In 1968, Nixon’s pledge of “law and order” spoke to many national agonies, not only the urban riots. In Nixon’s famous law-and-order TV ad of 1968 there appeared not a single African American face. The faces in the ad were those of student protesters, and the photos were of the brutal suppression of a student protest by Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago police. Strikingly, the ad portrayed the police almost as harshly as the protesters. It showed an image of a short-haired young man helping a blood-drenched friend; of a respectably dressed person being dragged away; of smirking cops in sinister paramilitary outfits. The ad was just tough enough on the students to appeal to the white ethnic, urban Catholics who identified with Daley, and just tough enough on the Chicago police to reassure the prosperous Protestant suburbanites whose children may have been clubbed by Daley’s brutal cops. Race riots were at most a subtext of an ad that purported to address other issues entirely.
By renominating in 1968 its candidate of 1960, the Republican Party seemed to be repudiating its radical lurch to the right under Barry Goldwater in 1964—and offering a return to the civil-rights Republicanism of the recent past: Nixon had served for eight years as the vice president of that most consensus-minded of presidents, Dwight Eisenhower.
Nixon’s message of a return to calm and peace resonated because he stoked memories of a presidency that had delivered just that. In 1968, Americans remembered well that Eisenhower had promptly extricated the United States from the Korean War, which he’d inherited from his Democratic predecessor. Nixon promised to do the same in Vietnam.
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Accepting the nomination that year, Nixon said, “To those who say that law and order is the code word for racism, there and here is a reply: Our goal is justice for every American. If we are to have respect for law in America, we must have laws that deserve respect. Just as we cannot have progress without order, we cannot have order without progress, and so, as we commit to order tonight, let us commit to progress.”
Today, we know the Nixon of the secret tapes: crude, amoral, often bigoted. The public Nixon of 1968, however, behaved with the dignity and decorum Americans then expected in a president. Trump in 2020 occupies the place not of Nixon, but of Daley and George Wallace: Trump is the force of disorder that is frightening American voters into seeking a healing candidate—not the candidate of healing who can restore a fair and just public order. Trump on Sunday retweeted a right-wing media personality: “This isn’t going to end until the good guys are willing to use overwhelming force against the bad guys.”
The irony, of course, is that at the same time that Trump tweets bloodthirsty threats, he has turned off the White House lights and cowered in the bunker below. He joins noisy bluster to visible weakness—exactly the opposite of the Nixon formula in 1968. Trump will not repeat Nixon’s success in 1968, because he does not understand that success. Nixon joined his vow of order to a promise of peace at home and abroad. Trump offers only conflict, and he offers no way out of conflict, because—unlike Nixon in 1968—Trump is himself the cause of so much conflict.