How a Conservative Wins the Presidency in a Liberal Decade

Amid the civil-rights protests, riots, and unrest of the 1960s, Richard Nixon found his way to the White House. Now Donald Trump is taking a page from his playbook.


A lone white woman walks down an empty city block in the middle of the night clutching her purse. It’s pitch black, and the only sounds that can be heard are the clacking of her sensible heels, the sound of implied danger, and a man’s voice. He delivers terrifying crime statistics and a call to action. This woman, her body, and her livelihood are under threat.

“Crimes of violence in the United States have almost doubled in recent years,” Nixon says. “Today, a violent crime is committed every 60 seconds. A robbery every two-and-a-half minutes. A mugging every six minutes. A murder every 43 minutes … And it will get worse unless we take the offensive. Freedom from fear is a basic right of every American. We must restore it.”

The commercial fades to black. A slogan appears on the screen: “This Time Vote Like Your Whole World Depended on It.”

Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign bears a striking resemblance to the 2016 presidential race: Both have highlighted primal American fears. In his campaign commercial from that year, Nixon invoked the deeply racialized historical symbol of white womanhood; a symbol inextricably linked to the lynching of African Americans, whose killings were often justified by the belief that the white female body was in danger, preyed upon by the brutish black male. “White women,” according to Dr. Lisa Lindquist-Dorr, associate professor at the University of Alabama, “embodied virtue and morality; they signified whiteness and white superiority.” Nixon’s use of the vulnerable white woman, fearful of an ominous, yet ever present “other,” blew a dog whistle, one signaling that America, its values, and its power structure were under threat by a violent, liberal agenda.

Similar appeals to race-based fear have come up during the 2016 election—although this year, it has been more explicit. In promising to build a wall to keep out Mexican “rapists” and to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, says he will restore order and “make America great again” by implementing policies that target specific ethnicities. A look back at the 1960s, and the 1968 election in particular, may offer insight into why Trump’s supporters are identifying themselves as the “Silent Majority,” a term Nixon employed to describe the electorate whose fears and insecurities he successfully rode into the White House.

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The 1960s are often remembered as a liberal decade, characterized by the election of the charismatic Democratic presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, and the sweeping civil-rights movement. Historical narratives are often partial to the marches led by Martin Luther King Jr., hippies protesting the war in Vietnam, the integration of public schools, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although it may appear that these demonstrations and movements represented the sum of the nation, that was not the case. The image has been distorted over time because of the dramatic events attached to liberal politics.

And even if there were a liberal consensus during that era, the 1965 Watts Riots put a damper on that sentiment, according to Todd Boyd, the Katherine and Frank Rice Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture and a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. The timing of the riots, which started in response to police brutality, was significant: They began just five days after the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 was signed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 of course didn’t end the virulent racism so many people of color experienced in the 1960s, said Boyd, but white America was expecting gratitude not more unrest. “For many white people in America, these Acts were not seen as the result of hard-fought struggles which demanded that America live up to its promise,” said Boyd. “Instead, these Acts were regarded as ‘gifts’ given to black people, who, like ungrateful children, had whined and complained … The Watts Riots were then seen as an indication that, no matter how much the government gave these undeserving whiners, not only were they never going to be satisfied, but they were going to burn the house down if they didn’t always get exactly what they wanted.

Despite the progress the 1960s made in terms of civil-rights legislation, for many white Americans, there was nothing energizing or romantic about looking out the window to see groups of protesters marching down the street demanding an end to housing discrimination and advocating for black Americans’ right to live in any community they liked. Many homeowners did not want blacks moving into their neighborhoods for fear that their property values would plummet and they would lose equity in their homes. Some white, working-class homeowners accused white, rich liberals—who were proponents of open housing and integrated schools—of unfairly forcing their beliefs onto other communities. “There was often a conservative criticism directed toward those identified as ‘limousine liberals’ … that these liberals were being disingenuous, considering that the direct impact of such policies would have virtually no real influence on their daily lives,” said Boyd. In other words, black Americans would not be moving into wealthy neighborhoods or attending schools with wealthy whites’ children; it was the lower- and middle-class families who would be affected by civil-rights legislation.

This segment of America might have been less visible than the organized protesters, but they sent messages that were loud and clear. Compared with the progressive movements, the larger and more widespread consensus was that the United States was getting out of control. In 1968, the Great Silent Majority sent their message via the ballot; this time, they voted like their whole world depended on it.

