Donald Trump is running for the presidency of an America that no longer exists.
Trump in recent weeks has repeatedly reprised two of Richard Nixon’s most memorable rallying cries, promising to deliver “law and order” for the “silent majority.” But in almost every meaningful way, America today is a radically different country than it was when Nixon rode those arguments to win the presidency in 1968 amid widespread anti-war protests, massive civil unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., white flight from major cities, and rising crime rates. Trump’s attempt to emulate that strategy may only prove how much the country has changed since it succeeded.
Americans today are far more racially diverse, less Christian, better educated, more urbanized, and less likely to be married. In polls, they are more tolerant of interracial and same-sex relationships, more likely to acknowledge the existence of racial discrimination, and less concerned about crime.
Almost all of these changes complicate Trump’s task in trying to rally a winning electoral coalition behind his alarms against marauding “angry mobs,” “far-left fascism,” and “the violent mayhem we have seen in the streets of cities that are run by liberal Democrats.” The Americans he is targeting with his messages of racial resentment and cultural backlash are uniformly a smaller share of American society now than they were then.
Not all of the country’s changes present headwinds for Trump. The population is older now, and older white voters in particular remain a receptive audience for Trump’s messages of cultural and racial division (even if his mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak has notably softened his support among them). Fifty years ago, southern evangelicals still mostly leaned toward the Democratic Party; now they have become a pillar of the Republican coalition. And while many northern white Catholics back then might have recoiled from Trump-style attacks on immigrants as a smear on their own heritage, now “when Trump talks about making America great again,” more of them “see themselves as part of that country that is getting protected,” says Robert P. Jones, the founder and chief executive of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute and the author of White Too Long, a new book on Christian churches and white supremacy.
Together, those shifts have solidified for Republicans a much more reliable advantage among white voters without a college education than they enjoyed in Nixon’s era. Like Trump, who once declared “I love the poorly educated,” Nixon recognized that he was shifting the GOP’s traditional class basis. On “tough problems, the uneducated are the ones that are with us,” Nixon told his White House advisers, according to David Paul Kuhn’s vivid new book about the blue-collar backlash in that era, The Hardhat Riot. “The educated people and the leader class,” Nixon continued, “no longer have any character, and you can’t count on them.”
Trump might echo both of those assessments. But he is offering them to a very different audience. The demographic shifts that have most reshaped politics since Nixon’s day sit at the crossroads of race, education, and religion.
From the 2016 GOP primaries forward, white voters without a college education have provided Trump’s largest group of loyalists. In the 1968 presidential election, that group comprised nearly 80 percent of all voters, according to post-election surveys by both the Census Bureau and the University of Michigan’s American National Election Studies. White Americans holding at least a four-year college degree represented about 15 percent of voters, with nonwhite Americans, almost all of them Black, comprising the remainder, at just under 10 percent. (The Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz analyzed the ANES data for me.)
That electorate is unrecognizable now. The nonpartisan States of Change project has forecast that non-college-educated white Americans will likely constitute 42 percent of voters in November, slightly more than half their share in 1968. States of Change anticipates that both college-educated white voters and voters of color will represent about 30 percent of voters in 2020. For the former group, that’s about twice their share in 1968; for the latter, that’s somewhere between a three- and fourfold increase.
The change is just as dramatic when looking at the nation’s religious composition. White Christians comprised fully 85 percent of all American adults in 1968, according to figures from Gallup, provided to me by the senior editor Jeffrey M. Jones. They now represent only half as much of the population, 42 percent, according to PRRI’s latest national figures.
The groups that have grown since then reflect the nation’s increasing racial and religious diversity. In 1968, nonwhite Christians represented only 8 percent of Americans; now that’s tripled to just more than 24 percent in the PRRI study. Most explosive has been the growth of those who identify as secular or unaffiliated with any religious tradition. They represented just 3 percent of Americans in 1968; now it’s 24 percent.
Other shifts in society’s structure since that era are equally profound. Census Bureau reports show that a much smaller share of adults are married now than they were then. Only about half as many Americans live in small-town or rural communities outside of major metropolitan areas. The portion with at least some college experience is about triple its level then.
Across all of these dimensions, the consistent pattern is this: The groups Trump hopes to mobilize—non-college-educated, nonurban, married, and Christian white voters—have significantly shrunk as a share of the overall society in the past 50 years. The groups most alienated from him include many of the ones that have grown over those decades: college-educated white people, people of color, seculars, singles, and residents of the large metro areas.
Trump faces two other big challenges in channeling Nixon. One is that the crime rate, especially the rate of violent crime, doesn’t provide as compelling a backdrop for a law-and-order message as it did during the 1960s. The overall violent-crime rate increased by more than 50 percent just from 1964 to 1968, en route to doubling by the early 1970s. Robberies per person more than doubled from 1960 to 1968. The murder rate soared by 40 percent from 1964 to 1968; by 1972, it was nearly 85 percent higher than in 1964. In Gallup surveys from September 1968, 13 percent of college-educated white voters, 11 percent of non-college-educated white voters, and 9 percent of nonwhite voters identified crime as the biggest problem facing the nation.
