Trump channels 1968 Richard Nixon

Unite America? Forget it. Trump goes for Nixon '68 instead.

Any hopes that Donald Trump would soften his image and rhetoric upon becoming the Republican presidential nominee were dashed by his acceptance speech declaring himself "the law-and-order candidate."

Seizing on the combined domestic and foreign reign of fear generated by the shootings involving police at home and the terrorist attacks abroad, Mr. Trump anointed himself the one American leader to restore order, in the manner of the classic Man on a White Horse.

Declaring that he had "joined this political scene so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves," Mr. Trump boasted that "nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens."

He went on: "The first task for our new administration will be to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities. ... I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police. When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order in our country."

Not since another Republican presidential nominee, Richard Nixon in 1968, assisted by his running mate, Spiro Agnew, took similar aim at street violence during the Vietnam War has the law-and-order banner been raised so conspicuously as a prime campaign issue.

Stumping by train through Ohio in the final days of that campaign, Nixon repeatedly attacked his principal Democratic rival, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, as a "do-nothing candidate on law and order."

In Dayton then, Nixon said his opponent for four years had "sat on his hands and watched the United States become a nation where 50 percent of American women are frightened to walk within a mile of their homes at night."

At the final stop that day in the town of Deshler, from the back of his whistle stop train, Nixon said: "In the 45 minutes it takes to ride from Lima to Deshler, this is what has happened in America: There has been one murder, two rapes, 45 major crimes of violence, countless robberies and two auto thefts."

That message, along with the 11th-hour collapse of peace talks in Paris regarding the Vietnam War, was widely considered a critical element in Nixon's narrow victory that year over Humphrey.

But in his subsequent inaugural address, Nixon struck an entirely different tone about that Ohio stop. He talked of glimpsing a teenage girl in the Deshler crowd holding up a sign that said "Bring Us Together," and declared "that will be the great objective of this administration at the outset."

A chief Nixon aide and speechwriter, William Safire, later wrote that Nixon had never seen the girl or her sign in the crowd and had to be told about them much later by an aide. Nevertheless, it's clear that 48 years later, Donald Trump and advisers are determined to tap into the same law-and-order theme to work for him.

In light of terrorist attacks and the police killing of black Americans and the pushback by advocates of the Black Lives Matters movement, law-and-order has taken on renewed political relevance. And Mr. Trump has emphatically served notice he intends to use it for all it's worth.

Accordingly, he also declared in his hard-nosed acceptance speech: "I will work with, and appoint, the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country to get the job done." He also charged that "the irresponsible rhetoric" of President Barack Obama, "who has used the pulpit of the presidency to divide us by race and color, has made America a dangerous environment for everyone."

Mr. Trump cited the outbreaks in racial conflict in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Ferguson and elsewhere, where young blacks "have as much of a right to live out their dreams as any other child in America," as evidence of the need to maintain the tough order he intends to impose.

Nearly half a century earlier, neither Nixon nor Agnew had much luck in that regard as they built an era of repression and ill will in the effort. Will Mr. Trump fare any better this time around?

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power” (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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