In my opinion the correct historical parallel for the candidacy of Donald Trump in 2016 is George Wallace from ’68, not Barry Goldwater from ’64 or Nixon from ’68. Barry Goldwater was a principled person who was part of a fringe movement within his own party; whereas Trump seems to lack fundamental principles. Nixon was a very skilled politician who lost in 1960 by only 112,000 votes and actually carried more states than Kennedy. In ’68, Nixon won with 32 states only hampered by Wallace taking the Deep South from him. In 1972, Nixon carried 49 states and won 60.7% of the vote in a landslide.[i] Trump on the other hand seems to have no knack for politics or overall political strategy. He has no grasp of the fundamental principles of politics such as appealing to your base in the primaries and then pivoting toward the center during the general election in order to expand your support.[ii]
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson ran for election in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, against Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Johnson was able to paint Goldwater as a conservative cook who could potentially take the United States to nuclear war through that famous “Daisy” ad.[iii] Johnson also found people who had been Republicans all their lives to come out and support his candidacy.[iv] While Goldwater was highly conservative for his own times when the conservative movement itself was considered fringe in mainstream American politics; by today’s standards he would probably be considered center-right. Goldwater supported many of the same policies that Reagan would bring to the fore in 1980.
Since the mid-1960s, there has been a party realignment.[v] In the 1960s, the Republican and Democratic parties were spread out regionally and nationally very differently from today. In the Northeast there were many Republicans whereas today that is largely a Democratic bastion. The Southeast was likewise reversed; in 1960 it was solidly Democratic and has been almost totally converted to a Republican stronghold. However, there was in the past more tolerance in the Republican Party for moderates and liberals on social issues as long as they held firm on economic issues; such as lower taxes, less government regulation, and fiscal conservatism. Since Reagan’s rise, moderate Republicans have almost ceased to exist. Reagan’s brand of combining fiscal and economic conservatism with conservatism on social issues has forced many moderates out of the party.[vi]
Nixon used themes of “Law and Order” during an election where the country was tearing itself apart. The Tet Offensive made it clear that the United States was losing the war in Vietnam. The anti-War movement was at its apex. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968, caused a series of riots in cities across the nation for weeks.[vii] The assassination of Robert Kennedy in the wake of his victory in the Democratic California Primary extinguished the hope of many young people that he could bring an end to the war. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago erupted in riots when the party elites selected Hubert Humphrey over Eugene McCarthy despite the fact that Humphrey had not won a single primary or caucus (this controversy would lead to the modern primary and caucus system we use today). The image of Chicago police attacking peaceful protestors outside the Democratic Convention played into Nixon’s narrative of the “Silent Majority” tired of the chaos and violence of the protestors and the rioters.[viii]
However, 2016 is not 1968. While the economy is not booming and the recovery is slower than most people would prefer; unemployment is at only 4.9% and median incomes have risen.[ix] While there are racial problems there are not race riots in every major city. The Black Lives Matter Movement is akin to the non-violent direct action movements of the 1960s such as CORE and the SCLC; they are not a violent insurgency threatening American society.[x] While the United States is at war; it is not a divisive war with millions of anti-war protestors at home. And unlike Vietnam in ’68, where 500,000 troops were committed, only 10,000 American forces are fighting overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.[xi] Unlike in ’68, the sitting President is more popular now than he has ever been, whereas Johnson refused to run because he knew he would lose.[xii]
Trump uses the “Law and Order” theme of Nixon and has drawn parallels to Goldwater in his speeches and campaign events but he is neither principled like Goldwater or has the political instincts and strategic thinking of Nixon.[xiii] Both Goldwater and Nixon covertly used race to appeal to a white audience who feared the changes society was undergoing at the time. Goldwater infamously refused to support the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Nixon used the term “Law and Order” in reference to African Americans rioting in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King. Nixon also used a “Southern Strategy” to attract voters away from George Wallace by criticizing busing which was used to enforce the Brown v Board of Education decision.[xiv] However, Nixon never referred to an entire population of people, at least publicly, as “rapists and murderers,” as Trump did to Mexicans on his announcement that he would run in June 2015.[xv] Goldwater never maligned an entire religion for the antics of its most extreme adherents.[xvi] The Clinton campaign has successfully painted Trump as unhinged and unfit to be president using similar techniques that Johnson used against Goldwater; including finding the same person who starred in that “Confessions of a Republican” ad in 1964 to talk about Trump.[xvii]
Trump is more akin to George Wallace in his rhetoric, tactics, and ultimately in his results. George Wallace was known for his populist rhetoric and for his overt racial appeals to white supremacists. He campaigned as an advocate against the rights of African Americans. Just like Trump, Wallace maligned the media as biased. Wallace called for protestors at his rallies to be beaten up. In 1968, he ran independently and garnered 10 million votes, about 13 percent of the total with which he carried five Southern states and garnered 46 electoral votes.[xviii] Trump has constantly encouraged his supporters to use violence against his protestors.[xix] Trump’s rhetoric of racist demagoguery echoes the language that Wallace especially in the way Trump uses minorities as foils or scapegoats for the problems of his white supporters. It is not surprising that non-college educated males are Trump’s largest demographic.[xx]
At this rate, Trump is hoping that he can so overwhelmingly win the votes of white males that he overrides his deficits with women and minorities. In order to win this election, Trump had to not only win every state Romney won in 2012, but he had to flip to red several swing states, which barring any miraculous events, Trump is not on track to do. In recent polls, he has been down by as much as 14 points, with a national average of 7 points behind. [xxi] In almost all of the swing states, Trump is down by over five points;[xxii] which is an almost insurmountable lead at this point in the race. Trump’s history of sexual harassment and misogyny has come back to kill him with women who normally support the Republican Party. A videotape where, without their consent, Trump bragged about kissing women and where he “grabbed them by the pussy” didn’t help.[xxiii] That dynamic, has turned what would be a close race with any normal Republican candidate into a potential landslide. It is looking like this election is going to be like 1964 or 1968, but Trump’s performance appears likely to echo Goldwater or Wallace, instead of Nixon.
[ii] http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/primary-turnout-means-nothing-for-the-general-election/; http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2016-05-09/trump-s-primary-strategy-may-not-serve-him-well-in-general-election.
[vi] http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/politics-government/election/article89821717.html; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/05/11/is-trump-the-last-gasp-of-reagans-republican-party/; http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2016/07/21/what-is-the-republican-party/trump-could-recreate-the-party-of-ronald-reagan; http://www.nationalreview.com/article/432112/ronald-reagans-republican-party-it-dead; http://time.com/4253747/the-party-of-reagan-is-no-more/.
[xiii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/09/19/donald-trumps-law-and-order-approach-wont-make-us-safer/?utm_term=.3db9c3ad1741; http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/287635-trumps-law-and-order-gamble.
[xv] There are plenty of incidents of Nixon referring to African Americans negatively in the transcripts of the White House tapes but he never, to my knowledge, publically verbalized those thoughts in a campaign speech. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_q61B-DyPk, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/06/16/donald-trump-to-announce-his-presidential-plans-today/.
[xxi] http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/first-read/poll-after-trump-tape-revelation-clinton-s-lead-double-digits-n663691?cid=sm_tw; https://www.scribd.com/document/327067170/161027-NBCWSJ-October-N-500-Poll; http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/us/general_election_trump_vs_clinton-5491.html.
[xxii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/clinton-holds-clear-advantage-in-new-battleground-polls/2016/10/18/2885e3a0-94a6-11e6-bc79-af1cd3d2984b_story.html; http://www.270towin.com/maps/2016-election-battleground-states.