“I think what Nixon understood is that when the world is falling apart, people want a strong leader whose highest priority is protecting America first…The ’60s were bad, really bad. And it’s really bad now. Americans feel like it’s chaos again.”
Donald J. Trump
There is a remarkable story on the front page of today’s New York Times. For anyone even remotely conversant with American political history, perhaps particularly Americans who identify with the Republican Party, the story is beyond stunning.
The soon-to-be Republican candidate for president of the United States is openly embracing the campaign themes of the only president forced from office while facing the ultimate political judgment – impeachment.
Richard Nixon would surely have been convicted of “high crimes and misdemeanors” by the United States Senate in 1974, and might well have been indicted and convicted in criminal proceedings – many of his henchmen were – had Gerald Ford not pardoned him. Now Donald Trump is publicly embracing the most disgraced president in American history.
In reporting on the strangest political bear hug since, well, since ever. The Times notes: “It was a remarkable embrace — open and unhesitating — of Nixon’s polarizing campaign tactics, and of his overt appeals to Americans frightened by a chaotic stew of war, mass protests and racial unrest.
“And it demonstrated that, wisely or mistakenly, Mr. Trump sees the path to victory this fall as the exploitation of the country’s anxieties about race, its fears of terrorism and its mood of disaffection, especially among white, working-class Americans.”
Trump’s chief political operative Paul Manafort – think of him as an even more sinister and devilish version of Nixon’s chief henchman H.R. Haldeman, one of the Nixon men who went to jail – said Trump’s convention speech this week will channel Nixon in 1968. “If you go back and read,” that speech Manafort said, “that speech is pretty much on line with a lot of the issues that are going on today.”
Meanwhile, Nixon’s dirty trickster Roger Stone – he has a tattoo of Nixon on his back, really – continues to be a key Trump surrogate. Stone made headlines yesterday for attacking Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich, who has refused to endorse Trump.
Nixon’s 1968 campaign exploited division, class and race hate, while promising “law and order.” His presidency then produced the most lawless administration in modern times.
At a fragile moment in the long American experiment, the GOP candidate offers only fear. No plans, nothing even remotely connected to real public policy. No looking forward to a better, more inclusive, fairer America, but a call to retreat to an America that has never existed. “Make America Great Again,” is as much a myth as Trump’s business success. His promise of “law and order” would almost certainly lead to the kinds of abuses that brought down the man his campaign now embraces.
Richard Nixon was a tragically flawed, but profoundly driven man. Seeking the presidency for the second time in 1968, and after losing election as governor of California in 1962, Nixon’s team – Haldeman was P.R. executive – knew they needed to present “the New Nixon;” a more human, genuine Nixon. The repackaging, along with the “law and order” theme, worked, but just barely. Then the old Nixon re-emerged in the Oval Office.
The long awaited “pivot” by Trump that might finally put lipstick on the pig of his personality and temperament may or may not come this week. I would bet not, since while Nixon was a deeply effective conman he was also much more politically sophisticated than Trump. Re-packaging Trump will be tough, but perhaps amid the bluster and showmanship the Republican convention will produce an image of a “new Trump,” but like so much about the man it will be an illusion.
That Trump has openly and proudly adopted Richard Nixon as a model says all we need to know about the man’s sense of history and the trials and tribulations of the American experiment and the Republican Party. Meanwhile, Republicans who have supported Reagan, the Bushes, Bob Dole and John McCain must confront in their candidate a remarkable political throwback. We can now confidently say their new candidate really is the “new” Nixon.