Fifty years ago this November Richard Nixon was elected 37th president of a country my father, then Washington bureau chief of the London Daily Telegraph, described in his 1970 book, America in Retreat, as “divided against itself, full of doubts and fears and looking inwards.”
“The tide,” Dad continued, ”may well be turning away from acceptance of the policy recommendations of an educated elite — and against the elite. The day of the simplistic know-nothing yahoo may be dawning.”
Tides go in and out. The latest would seem to have washed up an orange thing called Donald Trump.
My father did not consider Nixon himself to be a know-nothing or a yahoo. What concerned him were the fans of former Alabama Governor George Wallace, the bittereinder segregationist who as an independent candidate in 1968 won five states of the old slave-holding confederacy.
Nixon was less afraid of his Democratic opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, than of Wallace siphoning off votes he needed for an electoral college majority.
To what extent would Nixon pander to the Wallace-ites for re-election in 1972 and for the future success of his fellow Republicans? To a considerable one, my father feared. And so it would transpire.
It was Nixon who first turned the party of Abraham Lincoln, or a good chunk of it, into the party of Wallace. And it was the heirs of Wallace’s following who elected Trump. No surprise, then, that Trump was actually quite pleased with himself for calling Africa a “shithole”.
How, more broadly, do Nixon and Trump stack up against each other?
Their backgrounds could not be more different. Nixon was the son of a petrol station owner in a remote California dorp who bootstrapped himself to the vice presidency under Eisenhower before narrowly losing to top job to Kennedy in 1960.
Come 1968, he was no political neophyte with a silver spoon in his mouth. But, like Trump, he was both driven and crippled, morally and emotionally, by an acid loathing for the elites which silently, and not so silently, loathed him.
JK Rowling, the author, has wondered “whether Trump talks to Trumpself in the third Trumperson when Trump’s alone?” The tic is called illeism. It is associated with narcissism. My father said one of Nixon’s tells that he was running before he formally announced was that he became an illeist.
Both candidates exploited national anxieties that went beyond race to win office. The anxieties of 1968 were rather more tangible, however, than those of 2016, and required less populist demagoguery to fan.
The country was tearing itself apart over the war in Viet Nam. Notwithstanding President Lyndon Johnson’s historic civil and voting rights legislation and massive expansion the welfare state, summer had become a season of race riots in America’s major cities. And then, in 1968 itself, came the assassinations in short order of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The “American carnage” Trump conjured in his weird inaugural address was real when Nixon ran.
Nixon may not have used the phrase “America First”, but that was the essence of his message. He promised to extricate the country not just from Viet Nam but from the “bear any burden” global policeman role to which Kennedy had committed it. Allies would now have to bear burdens for themselves. Moscow would be his first port of call, perhaps even before his inauguration, to negotiate spheres of interest and dial down the Cold War.
“I see a day when America is once again worthy of its flag…worthy of respect,” he said in accepting the Republican nomination. Or as Trump would put it, he would make America great again.
Now we wait to see whether the parallels lead to the same disgrace.