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Trump Will Model His Speech Off Nixon '68. But 2016 Is Dramatically Different

Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon signals V for victory after accepting his party's nomination at the Republican convention in Miami on Aug. 8, 1968.
Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon signals V for victory after accepting his party's nomination at the Republican convention in Miami on Aug. 8, 1968.

On Thursday night, Donald Trump will accept the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States. His brash, outsider persona might signal that his convention speech will be ... well, unconventional. But his campaign is saying his speech will in fact be modeled on one from nearly 50 years ago: Richard Nixon's 1968 nomination acceptance speech.

Nixon addressed a nation where outsider candidates had captured the people's attention; where racial tension ran high and protests were a constant presence. Those echoes have led some commentators to draw parallels between today and 1968.

However, in many ways, the America Trump will address differs vastly from Nixon's America. By the time of 1968's Republican convention, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and destructive riots had torn through major U.S. cities. Meanwhile, thousands of young soldiers were dying overseas — that year, casualties in Vietnam would reach their peak — and the Cold War was the backdrop to U.S. foreign relations.

And yet: Amid the horrors and divisions of 1968, Americans weren't as polarized as they are today; the major-party presidential candidates weren't nearly as disliked; and Washington wasn't as distrusted. Nixon was appealing to a nation still hoping for a solution to its ongoing catastrophes — a nation in which an overwhelming majority of Americans believed he was of "high integrity." Trump, meanwhile, is addressing a nation in which a majority of voters view him unfavorably, and where even more have seemingly little expectation that government can solve its problems.

Here's a look at the statistics that show how the U.S. today differs from the U.S. of 1968 — and what it means for what Trump's message might be.

Foreign conflicts

The conflict in Vietnam took up a big chunk of Nixon's 1968 address, and with good reason: That year, the number of military personnel in South Vietnam was near its peak, at over 500,000. That was also the year that casualties hit their peak, at nearly 17,000.

Today, the U.S. is involved in prolonged conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but that involvement is relatively small, compared with levels in the early 2000s with about 15,000 U.S. troops stationed in the two countries. This year, there have been 12 U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan together.

This means vastly different foreign policy messages; Nixon was trying to reassure the nation that he could bring an "honorable end" to that war, and he focused on bringing "peace through negotiation."

Trump, in contrast, has a more amorphous threat to address with terrorism and the Islamic State. High-profile attacks — some committed by people who claimed to support ISIS — make that foreign threat feel uncomfortably close for some Americans. As of December, around 60 percent of Americans said they are "very worried" about terrorists, whether abroad or homegrown.

And Trump has accordingly used bellicose rhetoric in describing how he would fight ISIS overseas: In March, he said he would send up to 30,000 troops to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS.

But lately, Trump has shifted that tough stance with calls for a limited engagement. In a recent interview, he said he would "wipe out ISIS," but with "very few troops on the ground." Instead, he said, "We're going to have unbelievable intelligence." And in an attempt to prevent attacks in the U.S., he has said he wants to stop Muslims from entering the U.S.

That's one big difference: Nixon's America was facing heavy casualties overseas and seeking a way out of that conflict. Meanwhile, while the U.S.'s two major recent conflicts have largely wound down, many in Trump's America see a relatively new, looming threat and are terrified at the prospect of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.


One big theme of the convention, as many have pointed out, is to cast Trump as the "law and order" candidate — the theme of the first night, after all, was "Make America Safe Again." At a time when mass shootings have become a regular fixture in the news, it's easy to see how appealing to people's fears of crime would be an effective tactic.

And it's true that, according to one FBI measure, the violent-crime rate today is higher than it was in 1968, as the chart above shows.

But it's also worth noting that the trajectories make today very different from 1968. Today's rate is a massive improvement over the crime spike the U.S. saw in the late 1980s and 1990s. In the 1960s, meanwhile, violent crime was in the middle of a steady climb — Nixon referenced this when he spoke of the "wave of crime" in his 1968 speech.

Likewise, Trump has throughout this campaign used a similar tack — early on, he stoked anti-immigration sentiment by (wrongly) casting Mexican immigrants as "murderers" and "rapists." He also has recently (misleadingly) characterized crime as "rising" and (wrongly) that it is "through the roof" as a result of illegal immigration. However, as Politifact noted, while crime has broadly been down in past years, preliminary data from 2015 showed that crime was up in that year — still low by historical standards, as the Washington Post has reported, but up.

