In the midst of what might well be the most significant election in US history, it’s more than a little surreal to be (a) an American abroad, (b) an historian, and (c) a Nixon scholar. I know I’m not the only one with a sense of déjà vu, but my research into Nixon, patriotism, and the Silent Majority seems far too relevant for comfort most days. And not just because strangers and friends keep asking, “Well, do you think he’ll be re-elected?” While my sense of Trump’s odds changes each time, my response inevitably ends with: “But, Nixon was re-elected in a landslide during Watergate, so it won’t surprise me if he is.” Which is my way of reminding myself and the poor soul I’m talking to that the incumbent has huge advantages and that no matter how things look today, a lot can change before the final tallies in November.
And it’s only getting stranger as we careen toward election day. I’ve been writing (or, more honestly, avoiding) a chapter on the 1970 midterm elections since before the lockdown started and while at first glance the two have nothing in common—one a relatively unremarkable midterm election and the other a tumultuous and momentous presidential campaign—the parallels are uncanny. It’s certainly coloured by my study of patriotic appeals, divisive rhetoric, and Nixon’s Silent Majority of (primarily) working-class whites, but the more I think about Nixon’s strategy in 1970 and watch Trump’s campaign unfold, the more I’m convinced that Trump will be a one-term president. Not because of anything he’s done, but rather because of what he hasn’t: change course when it became clear that that playing to his base was not playing well at the margins. Not exactly an earthshattering observation as most politicians race to claim the centre and push their opponents to the margins, but Trump is Trump and 2020 is 2020. So instead of adapting, he’s doubled down on the racism, white nationalism, anti-immigrant policies, and general cruelty of the past four years. All of which is in stark contrast to the general advice for political campaigning in the States and, again, eerily similar to Nixon’s approach to the 1970 campaign.
While not on the ballot himself, Nixon took an active role in the 1970 midterms. Almost immediately after his return from Europe (including the Irish visit mentioned in Tim Groenland’s essay opening up this 50th Anniversary issue of IJAS Online), he took to the hustings and actively campaigned until Election Day. And before that—while he was meeting with European leaders—his Vice President was on the campaign train with two senior administration speechwriters, an unabridged dictionary, and Nixon’s blessing (Safire 318-24). Traveling across the United States, Agnew attacked the “nattering nabobs of negativism” and the “pusillanimous pussyfooters” in Congress who were undermining the President’s efforts to bring peace to both Vietnam and to calm tensions at home (Safire 323). That Agnew tended to enflame the very tensions he decried was a feature, not a bug, for White House strategists, and Nixon and his allies expected these often-divisive appeals to unite the Silent Majority and result in a friendlier Congress.
Similarly, Nixon privileged his Silent Majority base when he took to the campaign trail in October. As president, he knew he couldn’t attack candidates directly—and he’d already advised against Agnew doing so since it risked turning those candidates into “martyrs”—but had no compunction about lumping the Democrats, and even some Republicans, into a “radic-lib” coalition out to ruin the country (Safire 320; Magruder). And even as he claimed to be saddened by the divisions in society, his opponents were useful rhetorical—and political—tools. And so, for example, when they failed to interrupt his speech at a San Jose, California, campaign stop, the president simply created the opportunity for a confrontation after the fact. After leaving the venue, the president and his entourage “stalled departure a little” so protesters could surround them, at which point Nixon “stood up and gave the V signs,” because as he wrote later, “I could not resist showing them how little respect I had for their juvenile and mindless ranting” (RN 492). The message was certainly received and incited a near-riot in the parking lot with rocks and eggs and other missiles shattering car and bus windows as the motorcade sped off. Writing in his diary that night, Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman noted, “All through the day he [Nixon] delighted in giving the ‘V’ to the peaceniks” (Haldeman Diaries 205-6). Reminding listeners of that melee during a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, two days later, Nixon charged that the divisions and violence in U.S. society were a result of “permissiveness” and “appeasement” and promised to push back against these tendencies but warned that such efforts were doomed to failure unless voters elected likeminded candidates committed to supporting Nixon’s initiatives (“Remarks”).
And in this way, the 1970 campaign hit many of the same notes as Trump in 2020: law and order, appeals to a Silent Majority, painting opponents as out to undermine America, and so on. Indeed, both presidents targeted, in Nixon’s words, “disaffected Democrats, … blue-collar workers, and … working-class white ethnics” (RN 491). And, of course, both men sought to provoke their opponents for political effect—notes from a White House planning meeting in late September 1970 included “get a fuck Nixon sign up” along with more mundane tasks (Haldeman, “Notes”). But, even as they succeeded in rallying their core supporters, both struggled to reach that holy grail of political campaigns: undecided voters. In 1970, this failure merely meant Nixon would face a Democratic Congress for the next two years—the Republicans had gained two Senate seats but lost nine in the House—but the stakes are much higher for Trump. Which makes his decision to continue with what is, by all conventional political measures, a failing strategy all the more puzzling.
Not only has the polling been dismal, but shifting gears to present a more unifying message would—theoretically—be easier for Trump as he’s a candidate in his own right running against an individual with specific policy positions rather than, essentially, a high-profile surrogate challenging an amorphous collection of ideas. But, unlike Nixon, a canny politician whatever your opinion of him personally, Trump has gambled that his divisive rhetoric will be worth the political costs. And that’s after a worse drubbing in the midterms than Nixon’s Republicans received in 1970. After that defeat, Nixon obsessively analysed every facet of the campaign with an eye toward his re-election campaign, much to the chagrin of his staff—“Horrible!” wrote Haldeman after spending a beautiful Florida day cooped up inside with Nixon and “an incredible stack of little white note sheets with an amazing array of trivia” (Haldeman Diaries 209). Within weeks of the 1970 election, Nixon had jettisoned what he saw as the weakest, least effective strategies used in 1970 and would adopt a much calmer and more statesmanlike demeanour in the 1972 presidential campaign. Not for candidate Nixon a repeat of his San Jose performance but rather a carefully-constructed image of a stateman working “above the fray” for the betterment of the nation. And Nixon was rewarded with a landslide re-election, thanks in part to an opponent, George McGovern, who embodied so much that Nixon’s base despised. Trump, no doubt, would have vastly preferred to run against someone like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren—and it’s entirely possible that his approach may have worked in that case—but he’s facing Joe Biden instead.
And so, I’m doubtful that Trump will win on 3 November, but then again, Nixon was re-elected in a landslide during Watergate, so it won’t surprise me if he does.
Haldeman, H.R. “Notes.” 26 Sept. 1970. 3, H Notes—July-Sept. ’70 [7 Aug.-30 Sept. 1970] Part II; Box 42; White House Special Files: Staff Member and Office Files Haldeman, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, College Park, MD.
—. The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House. G.P. Putnam’s, 1994.
Magruder, Jeb. Memorandum to H.R. Haldeman. 17 Sept. 1970. HRH-Staff Memos-HRH—Sept. 1970 K-M; Box 64; White House Special Files: Staff Member and Office Files Haldeman, Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, College Park, MD.
Nixon, Richard M. “Remarks at Phoenix, Arizona.” 31 Oct. 1970. www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-phoenix-arizona.
—. RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. Sidgwick and Jackson, 1978.
Safire, William. Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House. Doubleday, 2005.