Donald Trump being Uncle Sam. Photo: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay Donald Trump being Uncle Sam. Photo: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay

As Trump looks to shore up populism for his re-election during the BLM upsurge, Sean Ledwith draws upon parallels with 1968

In August 1968 Richard Nixon accepted the Republican nomination for the Presidency with a classic appeal to one of the tropes of the political right:

“As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying… As far as this problem of law and order is concerned, I am for law and order.

Over 50 years later, it is apparent one of his successors in the office is premising his campaign on a similar message of crushing an insurgent section of the population.Speaking amid the Black Lives Matter protests earlier in the summer, Trump told a press conference:

“The biggest victims of the rioting are peace loving citizens in our poorest communities, and as they are President, I will fight to keep them safe. I will fight to protect you. I am your President of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters. But in recent days, our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, or, arsonists, looters, criminals, rider rioters, Antifa and others.

Just as Nixon sought to exploit the aftermath of anti-racist insurrections in American cities  such as Oakland and Watts in the mid-60s, his Republican successor is seeking to appeal to the basest instincts of white voters following this year’s spate of urban rebellions in cities such as Portland and Minneapolis.

Bizarrely, Trump does not seek to hide from an association with the most notoriously corrupt US President of modern times and the only one forced to resign the office in history:  “I learned a lot from Richard Nixon…I study history” he rashly declared recently.

It is evident that Trump’s bid to emulate Nixon’s dog whistle politics of 1968 is an indicator of his growing desperation as the death toll from his calamitous mismanagement of the pandemic approaches 200,000 and his Democrat rival Joe Biden starts to pull ahead in the polls.

Trump and his advisors have also cynically calculated that the notable parallels between the volatile politics of 1968 and 2020 possibly create an opportunity for him to win a totally undeserved second term.

The fire last time

In the former year, the US was hit by a wave of urban uprisings as the African American working class reacted angrily to the assassination of Martin Luther King in March.

The Democrat Party endured an ideological crisis of identity when incumbent President Lyndon Johnson sensationally announced he would not seek a second term as his administration had been hollowed out by the political fall-out of the Vietnam War.

Johnson’s unprecedented withdrawal from the race opened the contest for the Democrat nomination to anti-war candidates including Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.

The assassination of the latter in June at the hands of a Palestinian activist compounded the sense of a society spiralling out of control.

The campaigns of these two candidates provided an outlet for the burgeoning anti-war movement on the campuses and streets and hopes were high that the next administration would de-escalate the US war machine in Vietnam.

Cynically, and with disastrous consequences, the Democrat party establishment conspired to hand the nomination to Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a career politician who had not even competed in the primaries and with no interest in rocking the boat of the military industrial complex.

At the party convention in August, the Chicago police were unleashed on anti-war protestors and the event practically disintegrated amid scenes of tear gas and baton charges inside the arena.

These events prompted Nixon, the arch opportunist, to visit the city and bang the law-and -order drum. His campaign team produced an attack ad featuring riotous scenes from the convention, predictably glossing over the fact that peaceful protestors had been set upon by an out of control police force.

Julia Azari from Marquette University has commented on the real meaning of this hackneyed phrase in US politics. Law and order is:

“often a way to talk about race without talking about race. But its 1960s meaning also meant all people who were challenging the social order. As we’ve moved away from the era when politicians were making obvious racial appeals, the appeals have become more coded. The question becomes whose order, for whom does the law work. You saw a lot of that same rhetoric with ‘silent majority’ — though Nixon wanted to separate himself from Wallace’s populism, it was a backlash against the status quo, especially the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson.

Lost opportunity

In the November election of 1968, Nixon beat Humphrey but only by about 500 000 votes – a victory margin of about 1%.

The likelihood is that if the Democrats had selected an explicitly anti-war candidate such as McCarthy or Kennedy, they might have even won in 1968.

The margin of Nixon’s victory could have been reduced or even eliminated totally if the Democrat establishment had not alienated huge swathes of young black and white voters disgusted by the stitch-up in Chicago.

The 1968 election is widely perceived as a turning point in America’s gradual shift from the centrist consensus of the post-war era to the neoliberal revolution that climaxed with Reagan taking the White House in 1980. It did not need to be that way.

The US in the 1960s had witnessed a golden age of radical activism as the anti-war movement, Second Wave feminism, the Black Panthers and trade union militants such as the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement converged to generate a radical consciousness that could have decisively shifted the country to the left.

The machinations of the Democrat Party hierarchy contributed hugely to this lost opportunity; just as they will hold responsibility for selecting Joe Biden over Bernie Sanders if Trump should defy expectations and win again in 2020.

