Nixon’s RNC speech in 1968 was scary. Trump’s was way scarier.
By Zachary Crockett, July 23, 2016
Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention Thursday night painted America as a dangerous hellscape, besieged by criminals, terrorists, and killer immigrants.
And in this dystopia, Trump offered himself as the savior. "I will restore law and order to our country," he proclaimed. "I am the law and order candidate."
Many saw echoes of Richard Nixon’s RNC acceptance speech 48 years ago, which laid forth a similarly chaotic vision of our country: "As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame," he said. "We hear sirens in the night."
The speeches are both dire, both chock full of "facts" about the degeneration of American safety. The solution, in both Trump and Nixon's eyes, is a stringent system of "law and order" — a crackdown on crime, villainy, and civil unrest.
We decided to analyze the two speeches to see how similar they really are. As dramatic as Nixon was in 1968, Trump in 2016 was far more negative.
Word for word, Trump’s speech is far more negative than Nixon’s
We ran both candidates' speeches through a sentiment analysis tool, which uses natural language processing to determine if a statement is negative, neutral, or positive.
Nixon’s breakdown (45 percent neutral, 32 percent negative, 23 percent positive) was fairly balanced and mostly neutral in sentiment. Trump’s, on the other hand, was staggeringly dismal: Nearly half of his sentences were negative in meaning, while 19 percent were positive.
Zachary Crockett / Vox
Trump’s rhetoric from Thursday night was somewhat removed from what we’ve seen in the past (name-calling, bullying, and insults). In his speech, he focused on policy-related keywords — "trade," "jobs," "immigration" — more than he typically does.
But a more granular word analysis exposes his explicit effort to harp on Americans’ fears. He repeatedly used words that invoke alarm: "violence" (11 uses), "terrorism" (9), "crime" (6), and "killed" (6).
Zachary Crockett / Vox
In Trump's America, there is "violence spilling across our borders," violence "pouring into our communities," "violence in our streets," and "violence against our law enforcement officials." In Trump's America, the aggressors are those outside of the majority, not within it.
Like Trump, Nixon was also a fan of the words "America" and "great" ("America is a great nation," reads one part of his speech, and America is great because her people are great). But next to Trump’s prose, Nixon’s is comparatively tame.
While Trump frequently used negative terms to stoke fear, Nixon focused more on how to alleviate tensions. Here, we see a more calming rhetoric — words like "peace" (19 uses), "respect" (13), "order" (11), "freedom" (9), "progress" (9), and "dream" (7).
Of course, Nixon’s speech was incredibly apocalyptic in its own way, portraying Americans "cry[ing] out in anguish" amidst "tumult and shouting."
Zachary Crockett / Vox
Isolating just those words related to public safety, it is clear that Trump’s version of law and order is markedly different from Nixon’s.
Trump seems to linger longer on the death, destruction, and doomsday elements of his speech, regaling his audience with tales of immigrants "roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens" and kill innocent children.
Nixon also presents these things but seems to more quickly pivot to his visage of hope:
I see a day when every child in this land, regardless of his background, has a chance for the best education our wisdom and schools can provide, and an equal chance to go just as high as his talents will take him...
I see a day when we can look back on massive breakthroughs in solving the problems of slums and pollution and traffic which are choking our cities to death...
I see a day when we will again have freedom from fear in America and freedom from fear in the world.
Nixon’s speech came at a volatile time in America. We were embroiled in the Vietnam War, there were riots in the streets, and both Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy had recently been assassinated.
Trump’s comes at a comparatively more civil junction.
As my colleague German Lopez writes: "If you listened to Trump, you would think that the US is in a total state of chaos, where murder rates are skyrocketing, police officers are regularly assassinated, and terrorists are constantly killing Americans. But if you break down the numbers, Americans are...safer than they have been in decades."