After riots and looting broke out across the US in early June, many commentators conjectured that the unrest could sweep Trump to victory in the upcoming election much the way the unrest in the late 1960s swept Nixon into office in 1968. The worry was based on a comparison between the times. Given what happened the last time there were massive anti-racism protests, Democrats would do well to expect a Nixonian sweep in November, so the commentariat said. This is the same sort of logic that led people to speculate during the early days of the impeachment proceedings last Fall that, like Nixon, Trump’s violation of his oath of office would be enough to sink his presidency. That, of course, didn’t happen, because after all, this is not 1968, Trump is not Nixon, and America has changed so much in the past 50 years that playbooks from half a century ago are not so useful for politicians who are navigating this current moment in American history.
Still, the comparisons between the present political moment and the late 1960s are multitudinous. The similarities are eerie even if the details and timelines of events are a little off. So many details line up with each other – the police brutality against peaceful protesters during an anti-racism movement, a ‘Law and Order’ Republican candidate with impeachment in his timeline, a new space program promising to take Americans to new worlds – that older Americans who lived through the 60s feel a maddening sense of deja vu. The elders have been here before. Not here exactly, of course, but somewhere very similar. Despite 50 years of civil rights struggle and a two-term black presidency, the problems the elders raged against in their youth continue to plague Americans today. The following James Baldwin quote comes from the end of an appearance he made on the Dick Cavett show in 1969, but his words could have come from the mouth of a Black Lives Matter (BLM) activist today: “I'm not talking about individual policemen. No doubt, Nixon loves his children. I'm talking about the structure with which these people work. The policemen in the ghetto were not there, no matter what liberal newspapers may say, to protect my life. They're there to protect your property.”
Baldwin mentions Nixon, who was in his day the white folk’s answer to the black folk’s request for equality and freedom. Trump now fills that reactionary niche. Trump himself has very intentionally cultivated a Nixonian messaging strategy focused on ‘law and order,’ Nixon’s favorite catchphrase. Trump tweets “LAW AND ORDER” in all capital letters regularly, as well as Nixon’s other famous phrase, “THE SILENT MAJORITY”. Like Nixon, Trump ‘stonewalled’ congress during his impeachment proceedings and refused to cooperate. Like Nixon, Trump hates journalists and the media. Nixon and Trump both promised to extricate troops from messy foreign wars and then failed to do so. But that is where the easy comparisons end. "I learned a lot from Richard Nixon,” Trump said on Fox & Friends recently. However, this appears to be far from the case.
After all, Nixon was at the end of the day, fundamentally a unity candidate. Remember: the 1968 presidential election was a three-way election between the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, Nixon on the Republican ticket, and George Wallace, a far-right segregationist. Running between Humphrey and Wallace allowed Nixon to thread the needle between the left and right by advocating for both orders in the unruly streets and civil rights. To rightwingers, who feared the black people protesting in the streets during the 1960s, Nixon was able to promise a restoration of order. To the Left, who saw white people persecuting black people, Nixon was able to pledge support for civil rights and equality under the law. Nixon only had to hammer Wallace on segregation to cater to the moderates’ and liberals’ fears of a regressive conservative backlash. By bringing people together to compromise, Nixon won in 1968.
Trump is not using Nixon’s strategy. In many ways, Trump is more like George Wallace, the third-party segregationist who ran for President to the right of Nixon in 1968. Wallace believed in racial apartheid and famously stated, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” Trump, like Wallace, is a divisive figure and has based his entire campaign strategy around ‘us and them’ rhetoric. Like Wallace, Trump has warned Americans that anarchists will soon be terrorizing their streets. Like Wallace, Trump has warned against radical leftists and communists taking over America and destroying the country. Like Wallace, Trump has openly catered to racists and white power activists, even going so far as to retweet a video in which a Trump supporter shouts “White power!” at a group of protesters recently. There are many more such similarities between Wallace and Trump, but suffice to say that, insofar as Trump is a divider and not a uniter or a healer, Nixon and Trump are opposites.
The more one looks into the comparison between the two men, the more dissimilar Nixon and Trump seem to each other. For instance, Nixon was intensely private and went to extreme lengths to keep his actions and thoughts secret. It was only later when Nixon’s tape recordings of his meetings in the Oval Office were released to the public that Americans discovered who Nixon really was: a bigoted, immoral, and crude man. Trump, in contrast, is an open book. He keeps few things private and the things he tries to keep secret inevitably come to light. Trump does lie and evade and keep secrets, but Trump also says exactly what he thinks and takes actions in public that Nixon would have kept out of the spotlight. Trump is also less savvy than Nixon was. Trump’s walk to St. John’s church provoked references to a similar trip Nixon made in 1970. Tens of thousands of protesters were gathered on the National Mall to protest the Vietnam War and the Kent State shootings, and the White House had been fortified with the National Guard. As the New York Times wrote about this incident, “Wracked by doubt and self-flagellation, unable to sleep, Nixon slipped out of the building just after 4:35 a.m. with a handful of aides and Secret Service agents and traveled to the Lincoln Memorial. There, he tried to explain his Vietnam policy to a group of student demonstrators. ‘I know probably most of you think I’m an S.O.B.,” he told them. ‘But I want you to know that I understand just how you feel.’” In contrast to Nixon’s congeniality, Trump gassed and assaulted peaceful protesters so he could stage a photo op.
Drawing predictive conclusions based on any of these comparisons and contrasts is impossible. Despite his focus on law and order, Trump is trailing Biden in the polls by historic margins. Trump is up against a failing economy, a rising pandemic, protests in the streets, and himself. Yet, anything could happen still. This is 2020, not 1968. No matter how closely both eras match each other, no matter how strong the feeling of deja vu is, we should not overdraw the comparison between then and now. The 1960s were after all a very different time. And as we discard the comparison between Nixon and Trump, we can appreciate it one last time, because the comparison does have a certain appeal of certainty to it, even if it is flawed. It is easy, neat, and clean. Attempting to put Trump into Nixon’s mold produces a sense that we have all been here before. The eternal return has shown us the patterns we live by over and over, and we need only follow the patterns to their predictable end to see the future. Ironically, the two men actually did meet and have a correspondence together. After a television appearance, Nixon wrote to Trump to congratulate him, saying that his wife, Pat Nixon, predicted that “whenever you decide to run for office you will be a winner!” The wheel of time spins round and round.