“I learned a lot from Richard Nixon,” President Donald Trump declared recently, speaking of the only US president ever to resign in disgrace. “I study history.”
It was a bold assertion from Trump, not least because he and Nixon share the dubious distinction of facing impeachment after being accused of abusing the power of the presidency. But if the president has indeed studied the Nixon years — a period characterized by widespread social unrest that has parallels in the turbulence of today — it is not clear, historians say, whether he understands what lessons to draw from them.
Trump’s walkabout outside the White House earlier this month as demonstrations swirled around him invited a direct comparison with Nixon — because Nixon made a similar trip. It was May 9, 1970, and it felt like the country was on fire. Violence was erupting on college campuses over the bombing of Cambodia. Tens of thousands of people were gathering on the National Mall to protest the war in Vietnam and the killing of four students by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University. The White House was fortified with extra troops.
Wracked by doubt and self-flagellation, unable to sleep, Nixon slipped out of the building just after 4:35 am with a handful of aides and Secret Service agents and traveled to the Lincoln Memorial. There, he tried to explain his Vietnam policy to a group of student demonstrators.
“I know probably most of you think I’m an SOB,” he told them. “But I want you to know that I understand just how you feel.”
At times, Trump seems to be borrowing from a playbook that is a half-century old, without seeing how profoundly the country has changed.
He is betting on the resonance of a message that served Republicans well for decades, when dog whistles about crime and lawlessness were effective at stoking the anxieties of white suburban voters. But that messaging may be less effective at a time of growing awareness of racial injustice, especially among educated suburban voters who lean Republican but are put off by Trump’s tendency to foment division and inflame racial tension.
One clear way to see what Trump has in fact not learned from Nixon is to look closely at those two encounters 50 years apart.
Trump’s photo op began with Nixon on his mind. Just before he marched across Lafayette Square, his path cleared by law enforcement who violently dispersed peaceful protesters, he declared himself “your president of law and order.” It was a conspicuous appropriation of the catchphrase that Nixon deployed to sell himself as the candidate for Americans weary of the tumult of the 1960s. Then when Trump reached St. John’s Church, he held a Bible aloft for the cameras.
But there are plenty of reasons that messaging might be a harder sell today.
“The world has moved on,” said Rick Perlstein, author of the book “Nixonland.”
“Maybe the last laugh is on Donald Trump,” he continued, “the guy who had signs at his rallies saying ‘silent majority’ and who uses phrases like ‘law and order,’ and thinks he can run the same kind of script in a different act.”
Right now there appears to be no “silent majority” — at least in the sense that Nixon meant, when an actual majority of Americans resented the more vocal, left-leaning protest movements of the day.
Polls today show strong support for the demonstrations sparked by the killing of George Floyd, who died in police custody after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes. A Monmouth University poll released this month found that 57% of Americans thought that the anger that set off the current protests was “fully justified.” And 76% said that racial and ethnic discrimination is a big problem. A separate PBS/NPR/Marist College poll found that 62% of Americans believed the protests were mostly legitimate.
“Inconceivable in 1968,” Perlstein added, when more Americans were on the side of the police.
And the protesters across the country — and the world — seem to represent a far larger segment of society than those in the Nixon era.
“You look at the protests and that was a far more representative cross-section of America out on the streets peacefully protesting who felt moved to do something,” former President Barack Obama said recently.
Beverly Gage, professor of American history at Yale University, said Nixon’s impromptu outing to meet protesters face-to-face was a spontaneous expression of the kind of inner turmoil that Trump does not seem to share.
“It was an anguished Nixon, and in many ways it was a very human moment,” she said.
The similarities between the circumstances the two faced as president seem almost eerie. So can their similarities of character. These include a hatred of the news media; a sense of grievance at the enemies, real or imagined, they believe stand in the way of reelection; and a desire to present themselves as law-and-order bulwarks against the forces of chaos.
Soon after delivering his famous speech in the fall of 1969 in which he beseeched the “great silent majority” of Americans for patience as he dealt with the war in Vietnam, Nixon declared war on the press. He dispatched his vice president, Spiro Agnew, to deliver a series of broadside attacks on the major newspapers and networks for what he saw as overly critical coverage of him.
Trump likewise dislikes any news outlet he considers critical of him. But he is in the difficult position, critics say, of attempting to promote himself as a law-and-order candidate when the failings of law and order are being exposed on his watch.
“The city is burning, and Trump is Nero,” said Timothy Naftali, who teaches history at New York University and is a former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library.
Nixon was able to capitalize on law-and-order sentiment during the 1968 election, benefiting from the presence of the segregationist George Wallace on the right to present himself to voters as the candidate of mainstream stability, while also representing order to those who saw lawlessness all around them. Public opinion was on his side. After Chicago police officers brutalized a group of demonstrators protesting outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Gallup reported that 56% of Americans said they approved of the way law enforcement handled the matter.
Patrick Buchanan, a Nixon speechwriter, recalled how divergent views of the events — one in the media that sympathized with the protesters; another in the heartland that supported efforts to quell the unrest — helped elect Nixon.
“The press was all in on a ‘police riot,’ while Middle America supported the Chicago cops, as I urged Nixon to do,” Buchanan said.
Nixon then campaigned in the streets of Chicago to underscore his tough stance.
But there was more to him than that. Although Nixon said and did horrible things in private — speaking disparagingly of members of minority groups, never mind orchestrating a criminal conspiracy to win reelection — he “believed that the presidency was a dignified office and there were things he did not want to be publicly associated with,” Naftali said.
In contrast, he added, “Donald Trump doesn’t believe in the concept of being on your best behaviour” and seems to believe that the office is an extension of himself.
“Nixon tied himself in knots to do things secretly. Trump just does them in the open,” Naftali said.
The two men met a handful of times. According to their mutual friend, Roger Stone, Nixon was immediately impressed. After Trump appeared on the “Phil Donahue Show” in the 1980s, the former president wrote Trump saying that his wife, Pat, was especially blown away.
“She predicts whenever you decide to run for office you will be a winner!” Stone recalled in his book “The Making of the President 2016.”
As traumatic as Watergate and Nixon’s disgrace and resignation proved to be for America — and as ugly as Nixon’s programs to infiltrate and engage in surveillance against his enemies were — historians credit him for his understanding of governance and his many accomplishments in office. These include the opening of China, the signing of the first SALT arms-limitation treaty with the Soviet Union, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the signing into law of the Endangered Species Act.
“With Trump you get all the dark side of Nixon and none of the good,” said John A. Farrell, author of the 2017 biography “Richard Nixon: The Life.” “There’s not one record of accomplishment to take to the voters — no foreign policy triumph or domestic accomplishment.”
This makes reelection trickier as Trump faces multiple crises and can no longer point to the brightest spot of his presidency: the once-strong economy.
“If you’re going to be a president who runs on and profits politically from dividing the country and making Americans hate each other,” Farrell added, “you better have a set of accomplishments as a counterweight — or else history will not be kind to you.”
History, of course, has been generally unkind to Nixon. But even he managed to pull the country together as the election approached, in a way that seems all but impossible in the singularly difficult year of 2020.
In 1972, Nixon won reelection with one of the biggest landslides ever, carrying 49 states.
Sarah Lyall and Jeremy W. Peters c.2020 The New York Times Company