SAVANNAH, Ga. – The question was how he planned to address poverty. In his reply, the Republican running for president quickly pivoted to a central campaign theme — denouncing the fiery chaos that had erupted in American cities during protests over civil rights.
“We have reaped not a solution of poverty, but we’ve reaped the riots that have torn 300 cities apart, resulted in 200 dead and 7,000 injured throughout this country,” Richard Nixon said on Oct. 3, 1968, at a town hall in an Atlanta TV studio that aired live across the South. He vowed to restore “law and order" and decried “those who would destroy America, who would burn it.” He won the White House a month later.
It came to be known as Nixon's Southern strategy: a campaign that used fear of crime and lawlessness to tap into white Southern voters’ opposition to racial integration and equality without using overtly racist language. It was a strategy that Republicans honed gradually over decades — ultimately achieving dominance across the South and a political realignment that changed the electoral map for presidential candidates, the makeup of Congress and the tenor of the American debate about race.
It is now in President Donald Trump's hands.
At his nominating convention this week, Trump's party has repeatedly warned of lawlessness on America's streets, pointing to the sometimes violent protests over police killings of Black Americans. The party gave a platform to a St. Louis couple made famous for waving guns at a Black Lives Matter protest outside their home. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., described the race between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden as “shaping up to be church, work and school versus rioting, looting and vandalism.”
On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence declared, “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
Historians and political observers say the lineage of this messaging is clear. The question isn't whether Trump is employing the same tactics that helped Nixon seize the White House from Democrats, but whether those tactics can work at this moment — in a more diverse America, beset by a pandemic and weighing whether to reelect a Republican incumbent.
“Trump has dusted off the old playbook that puts racial fear and grievance on the table,” said Otis Johnson, who served from 2004 to 2012 as the second Black man elected mayor of Savannah, Georgia. He was a graduate student in Atlanta when Nixon ran in 1968. Trump’s tactics, he said, are “just a replay for me of 50 years ago.”