Nixon legacy lives on through Trump
Both leaders pursued the ‘silent majority’
THE MEDIA AND VARIOUS JOURNALS are overflowing with comparisons of Donald Trump to many political figures past and present. A recent Harvard Political Review article compared Trump to Maine Governor Paul LePage. Others have suggested Richard Nixon is a more accurate comparison.
We approach these discussions from two distinct points of view, given the five decades that separate our respective graduations from Boston Latin School.
One of us (L.S.D.) remembers Richard Nixon, although certainly not fondly, having served on the Boston City Council during Watergate and having felt the ever-growing damage to our politics as a result. Richard Nixon will never be rehabilitated, but today he may be better understood as a quixotic figure – a Quaker who went to war, a poor man who learned to live like a rich man, a conservative who ushered in the EPA and the opening of diplomatic relations with the nation then commonly referred to as Red China.
Given that Nixon is dead, as are most who served by his side, most all of his papers and those of his contemporaries are now public. Much of what we have learned is not pretty. There are certain aspects of Richard Nixon – media-hating, insecurity, distrustfulness – which might resonate whenever one examines the incumbent president. There are, however, significant differences between the two.
He had paid his dues campaigning for Republicans across the nation for two decades. He was considered a team player. He generated a certain loyalty from the party faithful.
Nixon had scored an enormous victory in 1972 over George McGovern, one of a handful of great landslides throughout our recent history, failing only to win Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, of which those who were active Democrats in Massachusetts were extraordinarily proud.
Despite Nixon’s paranoia about the press, the media were generally respectful of his knowledge and his occasional acts of political courage, such as opening relations with China, and respected some of his appointees, Henry Kissinger being at the top of a short list. Therefore, as Richard Nixon approached the crisis that drove him from office, he was operating from a position of strength resulting from this experience and his political skills.
One of us was almost the same age when Donald Trump was elected in 2016 as the other was when Nixon was elected in 1968. Trump is a minority president, having secured an Electoral College victory, despite receiving the votes of almost 3 million fewer Americans than Hillary Clinton. Although there have been other “minority presidents,” in 1876, 1888, and 2000, the margin of Trump’s popular vote loss puts him at the bottom of that somewhat exclusive club.
As he sat listening to Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last July, one of us (E.U.) could not help but relate the various statements about the decaying of our country’s morals and the need to “make America great again” to that earlier period in our nation’s history when Nixon was in office. It was a period when a costly war in Southeast Asia fiercely divided the public as violent urban and campus riots shook Middle America to its core.
The tumultuous era of the late 1960s to mid-1970s was presided over by a president who, as the 1968 Republican nominee, had campaigned upon many of the same themes Trump sounded in his 2016 campaign. Nixon’s promises to enforce “law and order,” restore America’s reputation abroad, and improve the economy were essentially echoed by Donald Trump. (See E.O.’s capstone project from Boston Latin School for an exploration of these parallels.)
Trump’s campaign appealed to the same demographic Nixon originally pursued: the “silent majority” of Americans who felt that Washington did not serve their interests and that the “Eastern establishment” ignored their concerns.
One also could not forget the role that foreign powers played in both presidents’ elections. Nixon deliberately sabotaged ongoing negotiations with the South Vietnamese through a back channel to Saigon in order to deny his opponent (Hubert Humphrey) an Election Day advantage, while current allegations against Trump accuse him of colluding with the Russian government, which is believed to have meddled in the election itself.
Almost immediately, many of Trump’s first legislative proposals, from the travel ban to health care reform, were met with resistance in Congress, the judiciary, and among the American public. Such reluctance to enact Trump’s agenda reminds us that Nixon was also faced with a Congress that posed challenges to his initiatives ranging from expanding the Vietnam War to eliminating various social programs from the federal budget as well as a judiciary that either stalled or blocked what it saw as unconstitutional actions by the executive.
Trump has also clearly expressed his fierce disdain for the “media establishment.” Trump has labeled institutions such as CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post as “fake news” and “the enemy of the American people.” Nixon and his inner circle shared a similar animosity toward the media, which largely criticized the administration’s policies, and they responded by harassing and wiretapping reporters who were on the “Enemies List,” a document that contained the names of politicians, cultural persona, media institutions, and other public figures who were openly hostile to the Nixon White House.
Eventually, such hatred toward the media, along with the paranoia surrounding the constant leaks of confidential information from within the Nixon administration, would lead to the formation of the plumbers’ unit, the group that would eventually be arrested attempting to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in 1972. There is no evidence that such a group has been formed in the Trump White House, but the same steady stream of leaks, whether about former National Security advisor Michael Flynn’s undisclosed ties to Russia or Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer about potential damaging information on Hillary Clinton, has engulfed the Trump administration in the same paranoia that ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
One can already see the side-effects: Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, who headed the investigation into charges of collusion with the Russians, is oddly similar to the infamous Saturday Night Massacre of 1973, when both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
If that marked the beginning of the end of Nixon’s political career, who knows what Trump’s move will lead to. In both cases, lawyers have been getting up to speed as to who can pardon whom for what and when.There are clear differences between the small-town Quaker boy from Yorba Linda and the heir to a multi-million dollar business empire from New York City, but there are also clear similarities. Richard Nixon’s legacy lives on today, as many of his policies, perspectives, and ideas are being incorporated by the Trump administration.
Lawrence S. DiCara is the former president of the Boston City Council, a partner at Nixon Peabody, and a commentator on American politics. Eliot Usherenko is an international relations and economics major at Boston University. His Boston Latin School capstone project can be viewed at http://eucapstonebls.weebly.com/.