Today, overall crime rates are much lower, a change that’s made possible the revival of central cities around the country. After violent crime peaked in 1991, it declined fairly steadily for about 15 years. It’s proved more volatile over the past decade: The violent-crime rate fell from 2008 to 2014, then rose through 2016 and has dipped again since. As Trump did in 2016, with his dark warnings about “American carnage” following the uptick in crime late in Barack Obama’s second term, he is again using recent findings of elevated murder rates in some cities to raise the specter of Democrats unleashing a new crime surge. “Despite the left-wing sowing chaos in communities all across the country … and the heart breaking murders in Democrat controlled cities like Chicago, New York City, and Atlanta, Joe Biden has turned his back on any semblance of law and order,” the Republican National Committee warned in a press release yesterday morning.
But James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said that any crime spikes this year amount to “short-term fluctuation [in] a long-term trend” toward greater safety. “We’ve enjoyed, really since the early 1990s, a decline in crime,” he told me. “From year to year, some cities see decreases, some see increases, [but] there’s no crime wave … although Trump may want to construct one—a trumped-up one.”
Though polls generally show that concern about crime hasn’t fallen as fast as crime itself, Americans haven’t entirely missed this long-term trajectory: In June Gallup polling, just 3 percent of adults cited crime as the nation’s top problem, far less than in 1968.
Trump’s other big obstacle is that racial attitudes have shifted since then. That’s partly because people of color represent such a larger share of American society. But it’s also because college-educated and secular white Americans, who tend to hold more inclusive views on racial issues than non-college-educated and Christian white Americans, are also a bigger portion of the white population. Gallup polling in 1968 consistently documented a high level of white anxiety about the pace of racial change: Almost half of white Americans said the federal government was moving too fast to promote integration; two-thirds said Black people did not face discrimination in hiring; and, most striking, a bristling three-fifths majority supported a policy of shooting looters on sight during riots. On each front, college-educated white people were less likely to express conservative views than those without degrees, but even they split about evenly on these questions.
A half century later, racism remains ever present in America. But many more white people appear willing to acknowledge its persistence, especially in the national debate that has followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. A recent Monmouth poll found that most white people now agree police are more likely to use deadly force against Black people, while CNN found that most white people agree that the criminal-justice system is biased. And although Trump has called Black Lives Matter “a symbol of hate,” three-fifths of white people expressed support for the movement in a June Pew Research Center poll. White people with a college degree were consistently more likely than those without one to express such liberal views on race, but these perspectives claimed significant support among non-college-educated white Americans as well.
Those attitudes point toward a final key difference from 1968. Back then, many anxious white voters genuinely believed Nixon could deliver law and order; but today, many white Americans, especially those with degrees, have concluded that Trump himself is increasing the risk of lawlessness and disorder. In one particularly striking result, Quinnipiac University last month found that college-educated white people were twice as likely to say that having Trump as president made them feel less safe rather than more safe. That’s a very different equation than Nixon faced: Though he may have considered “the uneducated” the most receptive audience for his hard-line messages, he overwhelmingly won college-educated white voters too, carrying about two-thirds of them in both of his victories, according to the ANES. Some recent polls have shown Trump carrying only one-third of them now.
Trump still has an audience for his neo-Nixonian warnings about an approaching wave of disorder: In that same Quinnipiac survey, a solid plurality of white voters without a degree said they feel safer with Trump as president (even though many blue-collar white people have also expressed unease about his response to the protests). In a PRRI poll last year, majorities of white Protestants, Catholics, and especially evangelicals said discrimination against white people was as big a problem as bias against minorities. Yet both of these groups—working-class and Christian white voters—will each likely comprise only about half as many of the voters in November as they did when Nixon prevailed five decades ago.
Those numbers won’t become any more favorable for Republicans in the years ahead: Although white Americans accounted for four-fifths of the nation’s total population growth from 1960 through 1968, the demographer William Frey noted in a recent report that all of the nation’s population growth since 2010 has been among people of color; the final 2020 Census, he concludes, will likely find that this has been the first decade ever when the absolute number of white people in the country declines. The shift in the nation’s religious composition is as unrelenting: Jones says that the share of adults in their 20s who identify as secular grew from 10 percent in 1986 to 20 percent in 1996 to nearly 40 percent in PRRI’s latest study. Only one-fourth of adults younger than 30 now identify as white Christians.
Trump hopes that reprising Nixon-style messages about disorder will allow him to mobilize massive margins and turnout among the white voters who feel threatened by these changes. But the country’s underlying evolution shows how narrow a path Trump has chosen. He is betting the Republican future on resurrecting a past that is dissolving before his eyes.
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