If President Donald Trump’s administration may be called a farce, then in the Marxist equation its tragic progenitor is surely the presidency of Richard Nixon.
That’s the conclusion I came to reading John A. Farrell’s absorbing new biography of Richard Nixon. In it, the Nixon White House models precisely what can go wrong when a man consumed by paranoia and with an ax to grind reaches the Oval Office. Which is pretty much where we are right now.
Although Richard Nixon: The Life doesn’t dwell on the similarities between the two men, the timing of the book’s publication makes it impossible to ignore the elephant in the Situation Room. You may not be able to blame Forty-five squarely on Thirty-seven, but it’s to be hoped that the past can teach us something of use.
The origins of the two presidents couldn’t be more different. Farrell shows us the Nixons on their farm in 1913 “on a naked plain amid ranks of skeletal saplings. Coyotes, buzzards, and rattlesnakes kept them company.” Richard went barefoot to school; an infant brother was struck down by a sudden illness, an elder by tuberculosis; the future president gave up a chance for Harvard to work in the family store and go to college in Whittier. It’s a far cry from suburban Queens, an Ivy League education, and a million-dollar career loan from your father.
But even in his early political career, Nixon, like Trump, fought hard and dirty, and his campaigning style revealed a tendency towards political expediency (compare Sidney Blumenthal on Trump). Running for Congress for the first time in 1946, Nixon was content to suggest, disingenuously but to great effect, that his Democratic opponent was a Communist stooge. He was unconcerned by the provenance of his campaign funds (Californian oil men). His first instinct was always to attack.
All this, Farrell believes, boded ill: even in Nixon’s first campaign there could be found a “great, haunting need, and chronic insecurity… In the crucible of the presidency,” he writes, “such cracks could give way, and such a man could shatter.”
“Great, haunting need... chronic insecurity...” Sound familiar?
The Red Scare schtick Nixon used in ’46, and for much of the next decade, was little more than absurdist political theater: a vote-winner, sure, but not grounded in any clear and present danger.
Jump-cut fifty years and one might identify a similar absence of due cause in Trump’s crimewave routine, the birther nonsense, or the immigration bans. The evidence of moral turpitude in his targets, as in Nixon’s, is scant (or nonexistent); nevertheless, to a certain tranche of the electorate, the rhetoric remains irresistible.
The parallels between Nixon and Trump really become meme-worthy around Nixon’s election in 1968. His apocalyptic vision of “cities enveloped in smoke and flame” is a clear precedent for Trump’s inner-city fixation, while the racially coded language used by Trump on crime is surely descended from Nixon’s Southern Strategy, which nudged white Southern voters to the right with subtle appeals to their racism.
Both men, in their campaigns, claimed to champion a “silent majority” that opposed the social movements of their day. And neither was (or has been) consistent in office: where Nixon governed, in Pat Buchanan’s phrase, as “neither fish nor fowl”, like the “bubble in the carpenter’s level”, so Trump’s ideological positions often appear as if in superposition, quite literally in two places at the same time.
In 1977, during the filming of the famous Frost/Nixon interviews, one of David Frost’s crew nicknamed the president “Proteus,” after the shape-shifting Greek sea-god—it’s a name that could apply just as easily to Trump.
Perhaps most famously, both are prone to unpresidential eruptions: Nixon, savagely but secretly, over thousands of hours of White House tapes; Trump, publicly, provocatively, on Twitter. These outbursts often target the media, and here the echoes become truly uncanny. “The press is the enemy,” Nixon tells his White House aides in 1972. “The FAKE NEWS media… is the enemy of the American people!” Trump tweets in February this year.
In both cases, a fixation on the perceived injustices meted out by the press proves counterproductive and time-consuming. Take the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, which symbolized for Nixon everything that was arrogant and spiteful and damaging about the national press (especially, ho ho,The New York Times).
Despite being vastly more damaging to Nixon's Democratic predecessors, the Papers were a trigger for the president’s instinct to suppress; suppression led to a series of restraining orders that were ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court. Nixon became, in Farrell's analogy, the scorpion who stings the frog he’s riding to cross a river: “His actions were reflexive, heedless of the peril in which he himself would drown.” One need only watch Sean Spicer on the defensive to see history repeating itself ad absurdum.
Trust was Nixon's inherent vice. His suspicion of others led him down dangerous paths, while those he did trust enabled his darkest side. Trump is less straightforward—his advisors pull him every which way, and the consequence is typically chaos rather than outright deviousness. (He’s a rebel mercifully sans cause.)
