Presidential Comparisons to Donald Trump: Richard Nixon
In Part I, I compared Donald Trump to the 40th President, Ronald Reagan.
In Part II, I compared Trump to Teddy Roosevelt.
Now, for the third and final part, I am going to make the comparison between Trump and the president whom I consider to be the closest to Trump in terms of policies, attitude towards the media, and political divisiveness in their legacies.
Part III: Richard Milhous Nixon
This is the big one. This is the man whom I truly consider to be the most like Donald Trump more than any other past president or presidential candidate. The controversial 37th President of the United States, and the only man to ever resign from the office: Richard Nixon.
For starters, both Nixon and Trump share a tendency to actually be a bit more liberal in their stances on both social and economic issues. Nixon was a champion of civil rights and solidified desegregation, while also creating the EPA (in my opinion, the one thing he truly did wrong in office). Trump is very lax on issues such as LGBTQ rights, the War on Drugs, and even somewhat on abortion, while also mirroring Nixon’s advances in civil rights with his own leaps and bounds towards appealing to the African-American vote on behalf of Republicans.
Both men would probably most like to be thought of as “negotiators” above all else. Nixon, of course, negotiated perhaps one of the most significant diplomatic deals of the 20th century when he opened relations with China – a feat that many thought impossible prior to him taking office. Trump, as a businessman, similarly sees himself as a negotiator who can make anything happen. Thus far, this seems to be evidenced by the manner in which he can get anyone to support him after meeting behind closed doors – from over 100 African-American religious leaders, to the most reluctant of establishment Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan – Trump declares himself capable of negotiating good deals both on trade and foreign policy (such as making Mexico pay for the wall).
Another point to be noted is that both men definitely cannot be described as “ideologues.” Indeed, while Nixon served as a spoiler to the more ideological, far-right figures of his time (Goldwater and Reagan), and Trump similarly defeated a wave of more conservative candidates than him (Cruz and Carson), neither man clearly stood for a single serious “ideology,” not even the dominant ideology of their party at the time. At most, you could argue that Nixon’s main ideology was anti-Communism, but even that certainly wasn’t the defining feature of his presidency. Both men are much more goal-oriented on a case-by-case basis, with positions that even may have differed from the general stance of the party at the time, particularly in foreign affairs (Nixon daring to open relations with China, and Trump is more for scaling back American involvement overseas). In this sense, it can truly be described as a case where the man was not dictated by the party, but the party was dictated by the man.
Foreign policy, which was Nixon’s strongest suit, provides a whole new host of similarities between the two. Both men clearly seem to adhere to the “Madman Theory:” the theory that one actually should make themselves seem more irrational than they really are, in the hopes that the fear of extreme measures will persuade their rivals to negotiate. Nixon used this to bring about the (all-too-temporary) end of the Vietnam War, while Trump hopes to use this to threaten ISIS (even threatening the families of terrorists, which just may be the one thing in the world such terrorists actually value). One of the biggest criticisms levied against Trump by his opponents was that he is far too dangerous to be allowed anywhere near the “nuclear button.” Nixon actually turned similar criticisms into a strength to intimidate enemies such as the North Vietnamese into capitulating to his demands.
One of the most important facets of the Madman Theory is that one must be unpredictable, that their enemy must not know what they could or would do. This tenant is all-too evident in one of Trump’s major criticisms of the Obama foreign policy (and, by association, Hillary’s foreign policy). Trump and his supporters insist that Obama, all too often, openly reveals America’s plans to the world – such as pulling out of Iraq in 2011 – and this only makes it easier for our adversaries to plan their own counter-offensive (such as ISIS knowing exactly when to strike in Iraq).
Another fairly minor, but noteworthy, similarity on foreign policy is that, despite being in two very different eras for the country of Russia, both men have put forward possible peace efforts that seem to buck the trends of the international community at the time. Nixon was the very first American president to hint at peace with the Soviet Union, with his policy of détente, or in other words, cooperating with the USSR and admitting to their respectable position as a world power. Trump, similarly, has faced criticism that he is too friendly towards Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin, who initially seemed all too eager to start a new Cold War with his annexation of the Crimea and interference with the Syrian Civil War, among other Middle Eastern meddling. But, just as Nixon’s efforts towards peace with the USSR, and also China, were historically unprecedented yet surprisingly beneficial, Trump has already made great strides to ease tensions with the world’s most powerful and most intelligent leader.
A Love-Hate Relationship with the Media
Another major similarity – and perhaps the most fascinating – is the fact that both men somehow managed to be masters of the media, despite having very contentious relationships with the media of their time. Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip and an expert in the areas of persuasion and perception, has been repeatedly praising Trump’s manipulation of the media. If he was around in Nixon’s time, he would absolutely be praising Nixon’s media capabilities as well. Whether Nixon was using the most effective persuasive tactics such as his “Checkers Speech,” making headlines with the (supposedly) impromptu “Kitchen Debate,” or delivering his infamous “Last Press Conference” as a (supposedly) final middle finger to the media in 1962, there is no doubt that Nixon knew just how to manipulate the media to his advantage, make strong persuasive appeals to the American people, and even turn negative coverage into a rallying cry for his base.
