. Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

2020 Getty Images

BARNABY TOWNS says this year’s US presidential election has some of the hallmarks of the 1968 election - but can he pull off Richard Nixon’s success?

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As President Donald Trump continues his slide in the polls against presumptive Democrat nominee Joe Biden, his supporters increasingly look to a presidential election that took place a half-century ago.

Republican Richard Nixon’s narrow 1968 win on 43.3pc of the popular vote against Democrat Hubert Humphrey’s 42.7pc and segregationist George Wallace’s 13.5pc led to a lopsided Electoral College victory of 301/191/46 respectively, with Wallace taking Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi in the Deep South.

Nixon’s ‘law and order’ platform — actually Wallace used the same slogan — is said to appeal to Trump’s campaign in light of the Black Live Matters protests that have led to demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice across the United States following the murder of George Floyd.

Certainly, 1968 was a tumultuous year. Mired in unpopularity, incumbent President Lyndon Johnson had declined to seek the Democratic nomination in a nation riven by Vietnam, race and riots.

Martin Luther King was assassinated in April that year; Robert Kennedy in June. Next came a deeply divisive Democratic convention in Chicago which saw the Democrat mayor of the city, Richard Daley, order police to shoot to kill demonstrators as they, National Guardsmen and the military clashed with anti-war protestors.

Days after King’s murder, Johnson signed the 1968 Civil Rights Act extending anti-discrimination provisions to housing those applied to jobs and public places in 1964’s landmark legislation.

This year also has been marked by tragedy, division and controversy, but hopes that Trump can play the ‘law and order’ card, with its coded racial message, appear to be wide of the mark.

Polling on the Black Lives Matter demonstrations isn’t even a mixed bag for the president. Two-thirds of Americans back the recent protests against police violence and brutality, including 86pc of Democrats, 67pc of Independents, and 36pc of Republicans, Kaiser Family Foundation and Quinnipiac University polling finds.

Some 84pc of African-American support the protests; 64pc of Latinos; and 61pc of whites.

Support for police reform also is running high. Fully 95pc of Americans support requiring police to intervene to stop excessive force by other officers, and 89pc support mandating police to give a verbal warning before shooting.

A further 76pc want states to be required to publicly release disciplinary records for law enforcement officers; 74pc back allowing individuals to sue police officers if they were subjected to excessive force; and 68pc support banning officers from using chokeholds and strangleholds. As Biden is currently running at a 50pc poll average, these include significant shares of Trump voters.

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Today’s US also is more ethnically diverse. America was 88pc white in 1970’s U.S. Census, but 72pc in 2010’s. The African-American population share rose from 11pc to 13pc over this period, while the Latino percentage increased from 4pc to 16pc.

More than this, racial attitudes have changed. As recently as 1972, four years into Nixon’s presidency, over 60pc of whites favoured discrimination in home sales; nearly 40pc believed it right to segregate neighbourhoods and favoured laws against racial intermarriage; and over 10pc wanted schools segregated, a University of Illinois study reports.

One of the most visible features of the demonstrations sweeping the US is their diversity. Polling confirms this in terms of attitudes to the protests. A Washington Post/George Mason University poll this month found that 69% of Americans think George Floyd’s killing signals a broader problem with law enforcement, against 29pc who consider it to be an isolated incident. And 74pc of Americans, including 53pc of Republicans, support the protests, on that particular poll.

Of course, Nixon began the Republican ‘Southern Strategy,’ which involved targeting traditional Democrat voters disenchanted with their party’s pro-civil rights stance. But Nixon, unlike Trump, a skilled politician and highly-intelligent man actually played this card carefully.

Ads about disorder were as likely to feature white college students as rioting. Indeed, Nixon famously got up in the middle of the night to talk to anti-war protestors at the Lincoln Memorial—quite the contrast with the militarised presence Trump insisted upon at the site to prevent protestors from gathering there.

Reviled by the left for Vietnam and Watergate, and by the right for failed economic policies such as wage and price controls, Nixon’s more enduring legacies tend to be forgotten.

These include such progressive policies as creating the Environmental Protection Agency, signing into law the 1970 Clean Water Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act and 1973 Endangered Species Act.

Nixon extended Medicare to people under 65 who were disabled or suffered from kidney disease. He also established federal government oversight of workplace safety by creating the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and signed the 1972 Consumer Product Safety Act.

By contrast, Trump is defined by his support for white nationalism and has increasingly thrown his lot in with the Christian conservative wing of the Republicans who were not a power in the land in Nixon’s day.

Nixon was prejudiced in private but his foray into racial politics didn’t extend as far as Reagan in 1980 speaking near Philadelphia, Mississippi, about ‘states’ rights,’ close to where three civil rights workers were slain, or Bush senior’s 1988 campaign that made Willie Horton, a black prisoner who re-offended after his early release, a mainstay of his campaign. Unlike Reagan, the elder Bush, and 1964 GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, Nixon backed 1964’s Civil Rights Act at the time.

Trump’s tin-ear, short-fuse, erratic and unfocused behaviour amid the crises of 2020 haven’t served him well. His job approval rating is in the low 40s; he trails Biden by an average of 10 points nationally.

Americans saying that the country is heading in the right direction are in the mid-to-high 20s. At the reported first coronavirus fatality, 47pc approved and 38pc disapproved of Trump’s handling of the deadly virus, now 55pc disapprove and 42pc approve, the polling data website fivethirtyeight.com.

For all Trump’s bravado and bluster, temper tantrums and Twitter rage, right now 2020 looks more like the failed attempts of Jimmy Carter in 1980 or Bush Senior in 1992 than Nixon in 1968.

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