Nixonian Trump?: The Similarities and Differences between The Donald and Tricky Dick

Jose Perez and Robert F. Patton, Nixon/Agnew Coloring Book, 1969, David S. Broder papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Jose Perez and Robert F. Patton, Nixon/Agnew Coloring Book, 1969, David S. Broder papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

In a satirical take on the 1968 election, Jose Perez and Robert F. Patton produced The Nixon-Agnew Coloring Book, in which Hubert Humphrey in the form of a bird named “Hubird” narrated events and instructed readers on how to decorate the characters therein. Having lost to Dick Nixon in the ’68 race, Hubird admitted the new president had worked for it:

“This is President Nixon.
See him run,
And run, and run, and run.
He finally made it.
Color him Patient.”

Later in the book, Hubird basically calls Nixon a used car salesman, but you get the idea.[1]

Nixon secured victory—301 electoral votes to Humphrey’s 191 and George Wallace’s 45, with less than 45 percent of the popular vote. In fact his 43.4 percent did not exactly vanquish Humphrey’s 42.7 though obviously Wallace’s 13 percent affected results. Then again, a victory is a victory, and in 1972, he would deliver a historic landslide, winning all states except for Massachusetts and the District of Columbia: 520 electoral votes to George McGovern’s 17. Despite such success, Nixon struggled with the more conservative wing of the GOP.

Jose Perez and Robert F. Patton, Nixon/Agnew Coloring Book, 1969, David S. Broder papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Jose Perez and Robert F. Patton, Nixon/Agnew Coloring Book, 1969, David S. Broder papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Of course, in 1968 it took deft political maneuvering just to secure the nomination, let alone snatch the presidency. At the ’68 GOP convention, conservative leaders from the American Conservative Union (ACU), the Free Society, Americans for Constitutional Action (ACA), Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), and other right-wing organizations arrived at the affair with the belief that California governor Ronald Reagan would be the best choice, but Nixon knew how to play to his audience: “It was the deepest thing Nixon possessed: this passion to play the game of statecraft from the only seat that mattered – the captain,” writes Rick Perlstein. “The only single thing that lay behind all the poker player’s feints, blinds and bluffs. It was why he stayed in the game.”[2] He would walk away with the nomination.

By the early 1970s, the ACU, YAF and others chafed at Nixon’s administration. Behind the leadership of National Review publisher William A. Rusher and the magazine’s more famous and influential founder, William F. Buckley, a conservative cabal known as the Manhattan 12 would attempt to force concessions from Nixon prior to the 1972 campaign.

In its efforts, the Manhattan 12 demonstrated a very similar sensibility to what the media have been labeling today’s “Republican establishment” in its relationship with one Donald Trump. Admittedly, one should not look for a direct comparison between a sitting president, particularly one as skilled as Nixon, and a toxic billionaire yet to hold even a single political office. For example, Nixon might have been obsessed with John Wayne-era masculinity, but according to historian Evan Thomas, women like his strong-willed mother inspired and drove him. Trump’s relationship to women, needless to say, raises many more questions. Perhaps more substantively, though Nixon might have seen himself as an outsider to the East Coast elite that he believed had dominated postwar politics, he still had climbed the ladder in the Republican Party through fairly traditional methods. However, parallels exist both in how the GOP establishment viewed each and the ways in which the two men utilized resentment as a political cudgel and unifying force. Nixon’s resentment ran deeper and stemmed from much different sources than that of the dubiously hirsute Manhattanite reality TV star.

To be fair, Buckley, the YAF, and other conservative groups mentioned above represented a burgeoning establishment in the late 1960s and 1970s: not yet ensconced as the party’s centrifugal force but well on its way. In contrast, the party leaders that oppose Trump have been sitting in the catbird seat for sometime; Trump represents a truly insurgent challenge. As noted, Nixon might have felt culturally on the outside looking in, but he had maneuvered within the party for decades. All that said, we’ve been reading for weeks about how Trump has been emulating aspects of Nixon, but how do they compare?

