Both parties have their go-to greats. Just as JFK is evoked by Democratic candidates, Republican presidential prospects routinely refer to Ronald Reagan. So it’s striking that after decades in image exile, Richard Nixon was cited as an influence for newly minted GOP nominee Donald Trump.
Campaign manager Paul Manafort said as much in Monday’s New York Times. Nixon’s 1968 acceptance speech, he said, “is pretty much on line with a lot of the issues that are going on today.”
Manafort’s candor, while welcome, wasn’t necessarily needed. Trump’s adoption of Nixon’s “silent majority” phrase and claim of being the “law-and-order candidate” during his acceptance speech were clear manifestations of Manafort looking to Nixon’s legacy.
And Trump’s unsubtle usurpation of Nixon’s themes seemed to be acknowledged by the candidate himself. “I think what Nixon understood is that when the world is falling apart, people want a strong leader whose highest priority is protecting America first,” Trump told the New York Times. “The ’60s were bad, really bad. And it’s really bad now. Americans feel like it’s chaos again.”
And if they needed any reminder, Trump and Rudy Giuliani amplified (loudly) the message at the Cleveland convention.
Americans probably didn’t need prodding in 1968, either. But Nixon nonetheless told delegates in words with eerie echoes that “[a]s we look in America we see cities enveloped in smoke and flames. 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.”
And if the speech didn’t reach them, campaign ads did.
“It is time for an honest look at order in the United States,” Nixon said in an ad called “The First Civil Right.” He continued: “Dissent is a necessary ingredient of change. But in a system of government that provides for peaceful change, there is no cause that justifies resort to violence. Let us recognize that the first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence. So I pledge to you that we shall have order in the United States.”
Nixon’s narration was bracing. But shocking — for the time and even now — were the images. A series of stills depicted bloodied antiwar protesters amid besieged police with guns held high and National Guardsmen with bayonets fixed, as well as burning buildings, smashed storefronts and a naked torso of a female mannequin lying in a charred street after an urban riot — jolting viewers (and thus voters).
The disturbing display of quick-cut pictures and menacing music was way ahead of its time, and significantly more sophisticated than Hubert Humphrey’s ads, as chronicled in the seminal “The Selling of the President 1968,” journalist Joe McGinniss’ firsthand account of candidate packaging.
“The biggest mistake of my political life was not to learn how to use television,” Humphrey is quoted as saying. Nixon eschewed the tube, too, at least initially. “It’s a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected,” he told a then 28-year-old executive producer of “The Mike Douglas Show.”
“Television is not a gimmick,” the producer retorted.
That producer was Roger Ailes, who had a key role in Nixon’s novel TV strategy. Ailes’ impact was just beginning, however. He worked for other Republicans, and as the force behind Fox News, Ailes influenced evolutions in politics, media and culture that created conditions culminating in Trump’s win.
At first, Fox News’ dominance in cable news, and often cable TV itself, was about as unlikely an outcome as Trump being nominated. CNN created and owned the category, and was still soaring from its Gulf War coverage when Fox debuted in 1996. And a now-forgotten but meaningful media footnote is that at nearly the same time, NBC announced plans to partner with mighty Microsoft (now MSNBC) and ABC announced (but later dropped) its own plans for a new news network.
The legacy broadcasters had a head start over upstart Fox, which didn’t have a network news presence. But while NBC and ABC saw extensive news divisions, Ailes sensed divisions in how Americans perceived media gatekeepers. So Fox’s marketing mantras of “We report, you decide” and “fair and balanced” connected with conservatives concerned about perceived media bias. The result was an ideological Rorschach test, and while critics called it jaundiced journalism, supporters rallied, resulting in ratings success and political influence.
One of history’s mysteries is timing. On the same night of Trump’s triumph, Ailes, facing cascading allegations of sexual harassment (which he denies), resigned as CEO of Fox News.
Like Nixon, Ailes’ legacy, however controversial, will be enduring. But unlike Nixon, a more immediate comeback could be possible, at least according to a CNNMoney report, which stated that according to two Trump aides, Ailes and Trump “counseled each other in multiple phone calls this week.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.