Trump’s Lessons From Nixon Missed One Important Thing
“I learned a lot from Richard Nixon,” President Donald Trump declared recently, speaking of the only U.S. 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 a.m. 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.
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.”
文／Sarah Lyall and Jeremy W. Peters 譯／陳韋廷、核稿／樂慧生