How Nixonian Is Donald Trump?
Firing an acting attorney general, threatening widespread investigations against civil servants, characterizing unfriendly press as enemies of the state. And with the possibility of collusion with a foreign power inspiring suspicions of a cover-up involving a sitting president, is it any wonder that nearly 45 years later, we have Richard Nixon on the mind? For a generation whose context for understanding presidential misdeeds is the Watergate scandal, it’s worth asking: How Nixonian is the Donald Trump administration so far?
For a time, Trump might not have minded the comparison; he so admires aspects of the disgraced 37th president that he proudly displays in the Oval Office a framed letter in which Nixon prophesied a future political career for the Manhattan developer. There are some important differences in the men themselves. Richard Nixon was an introvert, and Trump, though he does seem to like being alone, is more the extrovert. Even more importantly, Nixon was a skilled lawyer and had legislative and executive experience at the federal level before taking the oath of office. Although he did not like Washington much more than Donald Trump does, Nixon, at least, understood it.
Yet more striking to me, as a former director of the Nixon Library, are the similarities, some of which may be surprising to those not steeped in the folkways of Nixonland. The historical Nixon and Trump share the quality of extreme pettiness. Trump’s tweets have betrayed his thin skin and his incessant desire for personal advantage. Nixon’s pettiness is all over the released Oval Office tapes. But the example that is truly Trumpian involved the building of the president’s library in 1990. Nixon authored a “urinal memo” which stipulated that while there should be many urinals in the public men’s room on the ground floor, the men’s room downstairs, on the floor where archivists would eventually work, should have only one urinal. As the first library director told me when I arrived in Nixonland years later, it was “to make those bureaucrats wait.”
Both Trump and Nixon share a boredom with policy details. Nixon came to office without any real domestic agenda, and he made clear that he wasn’t that interested in the details of what his team did. Instead he would issue angry and categorical in-house declarations, leaving the follow-through to others. (White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman noted in June 1969, “P[resident] has decided against [racial] integration”; “will do very minimum the law allows.” It was up to the staff to determine how to fulfill that order.) Both men are consumed by consideration of their own image. Nixon, who was not a particularly hard worker and lacked a sense of humor, urged his staff to leak information that would paint him as a witty workaholic.
And finally, both men share a sense of victimhood, which blends into a sense of being encircled by adversarial conspiracies. These men imagine and feed off the existence of armies of clever, often unnamed, enemies. Remarkably, given that each rose to become commander in chief of the richest, most powerful country in the world, they act as if they have routinely been slighted. Whether it is by American Jews (in Nixon’s case) or foreigners (in Trump’s case) or the faceless American establishment and the media (for both of them), these men nurture grievances which for Nixon would prove fatal to presidential success. ...