It’s all too similar with Trump. He repeatedly and easily tricked the media into covering him 24/7 over his earlier, more outrageous statements. He had the media begging for interviews and airtime with him even as he insulted them. He turned the media itself into the subject of news coverage on multiple occasions, and subsequently took the oft-repeated assertion that the media is biased against Republicans to a whole new level, galvanizing this mantra and turning it into one of the cornerstones of his outsider appeal. As president-elect, he has only further intensified his war with the media. Examples include excluding his “emergency press corps” from a family dinner, or his recent closed-door meeting with 30 to 40 media executives, which one unfortunate witness described as “a f***ing firing squad” by Trump.
Campaign Similarities: The Silent Majority
But the biggest, and most obvious, similarities between these two are the core messages that drove both of their campaigns. First, an appeal to the “Silent Majority.” Second, a promise to unite the country. And third, a promise to restore law and order.
For those who don’t know, the “Silent Majority” is a phenomenon that had been mentioned occasionally pre-Nixon, but the phrase became a household term with Nixon’s successful campaign in 1968. Essentially, the “Silent Majority” describes average Americans who may not be as politically involved as others. They may not hold up protest signs, or write letters to their representatives. This is primarily because they feel all but disenfranchised from the political system. However, these same Americans are disgusted by the rise of the vocal minority – those protesters and disrupters who appear to represent most Americans, when they actually don’t. Thus, in the strongest possible rebuke to these trouble-makers, the Silent Majority backs the candidate who opposes everything the vocal minority stands for.
This was clearly displayed in Nixon’s opposition to the radical counter-culture movement of the 60’s, represented by the hippies, the anti-war student protesters, and the black and white nationalists who furthered the racial divides in America. These elements can be similarly observed in 2016 election. Today, just as in 1968, there is yet another counter-cultural movement in the form of social justice, political correctness, the rabid activism of college students, and, yes, more racial tension fueled by Black Lives Matter and their war on police. In both cases, the Silent Majority mostly consists of traditional, white, working-class, blue-collar voters – who may or may not normally vote Democrat, but are so fed up with the situation that they vote for the Republican, particularly because the candidate themselves is bucking the usual Republican traditions. This delivered Nixon a solid electoral majority in 1968 despite a narrow popular vote margin, and similarly allowed Trump to sail to an electoral victory in 2016 despite losing the popular vote.
Campaign Similarities: Unity
Second, the message of unity. As described above, the counter-cultural movement was widely perceived as widening all kinds of divides between Americans in the 1960s: pro-war vs. anti-war, white vs. black, young vs. old, communist vs. capitalist, the list goes on. Similarly, the rise of the New Left on American college campuses in particular, strengthened by dangerously far-left politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, seems to play on those very same divisions, and much more. Not just pro-war and anti-war, white and black, young and old, socialist and capitalist, but a variety of divisions: men vs. women, gay vs. straight, religious vs. non religious, skinny vs. fat. This plague of identity politics is clearly the modern left’s favorite tactic in their game of divide and conquer, splitting up the American population further and further so that it is easier for the small, vocal minority to achieve their goals.
In response to all these divides, both Trump and Nixon declared that they were the candidates of unity. Nixon cited Abraham Lincoln in his vow to “bring this country together,” while Trump has similarly used this rhetoric of unifying the party and the country, from his convention acceptance speech and rhetoric such as “Make America One Again,” to his vow to appeal to voting blocs beyond traditional Republican voters, such as the LGBTQ community and African-Americans.
Campaign Similarities: Law and Order
Lastly, the phrase “Law and Order,” once again made famous by Nixon and now parroted by Trump. As described above, the nation in 1968 was in a state of chaos: a struggling economy, a failing war overseas, Russia and China on the rise, race riots burning cities to the ground, protests constantly devolving into riots, and assassinations of civil rights leaders and presidential candidates, all leaving the country in disarray, feeling that the end times were upon them and their best days behind them. To this, Nixon made the simple, yet powerful, promise that he would “Restore Law and Order.” He rarely dictated how he would do this, but he made it a promise – the simplest kind of raw, emotional, and even subconscious appeal to the American people that everything would be okay if they voted for him.
Trump mimics this just as 2016 seems to mimic 1968. America’s problems overseas include foreign entanglements breeding waves of terrorist attacks at home and abroad, and foreign leaders encroaching without fear of American intervention, from Putin to China. At home, the American people face a sluggish economic “recovery” with cloudy – if not stormy – forecasts for the near future, more race riots turning far too violent, and worst of all, a sense that this is the “new normal.” Trump has vowed that he will restore the power and confidence of America, a respect for police, bring an end to the wave of terrorism, and fix the economy. Again, with no specific solutions in mind, this promise is of the simplest kind - but was, once again, perhaps the most effective, just as it was for Nixon.
As I stated in the beginning of this three-part series, Donald Trump is undoubtedly so unique that no former president or presidential candidate perfectly aligns with him, be it in policy positions or mannerisms and style. But in terms of lining a number of men up alongside Trump in search of at least, say, an 80% – 90% match, it is Nixon who is right about in the same ballpark as Trump…maybe a couple of bases and home runs off, but as close as anyone will get. Above everything else, President Trump will also mirror Nixon in one more serious way: he could potentially suffer from a mixed legacy that otherwise would have been a historical and generally positive legacy, if he doesn’t play his cards right while in office. Only time will tell.
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