Not only has the overall trend in crime been downward for decades; Americans are also poor judges of how at-risk they are. Since 2003, a majority of Americans have said that crime was higher this year than the last year, according to Gallup. By the FBI statistics above, Americans were wrong in almost all of those years.

But that kind of fear is why a law-and-order candidate might appeal to many Americans today. Similarly, in one August 1968 poll, 81 percent of Americans said they believed "law and order had broken down in the United States."


Today, Trump is trying to appeal to a much more diverse electorate than Nixon did. Around 83 percent of the U.S. population in the 1970 census was white, non-Hispanic. Today, less than 70 percent is, according to census data.

Race relations are also very different than they were nearly 50 years ago, in a way that these statistics cannot capture. 1968 was just three years after the Voting Rights Act cemented African-Americans' voting rights. It was also just one year after the Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage nationwide (1968 also featured the first interracial kiss on U.S. television). And in April 1968, one pollster found that 31 percent of Americans thought Martin Luther King Jr. had "brought his assassination on himself."

American race relations are drastically different today, in other words — the next president will, after all, be replacing the nation's first black president — though it's nevertheless true that racism persists in the U.S., whether it's on an interpersonal or systemic level.

Moreover, despite all that change, another thing has held true: Recent Republican candidates, as in 1968, have been far more reliant on the white vote than have Democrats. In 1968, Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey received 38 percent of the white vote. In 2012, Obama received 39 percent of the white vote.

And that matters because as whites shrink as a share of the electorate, a winning candidate increasingly has to reach out to minority voters. The growing importance of the Latino vote has been one of the big stories of the 2016 election. Leading into the race, the Republican Party had planned to reach out to Hispanics to broaden the largely white party's appeal.

However, Trump has alienated many Latino voters with proposals including his vow to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and deport 11 million people in the U.S. illegally. He also asserted that Gonzalo Curiel, the judge presiding over lawsuits against Trump University, could not be fair because he is of Mexican heritage.

Some of the messaging surrounding African-Americans at the convention is inextricably connected to Trump's crime rhetoric, as well. In a Monday night speech, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke declared that "blue lives matter," then sharply criticized the Black Lives Matter movement: "So many of the actions of the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter transcend peaceful protest, and violates the code of conduct we rely on. I call it anarchy." That same night, Trump accused the movement of "essentially calling death to police." (The Black Lives Matter website explains that the group "is not an anti-police-officer movement" and "is not trying to make the world more unsafe for police officers; it hopes to make police officers less of a threat to communities of color.")


Whether Americans are better off or worse off today than in 1968 depends on the statistic you use (and the group of people you're looking at). The median household income today is more than $7,000 higher than it was in 1968.

Not only that, but some systemic inequalities have diminished: The gender pay gap has closed considerably, and the black poverty rate has fallen considerably (though it remains high).

However, the most recent poverty reading came in at 14.8 percent, compared with 12.8 percent in 1968. Unemployment is slightly higher than in 1968 — 4.9 percent in June of this year, compared with 3.7 percent in June 1968. And while incomes have grown across racial groups, Hispanic and black median incomes still remain far below those for whites.

What is clear is that the economy today is vastly different from the one that existed in 1968. One of the clearest ways to see this is to look at the share of Americans who work in manufacturing.

Trade liberalization has brought down the prices of many goods, but in some cases, it has also led to job losses, particularly in manufacturing. The U.S. economy as a whole has shifted to become more service-oriented and financialized. Not only that, but the workforce is increasingly educated.

A big part of Trump's economic message involves reaching out to Americans who feel left behind by some of these big shifts — after all, his slogan is "Make America Great Again." His economic proposals appeal to voters who long for some unspecified past, and he provides those voters with clear targets for their anger (immigrants and trade deals, for example).

While the economy today is vastly different from the way it was in 1968, it's easy to see how Trump's and Nixon's messages would be similar. Nixon likewise in 1968 had his own target: Democrat-supported government assistance programs that he said bred "frustration, violence and failure."

