The riots that have engulfed the United States in recent weeks following the reprehensible killing of George Floyd have been tragic to observe. This is a time in which valiant leadership is required.
Typically President Trump’s response has been as boorish as one would unfortunately expect. Rather than condemning the violence in firm yet fluent terms while offering a rousing message of change and renewal, the incorrigible lout has instead elected to echo Walter Healey while consistently employing slogans associated with Richard Nixon on his Twitter account.
As a consequence of both Trump’s rhetoric and the distress that many will have felt to witness violence and looting in America’s streets, the contention that Trump will find success in the upcoming presidential election through appealing to ‘law and order’ as Nixon did in the election of 1968 has become ubiquitous in political commentary.
At that time, Nixon was faced with similar unrest, compounded by popular frustration over the Vietnam War; Trump, likewise, must contend with frustration over the ongoing pandemic. This comparison is, however, only superficially convincing.
Firstly, as noted by David Frum in The Atlantic, Nixon was able to position himself as an attractive ‘candidate of the middle way’ in 1968 between the liberal Hubert Humphrey and far-right Alabama governor George Wallace, who brazenly supported segregation. Despite affirming the rule of law, Nixon reproved the use of the term ‘law and order’ as a ‘code word for racism’; he spoke of committing to racial progress and unity while publicly conducting himself in a manner becoming of the leader of the free world.
Moreover, as easy as it may be to lampoon Nixon for his awkwardness, or to contemn him unreservedly for the Watergate scandal and the repugnant private remarks that were captured on the White House tapes, he was, nonetheless, a cerebral and cultivated man. Exceedingly well-read in political theory, he regarded politics with a pragmatic sensibility arrantly foreign to the current president.
Even if one maintains that Nixon’s failings entirely nullify his accomplishments within the realms of policy and international relations, it is still impossible to claim that his strategic approach to political affairs could ever be approximated by Trump. One certainly cannot, for that matter, imagine figures such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and George Shultz serving in Trump’s cabinet.
To that point, in a recent piece for The New York Times, Peter Baker rightly asserts that, in actuality, Trump bears a far greater resemblance to the George Wallace of 1968; one that becomes evident upon closer examination of Trump’s use of language. Operating a ‘law and order’ campaign of his own, Wallace was vulgar, guttural, and irascible; his bullish demeanour attracted a sizable number of voters.
During a speech at New York City’s Madison Square Garden on 24th October 1968, he referred to an incident in which a group of protestors obstructed the path of President Lyndon B. Johnson on a visit to California by ‘(laying) down in front of his automobile’. ‘You elect me president’, he said, ‘and I go to California, and a group of anarchists lay down in front of my automobile, it’s gonna be the last one they ever gonna wanna lay down in front of.’
Trump delights in spewing similar invective. Indeed, such a remark plainly evokes his past encouragement of police officers to refrain from being ‘too nice’ in handling suspects, or his recent, mad ravings about ‘coming down hard’ on protestors with ‘the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons’.
Wallace also embraced populist sentiment by rebuking the ‘pseudo-intellectual government, where a select, elite group have written guidelines in bureaus and court decisions… looking down their noses at the average man on the street’. I shall refrain from tritely accentuating any sort of similarity that may obviously be present in that regard.
Wallace’s 24th January 1968 appearance on Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. provides a particularly vivid representation of his pugnacious, unrefined mien. Buckley, the debonair figurehead of the conservative movement, sought to reveal the extent of Wallace’s racism while discrediting him as a conservative candidate.
The juxtaposition of their mannerisms is not only striking, but utterly hilarious to view, as Wallace becomes exhausted by Buckley’s aphoristic wit. ‘We had Negro citizens by the thousands who voted in 1958, when I first ran for governor’, Wallace said. ‘And, I might say, in the run-off for governor, they voted for me.’
‘Is that because they didn’t have the education you’re talking about?’, Buckley instantly replied.
Though Buckley had not fully recanted his own problematic perspective on civil rights by 1968, he had come to oppose segregation, and was assured in his political outlook. He was able, therefore, to display the incoherence of Wallace’s fundamental position on states’ rights.
Wallace desired significant funding from the federal government to address social problems in Alabama provided that said funding would not benefit African American Alabamans. Buckley, meanwhile, espoused limiting the scope of government and spending without discrimination. Through his acuity, Buckley exposed the wretched reality of the Wallace campaign for all to see.
Ironically, Wallace would abandon segregation as his principal concern later in life, instead refocusing on populism. In 1982, he won a final term as governor after profusely recanting his past statements, and proceeded to appoint a monumental number of African Americans to his administration.
Patently, Trump will not be following such a moral trajectory. Yet, regardless, if parallels between the current election cycle and that of 1968 must be drawn, then equating Trump with Wallace is justifiable. Like Wallace was then, Trump is not only incurably coarse, but entirely averse to conservative principles; his style of campaigning, too, is befitting of a thuggish gangster, not a dignified statesman.
I somehow doubt, however, that the perpetually befuddled Joe Biden will prove sufficiently adroit and nimble in a verbal sense to dismantle Trump on a public stage, as Buckley did to Wallace. In fact any public figure, irrespective of partisanship, seems able to. If Trump fails to be re-elected, then the fault will be his.
Photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr.
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