 

William A. Rusher, Letter to Jerry Harkins, November 5, 1971, Box 167, William A. Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

William A. Rusher, Letter to Jerry Harkins, November 5, 1971, Box 167, William A. Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

1971

In July of 1971, a dozen or so prominent conservatives met in Manhattan to discuss ways to “bring pressure to bear on Nixon,” the goal being to steer the administration in a more conservative direction. The options floated at this meeting included running another candidate in the GOP primaries, supporting the Democratic nominee “in the primaries, general election, or both”, and creating a D.C. office dedicated to rallying support for a challenge to Nixon’s ’72 campaign.[3]

Perhaps most surprisingly, attendees also discussed a fourth option: “sponsoring a major full time effort by some suitable well connected European to induce prominent Europeans to bring public pressure to bear on Nixon to fortify the American posture in defense and in foreign policy connections.”[4]

Ignoring the oddity of conservatives attempting to use European leaders to influence a domestic presidential election, many of the discomforts of 1972 remain. If establishment Republicans rightly question Trump’s conservative bonafides, so too did Nixon’s policies rub the Manhattan 12 raw. In addition to Buckley and Rusher, the group consisted of Allen Ryskind and Thomas S. Winter, both of the then-dominant conservative newsletter Human Events; Jeffrey Bell and John L. Jones of the YAF; Anthony Harrigan of the Southern States Industrial Council; and James Burnham of the National Review, among a few others. According to Lee Edwards, author of the The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America, the Manhattan 12 functioned as “ the executive committee of the American conservative movement.”[5], Buckley’s participation and support did a great deal to give the group gravitas that without him would simply not have been possible; Buckley was undoubtedly the neutron star of conservatism in his day.

The Manhattan 12 watched aghast when Nixon flirted with his Urban Affairs advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan and openly touted the Family Assistance Plan (FAP), which would have replaced traditional welfare programs with a guaranteed minimum income for every American. Nixon’s efforts to curry favor with China drew derision from Buckley, who wrote in the National Review after having watched Nixon raise a glass to Chairman Mao during the president’s visit: “I would not have been surprised if Mr. Nixon had lurched into a toast to Alger Hiss.”[6]

Jose Perez and Robert F. Patton, Nixon/Agnew Coloring Book, 1969, David S. Broder papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Jose Perez and Robert F. Patton, Nixon/Agnew Coloring Book, 1969, David S. Broder papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

 

No Ideology

Granted, Nixon sometimes toyed with the idea of leaving the GOP behind, believing his Treasury Secretary former Democrat John Connally to be his “heir apparent,” with whom he might “build a whole new political party around the Silent Majority,” notes Thomas. Thomas argues that placing Nixon in an ideological camp is a foolish gambit. “Later debates by historians over whether Nixon was really a liberal or a conservative are largely beside the point. He was at heart a pragmatist in a deep American tradition.” Nixon admitted as much in his memoirs: “I wanted to be an activist president in domestic policy … but I wanted to be certain that the things we did had a chance of working.”[7] According to Perlstein, Connally fit well into Nixon’s amorphous political beliefs. “One of the things that delighted Nixon was that Connally had no fixed ideology,” writes Perstein. “I can play it round or I can play it flat, just tell me how to play it,” the former Texas governor would frequently say.[8]

Thomas’ critique of past historians’ attempts to categorize Nixon politically must be a comment on biographies and monographs from earlier periods since more recent works seem to emphasize the same pragmatism. For example, by the mid to late ‘60s, Perlstein writes, Nixon had established a domestic policy of “exquisitely couched centrism”; his “ideological flexibility could be limitless.”[9] In Stayin’ Alive (2010), Jefferson Cowie describes the late president similarly: “He was … not a political ideologue but a strategic opportunist, a tactical pragmatist, who made peace where he needed in order to exploit the political space between the congressional liberals and the hostility of more conservative Republicans.” He admired Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Benjamin Disraeli. Nixon deployed a “baffling blend of Republicanism and radicalism,” wrote the New York Times, the end being “a conservative opportunist governing in a liberal paradigm with the goal of building a New Majority,” according to Cowie.[10]

Trump lacks any discernible ideology as well, though his strategies appear lazier, dumber, and less calculated than Nixon’s. Judging by his recent proclamations regarding North Carolina’s LGBT legislation and desired changes in the Republican platform regarding abortion, there might (stressing “might” here) be a strategy after all. Whatever Trump’s strategic plans, they are not based on ideological premises.  David Frum has noted, many of his supporters lack any real attachment to ideology. While many blame government for their problems, few want to give up their Medicare, Social Security, or disability entitlements. Trump’s gone out of his way to promise to protect them. A soft middle in American politics has always existed in the post-WWII era. For these voters, ideology matters much less than economic security and cultural respect. Sloppier candidates have exploited this demographic for momentary fame like George Wallace, while sharper ones have used it to rise to the presidency, such as Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Trump falls into the former camp rather than the latter, or so it would seem.

