Donald Trump is no Richard Nixon

Early Returns

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Comparisons with 1968 have been on my mind as unrest has spread over the past week, perhaps because President Donald Trump is embracing Richard Nixon so explicitly in his response; not only is he talking about "law and order" these days but he also tweeted out the exclamation "SILENT MAJORITY!" (yes, in all caps) without any other context on Tuesday, presumably for the handful of us familiar with it as a Nixon-era phrase. 

Never mind that, as historian Joshua Zeitz points out, the role that Trump appears to be playing from 1968 is that of Lyndon Johnson. Never mind, too, as political scientist Omar Wasow explains to Greg Sargent, that a whole lot of things have changed since then.

No, I was thinking of where Nixon was at this point in his subsequent re-election campaign, at the end of May 1972. He wasn't screaming about law and order. He was in Moscow, finishing up a historic summit with the Soviets in which he signed, among other agreements, a landmark arms-control treaty. That came on top of an even more consequential trip to China, which had taken up the second half of February. 

The thing is that Nixon didn't run for re-election on law and order. He ran on peace and prosperity (see the first two ads here). And he had real accomplishments to campaign on, including continued troop reductions and peace negotiations in Vietnam (not to defend Nixon's Vietnam record, but he had an argument for progress in the fall of 1972). The economy was booming too. So Nixon sent his attack dog vice president to safe Republican audiences (easier to do in those days with a less nationalized media), and in public he acted, well, presidential.

Far from Trump's strategy of catering only to his strongest supporters at all times, Nixon also found ways to neutralize his potential opponents. He was sufficiently moderate toward labor that the AFL-CIO actually stayed on the sidelines in the general election. For suburban do-gooders who might've been upset by Nixon's abandonment of civil rights and the cities, he offered environmentalism. And on and on. I don't want to exaggerate this; Nixon was no liberal as president, and many of the accomplishments liberals liked from his presidency were really congressional initiatives that he went along with. And that's before getting to the misconduct that forced his resignation one step ahead of impeachment and removal. But the point is that Nixon's governing approach was nothing like Trump's.

We should be careful with all of this: Presidential general elections do not flow only, or even primarily, through the campaign strategies of the candidates. Events always swamp campaigns, and even incumbent presidents have only a limited ability to shape those events, as the pandemic above all should make clear. 

That said, Nixon's example surely shows that there are things incumbents can do to improve their chances for re-election, and it's hard to see how Trump is doing any of them. Perhaps he'll wind up winning anyway. But it certainly won't be by emulating Nixon.

1. Lindsay Cohn at the Monkey Cage on using the U.S. military for police work.

2. Michael T. Heaney at Mischiefs of Faction on collective action and the pandemic.

3. Also at Mischiefs: Matthew Green on Washington as a presidential prop.

4. Tom Pepinsky on "mobilization, protest, civil disobedience, and direct action."

5. Perry Bacon Jr. and Julia Azari on the attack on Lafayette Square protesters.

6. Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman, Katie Rogers, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Katie Benner on Trump's walk to the church. One of the things that's underappreciated by both Trump's opponents and his supporters is just how amateurish this White House still is. It shows. 

7. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen on Trump's attacks on protesters.

8. Susan Hennessey and Margaret Taylor on what Congress can do about police violence and civil unrest.

9. And Shawn Donnan and Catarina Saraiva on the slow pace of delivering unemployment-insurance payments.

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