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Politics

Trump echoes Nixon 1968 on law and order, a risky bet in a more racially diverse nation

Donald Trump
Donald Trump waves to supporters in Cleveland on Wednesday as he arrives at the Republican National Convention.
(AFP/Getty Images)

From the start of his campaign, Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America great again,” has captured an aspiration to return the nation to an era when his core audience of working-class whites occupied a more dominant place in society.

Now, in the aftermath of the killing of five police officers in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge, La., Trump sees a chance to broaden his support by playing off public anxiety over the violence. In doing so, he is openly imitating Richard Nixon’s run for the White House in 1968 amid deep racial strife and social upheaval.

Trump’s vow to restore law and order is likely to be a central theme of what may be his most important speech of the campaign, his address Thursday night accepting the Republican presidential nomination at the party convention in Cleveland.

At a breakfast with reporters this week in Cleveland, Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, said Nixon’s 1968 speech accepting the nomination at the Republican convention in Miami Beach was “pretty much on line with a lot of the issues that are going on today.”

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He called the speech “instructive” for Trump and his advisors as they set about working on this year’s version.

The two eras do offer notable parallels. Then, as now, racial divisions, civil strife and swift cultural change were rattling many older white Americans.

Watch: Day Three of the Republican National Convention in less than 3 minutes. More convention coverage at latimes.com/trailguide.

But Trump, whose rallies have sparked racially tinged bursts of violence, faces an electorate far more diverse than it was in the 1960s.

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That makes the rhetorical challenge for Thursday night’s speech doubly difficult.

Trump is sure to address the widespread voter unease over terrorism, racial discord and gun violence.

But to do so effectively, Republican ad maker Fred Davis said, Trump needs to steer clear of rhetoric that feeds charges of bigotry. He can defeat Hillary Clinton by framing the race as a Biblical-scale choice between strength or weakness, Davis suggested.

Todd Gitlin, a writer who was president of Students for a Democratic Society, a flagship organizer of 1960s protests, sees analogies in Trump and Nixon trying to capitalize on white racial fears and resentments.

“They’re anxious, and they can be made more anxious by drumming on their fear,” Gitlin said.

Trump faces some challenges in following Nixon’s path, said Ken Khachigian, an Orange County lawyer who worked on the Nixon and Ronald Reagan campaigns. He lacks Nixon’s long career in public office, which included eight years as vice president. More important, the election climate today is nowhere near as unsettled as it was in 1968.

“It was a little more extreme then,” Khachigian said. “I think day-to-day life is a lot safer for average folks.”

Crime was not the only issue on which Nixon campaigned in ways that Trump has emulated.

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In foreign policy, Trump has partially echoed Nixon. In Miami Beach, Nixon said U.S. allies were paying too little for military support, making a similar case to one Trump has made.

“The time has come for other nations in the free world to bear their fair share of the burden of defending peace and freedom around this world,” Nixon said.

Nixon also foreshadowed Trump’s charge that a weak Democratic president was undercutting America’s standing overseas.

Under Johnson, Nixon said, hardly a day went by without “an American flag being spit on, or an ambassador being insulted, reducing respect for the United States.”

Nixon, however, was comparatively subtle in his appeals. In his 1968 speech, in he bemoaned race riots, antiwar protests and the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.

“As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame,” he said in the speech, which came just months after the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

“We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad. We see Americans hating each other, fighting each other, killing each other at home.”

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Nixon went on to pay tribute to “the forgotten Americans – the nonshouters, the nondemonstrators. They are not racists or sick. They are not guilty of the crime that plagues the land.”

Nixon later described those Americans as the “silent majority,” a phrase Trump uses to describe his own supporters.

Today, however, the majority is far more diverse than it was in Nixon’s day, and Trump has often stumbled in trying to pull off a nuanced appeal to voters’ worries.

Democrats and Republicans alike called him a racist when he said neither a Latino nor a Muslim judge could preside impartially over a fraud suit against Trump University, his defunct real estate school.

After a Muslim gunman killed 49 people in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub, he provoked minority voters further by implying that President Obama, the nation’s first black president, sympathized with Islamic terrorists.

Obama “doesn’t get it, or he gets it better than anybody understands,” Trump said.

Trump went on to face charges of anti-Semitism after he tweeted an image showing Clinton, a pile of cash and a Star of David.

And after a shooter killed five Dallas police officers, apparently in protest over police shootings of African Americans, Trump repeatedly alleged, without evidence, that unnamed people had called for a moment of silence to pay tribute to the gunman. In a similar vein, Trump went after Black Lives Matter protesters on Monday, telling Fox News they were calling out: “Death to the police.”

Both Republicans faced charges that they were trading on racial fears.

Nixon’s speech came amid a fierce white backlash against Democrats after President Lyndon Johnson signed historic civil rights and voting rights laws.

The Republican, who faced a serious third-party challenge from Alabama segregationist George Wallace, used the speech to criticize “those who say that law and order is the code word for racism.”

“For the past five years, we have been deluged by government programs for the unemployed, programs for the cities, programs for the poor,” Nixon said. “And we have reaped from these programs an ugly harvest of frustration, violence and failure across the land.”

For Trump, the charge of racial prejudice carries more risk than it did for Nixon. In 1972, when Nixon ran for a second term, 88% of voters in the presidential election were white. By 2012, their share of the vote had declined to 72%. It’s projected to slide further in November.

One factor remains constant between the two eras, however — widespread unrest can strengthen the case for a candidate who presents himself as the upholder of order.

Chris Wilson, a pollster for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the GOP primaries, said Trump gained measurable support after violence broke out in March at his planned rally in Chicago. He suggested the same thing could happen if civil unrest grows before the November election.

“That’s the sort of thing that will create the environment that will elect Donald Trump,” he said.

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

Twitter: @finneganLAT

Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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