Jose Perez and Robert F. Patton, Nixon/Agnew Coloring Book, 1969, David S. Broder papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Jose Perez and Robert F. Patton, Nixon/Agnew Coloring Book, 1969, David S. Broder papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Resenting Resentment

How many news articles have you seen on Donald Trump and “the politics of resentment”? One might guess more than a few. Katherine Cramer, author of The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, penned a March Op-Ed for the Washington Post that distilled the thrust of her book on Governor Walker’s rise to power into a succinct editorial. Trump’s brand of indignation, like that of Walker’s, stems from an intertwined source: the economic and cultural malaise experienced by working-class whites. Rural voters in the Rust Belt particularly feel shafted by trade deals and squeezed by the economy. At the same time, “they also believe they don’t get the attention and respect they deserve,” Kramer wrote. “And someone must be to blame.” In the Atlantic, Molly Ball explains it slightly differently, though certainly both would concur on the economic and cultural roots of this resentment. “More complicated than the overt bigotry of, say, the Ku Klux Klan,” Ball argues, “it is a form of racial resentment based on historic white entitlement and a backlash to the upsurge in leftist identity politics that has marked American politics in the age of Obama.”

Now, both writers have a point, as do numerous others who have made similar observations, but Walker, Trump, and Cruz are really capitalizing on the groundwork laid by Nixon in the 1960s, an argument also made by several capable observers across the interwebs – Paul Rosenberg in Salon, Jeet Heer in the New Republic, and John Lantigua in the Miami Herald. To be clear, Heer identifies the National Review as the prime culprit for the famed Southern Strategy more so than Nixon, an argument we’ll return to in a moment, but the larger point is that observers have connected the long arc of resentment in the 1960s to our modern variant. Yet, there are differences between Nixon and Trump’s resentment hammer.

Jose Perez and Robert F. Patton, Nixon/Agnew Coloring Book, 1969, David S. Broder papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Jose Perez and Robert F. Patton, Nixon/Agnew Coloring Book, 1969, David S. Broder papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

First, Nixon’s use of resentment worked on several levels. On a personal level, “resentment though toxic, was vital to Nixon,” writes Thomas. “Nixon was a serial collector of resentments,” Perlstein notes.[11] Resentment no doubt fueled him from his days at Whittier College, where he created the Orthogonian Club to rival the elitist Franklins (another more august social organization at the school), to his pursuit of the haughty Alger Hiss to his rise to the presidency. Nixon’s resentment embodied the kind of perilous anxiety that afflicts those who ascended politically and socially but never shed their awkward identities. Such individuals are simultaneously driven to greater heights and undermined in critical moments.

Undoubtedly, as a billionaire and egomanianc, Trump definitely carries grudges and acts out adolescent-styled attacks when he feels he’s been wronged, but it is a resentment qualitatively different from Nixon’s and less effective. Moreover, historians and former staffers have argued that Nixon’s best moments of leadership came when he harnessed resentment as a political engine. In moments of triumph, he appeared dour, even disappointed His landslide 1972 victory was historic, yet he was borderline despondent. Even he couldn’t explain his discomfort, writing in his memoirs, “I am at a lossto explain the melancholy that settled over me that victorious night.”[12]

Trump deploys resentment effectively in the primaries, but he does not seem driven by it and it certainly has not led to wiser, more measured decisions or pronouncements. Perhaps with the new “restrained and disciplined” Trump that emerged after New York this will change, but it remains doubtful.

Say what you want about Tricky Dick, but the man, as the 1969 coloring book attested, was patient. Patience might be the last attribute one might ascribe to Trump. Look at Nixon’s rise-fall-rise-fall-semi-rise to respectability career arc. He becomes a Congressman in 1946, prosecutes Alger Hiss and rises to national attention, becomes a California Senator and then Ike’s VP, only to come up painfully short in the 1960 election. He loses the 1962 California Gubernatorial race, campaigns for Barry Goldwater, who gets squashed in the 1964 election. Nixon then watches the tanned, handsome Ronald Reagan defeat Pat Brown for the same governorship toward which Nixon had pined but then manages to secure the 1968 GOP nomination and rides it to power, only to crash and burn in the disaster of Watergate—and yet he somehow crawls back to respectability in the ensuing decades as a sort of “Wise man,” a foreign policy counsel to Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.

A political leader who can’t draw upon a reserve of “chip on the shoulder” moxie simply wouldn’t be able to traverse such a path. Trump’s bankruptcies aside, he’s never struggled like Nixon nor understood the dynamics of politics like the Whittier California native. Sure, Nixon gave over 150 campaign speeches supporting Goldwater in the fall of 1964, which surely alienated aspects of the party. Goldwater was a controversial nominee—none of the GOP’s heavy hitters would campaign for him—but many of the key delegates were Goldwater loyalists who appreciated Nixon’s efforts and would reward him in 1968. As demonstrated by the current kerfuffle about delegate counts in the Republican race, Trump might have done well to take some more notes from Nixon.