Nevertheless, in both cases all the president’s men have a lot to answer for. They are the first check on the presidential id, the filter through which his commands are passed down, his representatives on earth. If their boss is prone to paranoid outbursts or rash behavior, and their moral character is insufficient to the task, the results may be catastrophic. Perhaps it’s too soon to pass comprehensive judgment on Trump and co, but we would all do well to heed Nixon’s example. His tragic flaw lay in assembling a team who couldn’t say no, who transformed speech unquestioningly into act.
In Farrell’s telling, the Nixon White House was more Sparta than Athens. The president's trust extended to a very small number, and thus, rather than a true council, the executive became a function of Nixon's psyche, his “impulses cours[ing] along the White House synapses.”
One day in 1971, still livid about the Pentagon Papers, Nixon told chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, counsel John Ehrlichman, and special counsel Charles Colson, “I need a man—a commander—an officer in charge here at the White House that I can call when I wake up, as I did last night, at 2 o'clock in the morning [!!, right?] and I can say I want to do this, this and this… A guy, also, who will have the initiative to go out and do a few of these things.” And so the Special Investigations Unit, the motor in the tragic machinery that would bring him down, was born.
It had been a fatal error to allow Colson, who went on to run the Unit, such access to the president. Hired “to sit and listen to all that BS from the president” (Haldeman), he soon became the enabler of much that went wrong thereafter, as he sought to plug leaks and guarantee the president's electoral success in ’72. The Watergate break-in wasn't the first botched operation his team ran, but it would become the most famous.
It was “a terrific story—five bumbling burglars in business suits caught bugging a party headquarters”, but an epochal fuck-up too: Watergate catalyzed a vertiginous decline in public trust and respect for government that has poisoned the well to this day. Distaste for the elected was, fittingly, a major feature of the 2016 election narrative.
The aim of this elaborate comparison is to attempt to illuminate the present by way of the past. In fact it’s somewhat intellectually insincere to harp too much on the similarities between the two men. Nixon, after all, had numerous redeeming features that Trump doesn’t share, including but not limited to actual experience in public office.
Vietnam notwithstanding, he had something of a gift for foreign policy—his farsighted rapprochement with China, for instance. He’s rightly celebrated for governmental measures taken to protect the environment, including establishing the EPA.
He even had a quietly substantial record on civil rights. Indeed, far from being the unremitting racist of popular memory, Nixon did sturdy work as vice president dismantling segregation in the South, and continued to move stealthily towards a more perfect union in the White House. (Farrell rightly echoes the words of then-attorney general John Mitchell to civil rights activists: “You will be better advised to watch what we do instead of what we say.”)
One might find some tragic grandeur in his paranoid anti-elitism. Here, after all, was a man who worked himself physically sick to overcome what he perceived as the deficiencies in his personal history: no silver spoon, no Ivy League, no luck.
Even if one attempted to defend some of Nixon’s greater excesses, one could easily paint him at the thin end of a long historical wedge. Prior administrations, in collusion with the FBI and CIA, had behaved just as badly as his, wiretapping opponents, commissioning assassinations, spying on American citizens... For Nixon, it was merely bad timing that he should get the keys to the joke shop just as faith in the moral authority of the government reached an all-time nadir.
And yes, even the famous tapes, one of the most damning pieces of the puzzle, barnacled as they are with anti-Semitic rants, racial slurs, and megalomania, are occasionally qualified by the tinkle of ice in glass. It’s more than you can say for our current leader. As Hasan Minhaj observed at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last weekend: “Who is tweeting at 3am sober?”
Nevertheless, in his refusal to acknowledge his errors, Nixon is an unwitting but clear precursor to Trump. The two men, in some of their more outlandish locutions, even start to sound like one another, as when Nixon, in the famous interview with David Frost, claimed, “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal” (compare that with Trump’s response to the judges who struck down his immigration bans).
It can be difficult, in the firestorm of our current president’s lies and half-truths, to keep sight of the real danger. But it’s one we’ve seen before: if your commander-in-chief believes that saying it makes it so, you’re in a very bad place indeed.
John A. Farrell will appear at the House of SpeakEasy’s #SeriouslyEntertaining show All Together Now! at Joe's Pub at The Public Theater on May 10, 2017, alongside Jason Reynolds, Annabelle Gurwitch, and Elif Batuman. Buy tickets here.