Nixon’s Campaign Ads: The Puppeteer of American Doubt, Fear, and Hope

Nixon’s Game

“THIS TIME VOTE LIKE YOUR WHOLE WORLD DEPENDED ON IT”

The big block letters remained on the screen for a second more as static crackled in the background. Then they disappeared, and the word “NIXON” took their place. This silent form of communicating contrasted sharply with the jarring cinematography, intense photos, eerie music, and powerful narrating voice which composed most of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign ad on American crime. It is an unsettling commercial, but one that gets the viewers’ attention [4].

Nixon’s campaign ad slogan [7]
1968 was tumultuous. That, if anything, was definable about that year in American history. Cultural revolutions, race riots, anti-war protests, assassinations, the Vietnam War, and a tightly-contested presidential election all in one year cultivated, at best, an unsettled American society. Republican nominee Richard Nixon knew the civil climate his country was living in, and he also saw a divided Democratic party losing the faith of some voters. His strategy was sharp: reinforce the people’s doubts and fears in the party in power, and the Democrats would not stand a chance.

 

So, according to plan, Nixon’s campaign created numerous ads that toyed with both American vernacular memory as well as American public memory. Vernacularly, American faith in the government was shaken after the Tet Offensive revealed a fiercer enemy existed than had been originally purported, and the anti-war imagined community grew stronger as a result [10]. However, when Nixon, a presidential candidate, made a campaign ad rebuking the way American involvement in Vietnam developed, he was in essence constructing a public memory. By both making an ad that played on people’s doubts and being a politician, Nixon intersected the vernacular with the official in order to create a public memory that served him well in his campaign, which reveals the usability of collective memory.

[4]

 

Whereas Nixon used the Vietnam War to stir doubts and increase the public’s desire for a new leader (see media was already influencing public opinion of the war here), he used the sharp increase in American crime to rouse fear and highlight the need for stronger authority. Largely in response to the increasing number of riots and crime after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Nixon became the candidate of “law and order.” As journalist Louis Menand writes, “It was a brilliant political slogan, a whistle heard by many dogs” [2]. Nixon again found a way to utilize recent public memory amid so much unrest in order to portray himself as the reasonable, even-keeled option. And he did so, in his campaign ads, in contrast to the shadowy “other” – an “other” that some historians have claimed was racialized – threatening the peace of American life [5].

 

Yet there is something even sneakier going on in Nixon’s campaign. His ad slogan – “This Time Vote Like Your Whole World Depended on It” – does two things. Firstly, it narrativizes the past by implying Americans made a simple mistake somewhere in history, most likely when they elected JFK instead of Nixon. Second, it subtly hints that there is a solution for all the problems going on in the world, but only if the right man is elected.

 

Nixonian Influence Today

Where have we seen this kind of campaigning recently? Certainly, manipulating people’s doubts, fears, and hopes has been a part of American politics prior to Nixon as well as in between the years 1968 and 2016, but there are some uncanny resemblances in a few of Donald Trump’s campaign ads when compared with Nixon’s. Look, for example, at two of Trump’s ads – one against Hillary Clinton and one against illegal immigration [8].

[9]

 

The intense music, the ominous narration, and the jarring footage all have a very Nixonian ring to it. In the ad against Clinton, instead of creating doubt in the government as a whole, Trump fosters uncertainty in Clinton personally. And in the ad on illegal immigration, Trump stirs up fear of the “other” – this time the “other” being immigrants. Similar to Nixon, Trump, being a public figure, legitimizes the vernacular memory of some Americans who both view Clinton as a weak, clumsy politician and are wary of immigration by offering a new, official public memory.  He, like Nixon, hearkens to the mistakes of the past (in this case, Clinton’s mistakes), and implores the public to not “let her fail us again” [9]. In so doing, he paints himself as the leader the U.S. needs, just as Nixon did.

 

Again, this technique of positing oneself as the only solution while attacking your opposition is not unique to Trump and Nixon. Where they are unique is in their ad slogan. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is similar to Nixon’s slogan in that it narrativizes the past as well as plays on the notion of hope for a better future. If America needs to be made great again, then obviously there was a moment when it stopped being great, and Trump, like Nixon, promised to remedy that mistake. Yet it is precisely in defining what “great” even means and where “again” stands as the reference point for that greatness that Trump’s slogan differs from Nixon’s. Nixon’s ads only promised a better future; Trump’s ads, while using Nixon’s techniques, conventionalizes the past by reaffirming the “good ole days” sentiment some associate with the 70s and 80s. This idealized past is Trump’s better future.