Still, both Nixon and Trump channeled the resentment of their followers. U.S. News and World editor Nicole Hemmer described The Donald accurately as “a grievance avatar.” In contrast, Nixon understood grievance on a real level emotionally, having grown up in rather tough conditions. Was Nixon poor? Not exactly, but life in the Nixon household was barely middle class economically and emotionally fairly threadbare. His upbringing never truly left him; for Trump, it’s the resentment of false pride and privilege. Ironically, the resentment each man harvested from the electorate and just who it represented then and now differs in significant ways.

Unknown

The image of Nixon courting purely working-class whites angry over student protest and cultural degradation has come under scrutiny in recent years, notably by Matthew Lassiter. According to Lassiter, Nixon’s supporters were hardly the “bitter enders” that the media tends to label Trump supporters today; he drew his support not from massive resisters or workers on the wrong end of deindustrialization but upwardly mobile, respectable, middle-class suburban whites who organized from the bottom up and voted in large numbers. Moreover, Nixon, the National Review, and other GOP leaders only needed to meet these voters in the middle. They organized at the grassroots level through local institutions like public schools and PTA meetings. These voters, argues Lassiter, talked about property values, meritocracy, and consumer rights in color blind language, viewed busing proposals for the integration of schools with great trepidation and avoided overt displays of racism.[13]

The suburbanization of America in the postwar period made this demographically possible and led to the establishment of a sort of “center right dynamic that has dominated regional and national politics since the late 1960s,” Lassiter asserted in his 2006 work, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South. While the Atlantic’s Ball rightly notes that some of Trump’s support stems from the shrinking of white entitlement and the rise of “leftist identity politics,” the assumption regarding the latter seems to be that identity politics only exists for minority groups. If anything, Lassiter demonstrates Nixon’s “Silent Majority” was identity politics disguised as a colorblind universality; based on a set of identifiable variables, it was only ever meant for white voters but dodged any direct mention of race: property rights, which argued against government-imposed civil rights legislation; free markets in housing that ignored the massive amount of government intervention that funded segregated suburban expansion; protection of neighborhood schools, particularly against busing that turned a blind eye to housing and job discrimination. To be a white middle-class voter meant adopting these views and expressing them in colorblind language.

If some Trump voters resent what they view as entitlements—while defending those they see owed to them like Medicare and Social Security—many of Nixon’s supporters had organized to protect their own government benefits: a “bipartisan defense of middle class entitlements programs and residential boundaries combined with the futuristic ethos of color blind moderation and full throttled capitalism at the center of the Sunbelt South.”[14] After all, markets, capitalism and a housing system built on racial bias could only lead to de facto segregation, so guarding the status quo was all one needed. Civil Rights, busing schemes, and integration threatened what had been, as David Freund, Lassiter, and others have argued, naturalized by government policies—meaning it had come to be seen as a natural market dynamic despite being engineered by various government programs, policies, and subsidies.[15]

"Analysis of Conservative Possibilities in 1972", William A. Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

“Analysis of Conservative Possibilities in 1972”, William A. Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

A couple of caveats do need to be stated. First, Nixon certainly played to blue-collar voters. For example, he applauded the Hard Hat Riots in lower Manhattan, when union workers attacked what they thought were grubby anti-war protesters. “Thank god for the hard hats,” he told advisors. He even invited union leader Peter Brennan, who organized a massive march by blue collar workers on New York’s City Hall the same year, to the White House and bestowed upon him a hard hat inscribed with “Commander in Chief.” Nixon later appointed Brennan Secretary of Labor in 1973.[16] No one would say he did not engender working-class support, but it was really this burgeoning suburbia that would buoy him, just as it would Ronald Reagan in the 1966 Gubernatorial election and later to the presidency in the 1980s. In addition, Nixon also went out of his way to make cultural arguments. “Square America is coming back,” he would tell voters in the run up to ’72. “The real issue is patriotism, morality, religion.”[17]

"Analysis of Conservative Possibilities in 1972", William A. Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

“Analysis of Conservative Possibilities in 1972”, William A. Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

The difference between Nixon and Trump in this regard is suburbia: it’s Trump’s greatest weakness, as evidenced by the Wisconsin primary. Some outlets, such the Economist recently, argue Trump’s support consists of more educated, high earners than reported. According to the magazine, 34 percent of his base are those earning more than $100,000; individuals with college diplomas, graduate, and professional degrees make up 43 percent.[18] Of course, depending on cost of living, $100,000 in cities like New York and D.C. might just make one tenuously middle class—a status primed for Trumpism. Whatever the accuracy and meaning behind these numbers, New York might correct this narrative momentarily, but Nixon knew better how to tap into a broader suburban angst.

