The ghosts of 1968: why Donald Trump is not the new Richard Nixon

Republican candidate Donald Trump has tried to copy former president Richard Nixon's appeal to the silent majority. But he is not Nixon's heir and you could never accuse the cunning and calculating former president of lacking in political art.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally at the KI Convention Center in Green Bay, Wisconsin on October 17. Scott Olson / Getty Images / AFP.
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Richard Nixon had a private maxim: never get mad unless it’s on purpose. It wasn’t that he didn’t get mad; his temper, as one can hear from time to time when he railed so volcanically against his perceived enemies that the microphones on his White House taping system distorted, was epic. But that’s the point: almost always, even under the greatest conceivable stress, he kept it private. Exactly because this white hot, paranoid rage burnt so intensely within him, his guiding value was self-control. He could not have survived politically without it.

This year, many commentators have been comparing Donald Trump to Richard Nixon. Trump himself invites the comparison, borrowing two of Nixon’s signature political phrases for his own: the “silent majority”, which was Nixon’s term for those unsung, ordinary Americans who worked hard and played by the rules but were victimised by the “vocal minority” causing disturbances in the street; and “law and order”, which Nixon memorably promised to bring back to a 1960s America wracked by crime and violent protest. Google “Trump and Nixon”. You get more than 7,000 hits.

I am a scholar of Nixon and for a time I was fielding media inquiries nearly every day to pronounce upon the supposed parallels between the two men. I always refused. Sure, they share thuggish qualities, but fundamentally they’re profoundly different political figures. When Trump sprays untrammelled vitriol in every direction, day in and day out, it’s not an act. It is who he is – an extraordinarily undisciplined human being. It shows in his obsessions: those tics that he simply can’t let go.

Decades ago, journalist Graydon Carter, now the editor of Vanity Fair, began referring to Trump as a "short-fingered vulgarian". "To this day," Carter wrote in December, "I receive the occasional envelope from Trump. There is always a photo of him … On all of them he has circled his hand in gold Sharpie in a valiant effort to highlight the length of his fingers." You would think he would be able to let it go. Instead, his monomania over the slight abides, and has yielded one of the most astonishing moments in this most astonishing of American presidential campaigns. When Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who was one of Trump's rivals in the primary, brought up the old imprecation against the Great One's digits, Trump brought up the topic, unbidden, during one of the televised debates: "He hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands, I've never heard of this before."

He held them up for the inspection of the people of the United States.

Note well the formulation: “Nobody has ever hit my hands.” This was, obviously, a lie. Nixon lied, of course, too – serially, extravagantly and even when he didn’t have to. But at least he did it with a modicum of cunning. These lies of the Presidential Candidate Who Just Can’t Help It, on the other (um) hand are so striking because they are so blatantly artless. You could never accuse Nixon of lacking in political art.



Indirection, in fact, has been a key component of Republican electioneering going back to Nixon. A big part of their vote-harvesting strategies has been playing to the resentments among white Americans of the supposed entitlements of African-Americans. But since racism is forbidden in polite society, the references have to be made sideways, in sotto voce.

The term of art for this is the "dog whistle": a coded reference that only some voters can hear. A classic instance was in Ronald Reagan's 1976 presidential campaign, during which he complained of seeing a "strapping young buck" – "which", The New York Times delicately explained, "to whites in the South, generally denotes a large black man" – using his government assistance to buy expensive steaks at the local shop. No reference to race: no harm, no foul – plausible deniability.

Going back, another instance came in Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. His television adviser, Roger Ailes – who later, as the founder of Fox News, became to the racial dog whistle what Cristiano Ronaldo is to kicking footballs – suggested recruiting a “good, mean” cab driver to be on a panel questioning the candidate. “Wouldn’t that be great? Some guy to sit there and say: ‘Awright, Mac,’ what about these niggers?’” Nixon could then abhor the incivility of the words, while endorsing a “moderate” (think: law and order) version of the opinion.

Trump chucked such politesse out the window during the very first speech of his campaign, opining, absurdly: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Statistically, immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans. And, of course, the Mexican government doesn’t “send” people to the US; they chose to come themselves.

The American political humourist John Fugelsang has said Trump has taken the traditional Republican dog whistle and turned it into a bullhorn. Nixon would have been horrified. He took great pride in the exquisite care he put behind every utterance, in obsessive preparation, in finely crafted public statements that had a beginning, middle and end, that started and ended precisely on time. He doted on his encyclopaedic knowledge of world affairs. And while he could be ideologically mercurial, it was also nothing to him to spend years of careful private ground-laying before a major political initiative – such as his 1972 opening to China, which he began conceptualising in 1967.

Trump? When his lawyer and lapdog Michael Cohen posted on the internet a photograph of a cloud that he said resembled his boss, he captioned it, perhaps in all seriousness, “In case anyone is unsure as to who will be our next #POTUS [President of the United States], the Lord has chosen the people’s messenger.” The comedian Stephen Colbert begged to differ: “The cloud actually holds a position longer than the real Donald Trump can.”

Rick Perlstein is the author of The New York Times bestseller The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He lives in Chicago.