CLEVELAND ― As Donald Trump searched for a template for his acceptance speech, the model he chose was Richard Nixon’s infamous 1968 “law and order” speech on behalf of a silent and sullen middle class.
At a somewhat similar time of stress and struggle in America and the world, Trump chose that speech as a starting point, his campaign chief told reporters at a Bloomberg breakfast Monday morning.
“We started on the speech a couple of weeks ago,” said Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. “We looked at previous conventions speeches; the one he focused on, though, was Nixon in 1968.”
In that speech, given only months after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and amid rioting in many U.S. cities, Nixon cited the fears and resentments of “forgotten Americans” and vowed to return “order” to the streets and country.
The speech was aimed largely at white middle-class voters in border and Midwest states whom Alabama Gov. George Wallace was also appealing to in an openly racist way.
As a third-party candidate, Wallace was destined to win the Deep South in the fall, but the Nixon team devised a “law and order” theme ― a vow to restore order in the cities of the North ― that would appeal to the same voters and bring them into the Republican camp.
The aim was not to “unite” America, as Nixon claimed, but to target enough white middle-class support (as well as support from a smattering of other groups) to win.
Manafort made clear that Trump’s core strategy in 2016 is the same, and that in the campaign’s view, the “angst” created by recent police shootings of African-Americans, as well as attacks on police, create an “opportunity” for the campaign.
Trump will not offer the convention or the American people “happy talk” about the need for unity, he said.
Accordingly, Manafort added, Trump will stick with his modified “Muslim ban,” now tailored to countries with patterns of terrorism ― including, he said, France and Belgium.
The Trump campaign will attempt to tie President Barack Obama and especially presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to “the same failed leadership in the world that is now causing unrest in the cities.”
They will argue that Clinton’s troubles with her emails and the Justice Department’s decision not to prosecute her are an example of a corrupt law enforcement system that people in cities resent.
Manafort cited Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s recent critical remarks about Trump as another example of a rigged system.
“All of that resonates and causes unrest in the cities that get out of control,” he said.
Protests outside the convention hall will only amplify Trump’s message, Manafort argued. “It will show a lawlessness and lack of respect for political discourse.” That’s a remarkable statement from the top aide of a candidate known for his inflammatory discourse.
Trump’s attack on the Obama-Clinton team’s “double standard” of justice is justified, he said.
“Yes, it is a harsh message,” he conceded, but it is “truth-telling.”
There is “angst and opportunity” in the streets and in the world, Manafort said, and Trump will seize the moment to claim that “strong leadership” can bring calm, order, jobs and peace.
As if to prove the point, Manafort laughingly dismissed Trump’s lack of endorsements from the Bush family, specifically former President George W. Bush. He would “like” W’s endorsement, he said, but disparaged the former leader as the least likely major figure you want at your side in this era.
“If you want to pick a politician to be for you, who would you pick in the Republican Party?” he asked rhetorically. The answer: not George W. Bush.
Manafort also harshly dismissed Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) – who is not at the convention and not endorsing Trump – as a sore loser who is being told a “dumb, dumb, dumb thing”: that he can boost his chances in 2020 if he stays away from Trump.
“John Kasich is being petulant,” Manafort said.
And he dismissed the anti-Trump movement at the convention as a “few recalcitrant delegates.”
The convention as a whole will focus, he added, on trying to tell the American people about Trump’s good personal qualities as a father, businessman and philanthropist.
But there is “angst and opportunity” in the streets and in the world, Manafort said, and Trump will seize the moment to claim that “strong leadership” can bring calm, order, jobs and peace.
How exactly he’ll do this is, of course, not clear. In the meantime, look to Nixon to see how to sell the message.
Here is one famous passage from Nixon’s speech about bringing law and order in the name of the “forgotten" majority of Americans:
“As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. 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 as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish: ‘Did we come all this way for this? Did American boys die in Normandy and Korea and in Valley Forge for this?’”
Listen to Nixon’s answers to those questions.
“It is another voice, it is a quiet voice in the tumult of the shouting. It is the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators. They’re not racists or sick; they’re not guilty of the crime that plagues the land; they are black, they are white; they’re native-born and foreign-born; they’re young and they’re old.
“They work in American factories, they run American businesses. They serve in government; they provide most of the soldiers who die to keep it free. They give drive to the spirit of America. They give lift to the American dream. They give steel to the backbone of America.
“They’re good people. They’re decent people; they work and they save and they pay their taxes and they care.”