Harrigan, Confidential Memorandum to Manhattan 12, circa October/November 1972, William A. Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Harrigan, Confidential Memorandum to Manhattan 12, circa October/November 1972, William A. Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

National Review Redux?

Bringing it back to Buckley, Rusher, and Nixon, as the aforementioned Heer pointed out, the National Review had a great deal to do with the “Southern Strategy”/”Silent Majority” tactic. According to Heer, the conservative magazine had been launched as a counterweight to Eisenhower’s moderation; Ike was too soft on commies and too willing to break bread with liberals. During the ’64 Goldwater campaign, Rusher, Buckley and the National Review formulated the very policy that Nixon successfully deployed in ’68 and ‘72. So when in 1971-1972, the Manhattan 12 expressed reticence toward Nixon, a certain irony can be drawn from their opposition.

Unlike GOP elites today who despise Trump and have openly campaigned against him, the Manhattan 12 acknowledged the writing on the wall. By October/November of 1972, the conservative cabal recognized their disappointment. A primary challenge would be “futile.” They understood their concerns might not be that of the general public or even GOP rank and file; defense and foreign policy issues were undoubtedly critical but they were not “gut issues for voters.” According to Manhattan 12 member Anthony Harrigan, the spread of “welfarism”, busing, and urban crime struck a deeper chord with the electorate. “To have a wider impact on politics, the intellectual conservatives surely will have to concentrate on the domestic issues with high emotional content,” Harrigan wrote to his fellow members. In the end, they would have to choose between the “lesser of two evils.”[19]

It remains to be seen how the current GOP nomination process will play out. Buckley et all had witnessed Nixon’s indestructability. When Nixon angrily told reporters following his gubernatorial defeat in 1962 they would no longer have him to kick around anymore, the media responded by piling dirt on his grave. ABC broadcast a thirty-minute special entitled The Obituary of Richard Nixon, only to receive 80,000 letters castigating the channel for doing so.[20] Nixon followers were loyal; even critics like musician Neil Young who had excoriated Nixon in the song “Ohio” would one day recognize he had “soul,” or at least the approximation of one (see “The Campaigner). Trump’s soul is gilded in gold lame and tends to tarnish far more easily. Whatever one thinks of Nixon and his tactics, he understood campaigns and politics far more astutely. Nixon derived his resentment from very real sources. Whether or not Trump has the intellect to right course and draw upon the late president’s example seems unlikely, yet much like Tricky Dick GOP elites better watch out for The Donald’s faithful.

[1] Jose Perez and Robert F. Patton, Nixon/Agnew Coloring Book, 1969, David S. Broder papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[2] Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, (New York: Scribner, 2008), 132.

[3] William A. Rusher, Letter to Jerry Harkins, November 5, 1971, Box 167, William A. Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[4] William A. Rusher, Letter to Jerry Harkins, November 5, 1971, Box 167, William A. Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[5] Lee Edwards, The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America, (New York: Free Press, 2000), 170. Admittedly, Edwards, himself once a YAF member, offers a partisan history here that as Kirkus Reviews noted: “Readers who share Edwards’s assumptions and dislike subtle analyses that might challenge them will find this book an enjoyable read and an essential history of recent American politics.”

[6] Evan Thomas, Being Nixon: A Man Divided, (New York: Random House, 2016), 366.

[7] Thomas, Being Nixon, 208.

[8] Perlstein, Nixonland, 600.

[9] Perlstein, Nixonland, 49.

[10] Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, (New York: New Press, 2010), 138-139.

[11] Thomas, Being Nixon, 227; Perlstein, Nixonland, 21.

[12] Thomas, Being Nixon, 413.

[13] Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 3.

[14] Lassiter, The Silent Majority, 226-227.

[15] See David Freund, Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics Suburban America, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[16] Thomas, Being Nixon, 278

[17] Thomas, Being Nixon, 409.

[18] “Uptown Trump”, Economist, April 23, 2016.

[19] Harrigan, Confidential Memorandum to Manhattan 12, circa October/November 1972, William A. Rusher Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[20] Perlstein, Nixonland, 61.

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