Once established in the White House, Nixon made a deliberately insidious speech in 1969 with an appeal to the supposed silent majority to reject the radicalism of America’s insurgent student population:

“Let historians not record that when America was the most powerful nation in the world we passed on the other side of the road and allowed the last hopes for peace and freedom of millions of people to be suffocated by the forces of totalitarianism. And so tonight-to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans – I ask for your support.

In July of this year, a Trump tweet blatantly plagiarised this tactic from the Nixon playbook:

“The Trump Campaign has more ENTHUSIASM, according to many, than any campaign in the history of our great Country – Even more than 2016. Biden has NONE! The Silent Majority will speak on NOVEMBER THIRD!!! Fake Suppression Polls & Fake News will not save the Radical Left.

Return of the imperial presidency?

The President’s explicit willingness to associate himself with a political figure who hitherto has been regarded as persona non grata by mainstream opinion is an ominous indicator of what a Trump second term might look like.

US historian, Arthur Schlesinger, memorably referred to the Nixon years as the Imperial Presidency, drawing attention to how that period witnessed an expansion of executive power that stretched the country’s democratic fabric to its limits.

Nixon’s willingness to deploy any form of chicanery and illegality in order to bolster his power climaxed with the Watergate scandal and the public shame of his resignation.

When Nixon ‘s helicopter took off from the White House lawn in August 1974 it carried him into a political disgrace from which there could be no return in his lifetime. The fact that Trump and the political right are seeking to rehabilitate modern America’s most notorious President suggests they intend to revive the template of the Imperial Presidency should there be a Republican victory this year.

Just a few days ago, he announced the creation of the 1776 Commission, a deliberate project to undermine American educators who want to expose the country’s roots in genocide and racism

“As I said at Mount Rushmore — which they would love to rip down and rip it down fast, and that’s never going to happen — two months ago, the left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. As many of you testified today, the left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools. It’s gone on far too long. Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts, like those of Howard Zinn, that try to make students ashamed of their own history.

Taking direct aim at anti-racist activists who have been pulling down statues of Confederate generals across the country this summer, Trump also announced a mandatory ten-year prison for any person trying the same from now on.

If Trump should prevail in November, the US can only expect an intensification of the polarisation and social strife that have marked his first term.

A Trump second term could also easily see a ramping-up of authoritarian methods such as snatch-squads and sonic bombs that have been deployed against BLM protestors this year.

Despite Trump’s professed study of history, his campaign team might be wise to study the fate of the Nixon Presidency before they become too attached to the parallels, however.

By 1970, anti-war protests at Nixon’s criminal intensification of the bombing of North Vietnam had led to a virtual state of siege at the White House as demonstrators camped on the nearby National Mall.

In one episode, the President decided to venture out on a whim in the small hours in a surreal attempt to debate with the protesters. When Trump marched out of the White House last June, accompanied by soldiers and secret service agents, to create a bizarre photo-op outside the church with Bible in hand, some commentators noted the similarity to another embattled President.

Matt Dalek from George Washington University comments:

“It’s a decades-long Republican strategy. Trump is drawing on this tradition. But he’s also making it his own, because he’s the most divisive and inflammatory president we’ve had. He’s more willing to say the racist and nativist pieces out loud.

Reclaiming ‘68

As suggested above, there are several reasons to be sceptical of Trumps aspiration that a repeat of 1968 is on the cards.

Firstly, Nixon was the challenger in that year and could claim to offer an alternative style of administration after eight years of Democrat control of the White House.

Trump this year is the incumbent and his record of four years in office is now totally overshadowed by the shattering impact of the pandemic.

Despite his crass attempts to shift the spotlight onto civil unrest, polls indicate that most Americans still regard the economy and coronavirus as the dominant campaign issues of 2020.

Nixon also benefitted in 1968 from George Wallace, the racist Governor of Alabama, running as an independent and thereby splitting the Democrat vote in the South.

In the best performance by a third-party candidate in the modern era, Wallace won the electoral college vote in five states, which normally would have gone to the Democrats, and effectively handed the White House to the Republicans.

The most important factor that will hopefully scupper Trump’s cynical Nixon tribute act is that the BLM protests enjoy a sizeable amount of public approval.

The weeks following George Floyd’s murder saw support for the anti-racist movement surge to almost 70% of Americans.

Iconic images of police officers and establishment politicians being forced to take the knee by the tide of public opinion indicate an acceptance of multiculturalism is embedding itself solidly in mainstream US society.

Hopefully, when Trump is ejected from the White House this year, it will be because millions of working-class Americans have refused to tolerate the bigotry of their President and taken to the streets to reclaim the authentic, radical heritage of 1968.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters