In the presidential election this year, Donald Trump has been happy to paint himself as the “law and order” candidate with much talk of American inner cities as war zones consisting of little other than misery, violence, and chaos. As many have noted, “law and order” is code to racist whites about the dangers of unbridled African-American actually using their constitutional freedoms and electoral clout.
It’s actually a very old trope. Richard Nixon was its originator, the first national candidate to realize that racial panic could be used to wrest the South from the control of the Democrats. It’s said that President Lyndon B. Johnson understood that his signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act meant that the Democrats had “lost the South for a generation,” in a line often attributed to him. Nixon was the first national Republican politician to exploit these divisions, and exploit them he did, albeit not quite as overtly as Donald Trump has…
The bloody year of 1968 gave Nixon a lot to work with, what with the assassinations of RFK and MLK as well as the most violent political convention in American history. Nixon was able to use the tensions within the Democratic Party to color Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the party’s candidate, as ineffectual.
Eight days before the election, during an episode of Laugh-In, Nixon’s team ran a formally daring campaign commercial directed by documentary filmmaker Eugene Jones called “Convention.” The commercial used stills of Vietnam and the Democratic Convention in Chicago with jarring audio effects to send the unmistakable message that a Humphrey presidency would be a baaaaad trip, maaaan.
Interestingly, the familiar campaign music is called “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” and the commercial definitely plays with both positive and negative connotations of the phrase. This plays like an underground film of the era much more than it does a TV commercial.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Let Nixon play Nixon! Listen to Tricky Dick tickle the ivories, on a composition by Richard Nixon
Obama is Nixon in ‘BUMF,’ cartoonist Joe Sacco’s wail of geopolitical despair