The commercials of the 1968 presidential campaigns serve as a useful historical guide to that era. The Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey spoke to a hopeful America, calling for a continued move forward. The third-party candidate, ultra-conservative George Wallace, ran commercials that spoke to an America that was mad as hell and wanted to restore as much white dominance and segregation as possible. Nixon’s commercials spoke to an America that was fearful and wanted political leaders to restore stability. “Nixon … appealed to notions of ‘law and order,’” said Boyd. “These were code words for racism and suppression of the radical student left … Though it was obvious what Nixon meant, Nixon’s use of such evasive rhetoric made it more difficult to directly accuse him of racism at the time.”

Although Humphrey and the Democrats ran on their record of Medicare, Social Security, the Higher Education Act of 1965, and housing programs, they did not emerge victorious. Nixon ran on a message of fear, stoking the anxieties of the “Silent Majority” and promising to protect them from losing their country to the “liberal mob.” The slogan for his 1968 presidential campaign, “This time vote like your whole world depended on it” was a reference to the votes Americans had made in previous elections, which sent Democrats like Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to the White House and gave rise to a nation gone wild with activism and protests. Nixon had lost his previous bid for the White House to Kennedy in 1960, but this campaign would prove more formidable. Nixon was elected president in 1968 and again in 1972, before being forced to resign from office amid scandal in 1974.

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Trump has repurposed Nixon’s strategy during the 2016 presidential campaign. But, unlike Nixon, Trump has “dropped the code,” according to Boyd. “He has been direct and unapologetic in his appeals to fear, and the GOP establishment seems unnerved because he has exposed their game. He is suggesting that bigotry is inherently American and thus not something to hide from but instead something to embrace.”

According to Richard Reeves, an author and lecturer at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Trump’s appeal is much broader than his stance on any given policy issue. “I think the appeal—typically with white men—is that they are losing their place at the head of the table,” he said. These folks remember “when they were young and ran the country. He is appealing to people who feel they have lost control.”

Certainly, the past eight years, like the 1960s, have seen a shift in political power in the United States. For example, the nation elected its first African American president, a charismatic Kennedy-like figure who promised hope and change. And there have been vivid political moments: same-sex marriage, clashes between law enforcement and citizens, the opening of communist Cuba, waves of immigration, and an activist scaling a flag post to remove a Confederate flag from a state building. And, of course, the war on terror has also divided Americans, making them fearful of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, the 3.3 million in America, each other, and for some, even their president.

“We’re led by a man that is either not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind,” said Trump after the Orlando nightclub shooting in June, suggesting that the president of the United States may actually have some vested interest in exposing Americans to terrorism. “There’s something going on … He doesn’t get it—or he gets it better than anybody understands.” It’s a message that clearly resonates with his supporters, who appear to be vitalized by it.

“I think Islam hates us,” Trump told Anderson Cooper in an interview on CNN. “We have to be very vigilant. We have to be very careful. And we can’t allow people coming into this country who have this hatred of the United States.”

Trump thinks plenty of American citizens deserve vigilance, too. He rebukes the Black Lives Matter movement as “trouble” (even as he refuses to condemn his white-supremacist supporters), eggs on assaults against black protesters, and is one of the forebears of birtherism. “I think there can be profiling,” Trump said on CBS’s Face the Nation in December. “Everybody wants to be politically correct, and that’s part of the problem we have with our country … You have people that have to be tracked. If they’re Muslims, they’re Muslims, but you have people that have to be tracked.” Trump, like Nixon is trying to ride these fears into office.

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By no means is fear-based politics and “othering” proprietary to the 1960s, or to the present, or to the Republican Party for that matter. It’s a consistent part of American history, said Reeves. He pointed to the fear that gripped America during World War II, leading Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create Japanese internment camps. The decision to put Japanese Americans in camps was justified in the same way that Trump now justifies a Muslim ban. “This is a fight for survival,” The Chronicle wrote on January 21, 1942. “We have to be tough, even if civil rights do take a beating for a time.” It’s also why Reeves wrote his book, Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II: “I saw that my country, not for the first time, began turning on immigrants, blaming them for the troubles of the day. Seventy years ago, it was the American Japanese, most of them loyal to their new country; now it’s Muslims and Hispanics.”

Americans know what it looks like for civil rights to take a beating. For Japanese Americans, African Americans, Muslims, and others who have become the subject of fear and the collective “white gaze,” the United States has shown them a gross demonstration of what fear and hysteria can do. For too many, the “beating” that civil rights took has been literal, their bodies hung to preserve white power, white economy, white womanhood—and all of the American symbols she embodies.

Trump believes history will be kind to him and his ideas—whether it’s building a wall on the Mexican border or putting mosques under surveillance. Where Nixon used a dog-whistle to gin up race-based fears, Trump is using a megaphone. Both distorted basic American principles. But as the 2016 election approaches, it’s worth noting that Nixon was right about one thing: In November, Americans must vote like their whole world depended on it.