Politics of hate worked for Nixon in the ’60s, but the US is a different country today, and Donald Trump can’t win with the same formula
America’s presidential campaign has been fascinating both because I’m a political junkie and because I spent many years in the US where my parents and siblings live (the daughters are migrating there as well). Billionaire developer Donald Trump has made the campaign entertaining with his promise to “Make America Great Again”, which is code for “Make America White Again”. When, last Diwali, I told my visiting parents that Trump would no doubt be the Republican nominee, they rolled their eyes as usual and laughed at me; who was I, living in India, to periodically prognosticate on America? Still, I’m not as bad as some of my delusional friends who argue Trump has more than a statistical shot at the presidency. This proposition is absurd. Winning a party’s nomination is different from winning an election. Sitting in an armchair can confuse you.
Presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a conference in Washington, DC on June 10. Pic/AFP
My pubisher at PanMacmillan (which publishes my crime novel in 2017, Inshallah) recently sent over the freshly released The Truth About Trump by Michael D’Antonio. After 70-odd pages, however, I put it down because I realised that no book about Trump is more edge-of-the-seat than the daily news cycle. Trump is unpredictable, he is immune to good manners or accepted behaviour, and he is allergic to common sense; so each day brings us something new to read. No past narrative is more engaging than the unfolding lunacy.
In this, Trump’s advantage over Democratic Party opponent Hillary Clinton is his transparency. He may stun his party establishment with his lies and abuse, but he is a known unknown. Hillary, on the other hand, is opaque. Her recent biography, Hillary by Karen Blumenthal, gives a chronology of her life-events and dwells on husband Bill’s philanderings and the Benghazi disaster in which the US Ambassador perished; but at the end of the book she remains an unknown unknown. Trump talks of building a wall, but Hillary long ago built a wall around herself. This, more than her deleted emails, is why as many distrust her as much as they distrust Trump.
Still, Trump can’t win. I recently read Nixonland by Rick Perlstein, an eye-opening and engrossing, if exhausting, read (and one of the best about the 1960s), published in 2008. It is uncanny how Richard Nixon — the president when my folks emigrated to the US — exploited the fears of the majoritarian community to attain power in the way that Trump is now trying. (Ring a bell, India?) Nixon was Dwight Eisenhower’s vice-president from 1953-61, but when he contested the presidency in 1960 he lost to John F Kennedy (who probably stole the election). In 1964, the Republicans nominated the hair-raisingly racist Barry Goldwater, but he lost to Lyndon B Johnson in a landslide. After that, race relations erupted like never before.
Civil rights protests gained momentum during JFK’s time, so he had no choice but to plan legislation to end America’s apartheid policies. Whites reacted. Had JFK not been assassinated, Goldwater might have stood a chance. Instead, the triumphant Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act in 1965. Five days later, the Watts race riots exploded in Los Angeles. The right-wing Ronald Reagan used it to scare whites and win California’s governorship in 1966. (I disliked Reagan. In 1984, the first time I ever voted, I knowingly opted for the losing cause of Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro — the first woman ever on a presidential ticket.)
Though Nixon never cared for domestic policy (as vice-president, he acquired a taste for foreign policy), he seized on Reagan’s majoritarian strategy. The later 1960s were filled with race riots and violent protests against the Vietnam War, all of which played into majoritarian fears that America was “losing”. So Nixon began appealing to what he termed the “silent majority”. He ran a racist campaign, albeit coded. Like Trump, he united white men in business suits with white men in construction hard-hats. It helped that in 1968 the Democratic party split between pro-change activists and the establishment, eerily foreshadowing the growing chasm in that party today. And in 1968, Nixon won the presidency.
If Nixon emerged as a reaction to the civil rights movement, then Trump emerged as a reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency. If Obama was an antidote to the George W Bush years, Trump is seen by a chunk of Whites as an antidote to the years of a Black man in the White House. Ironically, despite their hatred, Obama has emerged the most popular eighth-year president in decades — more than Bush, Bill or Reagan, or even Eisenhower. This is why those who think Trump has a chance are mistaken. Thanks to Johnson’s 1965 Immigration Act — which is how we immigrated — American demographics have changed since Nixon’s era. As a consequence, Trump cannot repeat Nixon’s experiments with hatred.
Senior journalist Aditya Sinha is a contributor to the recently published anthology House Spirit: Drinking in India. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org