Moreover, many politicians' messages on the economy are simple at the core: America is great, and therefore, the U.S. economy should be more great than it currently is.

That showed up in 1968, when Nixon lamented that "the richest nation in the world can't manage its own economy." Trump strikes a similar tone when he says things like "We don't win anymore."

Favorability ratings

This election has been extraordinary for the sheer unpopularity of the candidates. Trump's unfavorability numbers are fantastically high — according to Gallup, around 59 percent of U.S. adults saw him unfavorably as of June. What's keeping him afloat is that his Democratic opponent is also intensely disliked; around 50 percent viewed Hillary Clinton unfavorably.

Gallup has been asking this question for decades. And compared with the 1968 major-party candidates' peak unfavorability, Trump and Clinton are still extraordinarily high. However, they are comparable to George Wallace's unfavorables.

That's reflected in the fact that around half of Trump supporters say that they are voting more against Clinton than for him, according to a recent Pew poll — and half of Clinton supporters likewise say so of Trump. Relatedly, polarization has grown in America by a number of measures, whether it's Congress' actions or just how much both sides don't like each other. Pew has likewise found that in recent decades, Americans' beliefs also appear to have polarized (though their data don't go back to 1968).

That may be one way that Trump's convention keynote will differ from Nixon's in 1968. Nixon didn't mention his rivals, Wallace and Humphrey, by name once in his convention speech — he only spoke of "our opponents" once — a fact that makes it mild, even quaint, by 2016's standards.

Trump's convention speakers have thus far spent a lot of time on the attack against Clinton — part of the first night of the RNC was devoted to attacking her on Benghazi, and the second night included repeated chants of "lock her up."

When so many voters dislike her, this is arguably effective politics. But should Trump make his Thursday speech so heavily anti-Clinton rather than pro-Trump, it will be a marker of how far his political rhetoric is from the speech that is inspiring him this week.

Trust in government

Voters today aren't just wary of today's presidential candidates; they also distrust the government far more than they did in 1968. Back then, more than 60 percent of Americans said they trusted the government to "do what is right" at least most of the time. Today, it's less than 20 percent, with Republicans in particular feeling the distrust.

As we wrote above, it's not that 1968 was idyllic politically — Vietnam, anti-war protests, riots, the Cold War and assassinations are proof of that. And while trust was relatively high, it had been plummeting for a few years.

Still, that remaining (if shaky) trust that Americans held on to may have kept the nation from descending into chaos, according to Marc Hetherington, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University who has studied trust in government.

"The events of that year could have brought the U.S. to the brink, but it didn't. I would argue that the solid store of trust that still existed in the late 1968 was one of the reasons things didn't fall apart," he said in an email. "It seems clear to me that there was less to be optimistic about then than [there is] now."

Today, the bond that trust once provided has weakened, Hetherington adds, creating new weaknesses that are less visible than a war or riots. There's even evidence that Americans — and young Americans in particular — have in recent years lost faith in democratic government itself, according to a new article in the Journal of Democracy.

"By extension I would further argue that the country is in a more vulnerable situation nowadays because that baseline faith in our institutions to confront the problems we face has evaporated," Hetherington added.

Arguably, then, Nixon and Humphrey had fundamentally different appeals to make than Clinton and Trump today; voters in 1968 were choosing between two reasonably well liked candidates (plus one heavily disliked independent) to helm a government that they still believed could solve some massive problems — not to mention a government where bridging partisan divides was far more of a possibility.

Voters today, meanwhile, are choosing between two candidates who are intensely disliked to run an institution that voters view with heavy suspicion. Indeed, that suspicion arguably fueled Trump's rise, as an outsider candidate who thumbed his nose at the political establishment.

Even while Nixon tackled heavy topics, he ended his speech on a note of optimism, calling for Americans to "leave the valley of despair and climb the mountain" to see "a new dawn for peace and freedom in the world." If Trump were to strike such an optimistic tone, 2016's disaffected voters simply might not be receptive.

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Corrected: July 20, 2016 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Donald Trump's acceptance speech will be on Friday. He is giving that speech on Thursday. Clarification: This article was updated to show that preliminary crime figures from 2015 said crime was up in that year, and also to clarify that Trump was specifically talking about crime being "through the roof" as a result of illegal immigration.
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.