Donald Trump’s support from Republican voters has caught much of the political world flat-footed – few expected the GOP candidate to dominate the race for the Republican nomination at this point. It’s left pundits looking for parallels and credible points of comparison to help make sense of the odd dynamic.
Maybe Trump is the new Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential candidate from 1940 and the last major-party nominee to appear on the national ballot despite having literally no experience in government. Or perhaps Trump is the new Herman Cain, an inexperienced personality who looked strong the summer before voting began, but whose fortunes quickly faltered.
For others, Trump may be the new Pat Buchanan, who also mastered the art of far-right populism while combating the Republican establishment during an ill-fated presidential candidate.
But reading this Washington Post piece, a very different comparison came to mind.
Sharpening his pitch to what he calls “the silent majority,” Donald Trump presented himself Saturday as the “law and order” candidate in the 2016 presidential race, pledging to “get rid” of gangs and give more power to police officers.Speaking to the National Federation of Republican Assemblies for more than an hour, in the heart of a Southern city where student sit-ins helped launch the 1960s-era civil rights movement, the Republican complained that cops are afraid to be tough in the face of more scrutiny over their tactics.
At one point, the Republican reportedly told the audience, “That first night in Baltimore, they allowed that city to be destroyed. They set it back 35 years in one night because the police weren’t allowed to protect people. We need law and order!”
In case it’s not obvious, Trump’s rhetoric isn’t just an echo of Richard Nixon’s message in 1968; in some cases, it’s literally the same, word for word. Nixon’s “law and order” message was a cornerstone of his presidential pitch, as was his rhetoric about “the silent majority.”
It’s one thing to be inspired by a former official, or perhaps make an homage to a leader from yesteryear, but Trump at this point is effectively appropriating some of Nixon’s most famous phrases as his own. (The two even have Roger Stone in common.)
Nixon, of course, was forced to resign in disgrace, but his electoral track record is kind of amazing: he was on the GOP’s national ticket a whopping five times, and he won four of those races, becoming the only American to get elected vice president twice and elected president twice.*
So maybe Trump should take a page from Nixon’s playbook? No. The trouble is historical context.
National Journal’s Ron Brownstein noted yesterday that when Nixon delivered his “silent majority” speech, about 80% of the American electorate was white voters who lacked college degrees. Census data now puts that figure at 45%, while exit polls suggest the actual number is closer to 36%.
Trump’s Nixon-esque message will resonate with the same kind of voters Nixon rallied nearly a half-century ago, but we’re talking about a slice of the electorate that’s gone from massive to modest.
The National Federation of Republican Assemblies thought Trump’s rhetoric was great. Would a national, mainstream audience agree?
* Correction: I’d originally said Nixon was one of a “handful” of Americans to get elected V.P. twice and POTUS twice. It turns out, he’s literally the only one.