 

The Silent Majority

A Trump supporter holding a sign in 2015 [1]
To compare Trump and Nixon would be incomplete, however, without discussing the “silent majority.” Although Nixon did not coin the phrase until 1969, he ran his campaign appealing to those who were tired of the chaos and did not find themselves aligning with any extreme [2]. When Trump began recirculating the phrase “silent majority” to describe his voters, he made a direct link between 1968 America and 2016 America as well as between Nixon and himself. This was crucial because for many of Trump’s supporters, Nixon signifies the dawning of Republican dominance, and by Trump using their collective memory to stoke the fire of Republican idealism, it is as if a new Nixon and a new reign were on the horizon.

 

Works Cited

[1] Donald Trump Supporter Holds Sign. 11 Dec. 2015. Cjh Photography LLC, https://www.dreamstime.com/editorial-photography-silent-majority-stands-trump-sign-december-des-moines-iowa-donald-supporter-holds-image63645432.

[2] Menand, Louis. “Lessons from the Election of 1968.” The New Yorker, 8 Jan. 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/08/lessons-from-the-election-of-1968.

[3] Nixon, Richard. “1968 Nixon Campaign Commercial – Vietnam War.” YouTube, uploaded by Battlefield Sources, 26 Feb. 2012, https://youtu.be/5HBON-ZIyUE.

[4] Nixon, Richard. “1968 Nixon Crime.” YouTube, uploaded by Vincent Tinker, 25 June 2015, https://youtu.be/QtHVHzELPJ0.

[5] Pierre, Robyn Price. “How a Conservative Wins the Presidency in a Liberal Decade.” The Atlantic, 9 July 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/07/fear-and-voting-in-america/490631/.

[6] Sides, John. “How Did the Dramatic Election of 1968 Change U.S. Politics? This New Book Explains.” Washington Post, 25 May 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/05/25/how-did-the-1968-election-change-u-s-politics-so-dramatically-this-new-book-explains/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.49c6efc0674e.

[7] This Time Vote Like Your Whole World Depended On It. 1968. http://hadleyblog.blogspot.com/2010/11/.

[8] Trump, Donald. “COMPLICIT.” YouTube, uploaded by Donald J. Trump for President, 22 Jan. 2018, https://youtu.be/1xOH6cKdhmg.

[9] Trump, Donald. “Latest Trump Campaign Ad – Dangerous.” YouTube, uploaded by Knight4Liberty,  11 Oct. 2016, https://youtu.be/kfhK7B6c1W8.

[10] Zelizer, Julian E. “How the Tet Offensive Undermined American Faith in Government.” The Atlantic, 15 Jan. 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/01/how-the-tet-offensive-undermined-american-faith-in-government/550010/.

One thought on “Nixon’s Campaign Ads: The Puppeteer of American Doubt, Fear, and Hope”

  1. David,
    Your site of memory was incredibly interesting and well structured; I believe that the subheadings worked well in helping set a sturdy backbone to ensure that your points and thoughts flowed smoothly. As a result, it was easy to navigate through the particular moment in time you were referencing as well as to see the connections the site has to recent events. One of the most crystal clear parallels you drew were of the campaign videos employed in Nixon and Trumps’ respective campaigns; they both used harsh images of unfortunate and disturbing historical events, foreboding music, and were navigated in a pressing tone of voice. One difference that I noticed, however, is that Trump’s campaign video singled out his opponent, Hillary Clinton, when discussing wrong choices for the country, while Nixon’s video in 1968 only eluded that America had made the wrong decision in choosing a leader in the past. Therefore, I felt that Nixon’s campaign advertisement was even more ominous than Trump’s since no clear individuals could be associated with his words. This may have been a more strategic approach in resonating with Americans, as each individual may have remembered multiple different leaders they thought had not done what was best for the nation, thereby making it more appealing for a wider array of people to vote for Nixon; by avoiding the creation of a collective memory of a failed leader, Nixon was able to allow viewers to think and remember for themselves, and avoid losing voters due to disagreement, which worked to his advantage. Lastly, I think it was smart to include how new language created in the period surrounding 1968 has stood the test of time, as it was Nixon who coined the term “silent majority” in the late 60s to refer to non-extremist voters, which Trump employed a lot in his campaign in 2016. It will be interesting to see how this term continues to be employed in the future- perhaps it will take on new meanings and plant itself in history and memory in completely unexpected ways, as language is extremely processual.

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