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Secret Plans for the General Election: Trump 2016 & Nixon 1968

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 10.17.01 PM

Photograph courtesy of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

 

Hillary Clinton, her eyes on the general election and Donald Trump, unveiled her latest attack against the Republican front runner yesterday at a rally in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

This line of attack aims to show that Trump is a con artist, a liar, and has no actual plans for any of the policies he’s “outlined.” Clinton apparently believes that by pointing out that the Republican nominee has no substance behind his ideas, she’ll reap the benefits in November.

But history is not necessarily on her side. Almost 50 years ago, “secret plans” won an election for a political con man, and it could happen again.

In 1968, the US was being torn apart. Protests over the Vietnam War were escalating, the country was bitterly divided along age and racial lines, and a well known former Vice- President had captured the Republican nomination. His name was Richard Nixon.

Nixon had lost in 1960 to John F Kennedy, and he wasn’t prepared to face defeat again. His campaign used white backlash to the Civil Rights Act as the base of its appeal. Nixon’s coded language of “law and order” and “state’s rights” told those opposed to integration that he was one of them, while third party candidate George Wallace provided cover for the logical extension of those views.

But Nixon still had to appeal to a chunk of the general electorate if he wanted to win. And in order to do that, he had to address the war.

Nixon told the electorate that he had a “secret plan” that would end the war in Vietnam.

Of course, no such plan existed. Nixon wanted the war to continue, and hoped to avoid at all costs an “October surprise” of the wars conclusion before November. So he concocted a vague plan designed to sound relatively official while keeping the specific (and non-existent) details hidden until his election.

Nixon said that, upon becoming president, he would (1) arrange a summit meeting with the Soviet leaders to gain their help in ending the Vietnam War, and (2) seek to “de-Americanize” the Vietnam conflict.

None of this would come to pass with his election, of course. But it didn’t matter. The “secret plan,” which was laughed at by his political opponents for being so transparently fraudulent, didn’t hurt his candidacy. If anything, it may have helped Nixon and added to his supporters’ faith in him.

So when you hear Clinton mocking Trump, as she did on Monday, remember that she’s coming from a position of believing the American people won’t buy Trump’s bullshit plans to restore American jobs, build a wall between the US and Mexico, and defeat ISIS.

Clinton:

“So let’s suppose, here is the question, ‘so what is your plan to create jobs,’ His answer is, ‘I am going to create them, they are going to be great, I am going to do it. But I am not telling you what it is that I am going to do.”

“Now some people might say, well, all anybody wants to hear is just, ‘I am going to do it. I am not telling you how.’ I don’t believe that,” she added.

The likely democratic nominee may not believe that, but the historical record shows pretty clearly that if the electorate believes in the candidate, the details or reality of that candidate’s plans are secondary to the force of personality behind them and the power of the people’s belief.

It’s a truth that Clinton had better find a way to push back on, or she’ll lose the easiest general election match-up in a generation.

 

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Eoin Higgins has a master’s degree in history from Fordham University. He lives in New York.

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