World View: The ghost of Richard Nixon invoked by the Trump campaign
What started as an occasional borrowing of Nixonian phrases by Trump voters has turned into a brazen homage
President Richard Nixon gives his resignation speech from the Oval Office at the White House in Washington D.C. on August 8, 1974 (Photo by NBC NewsWire/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
I have seen the ghost of Richard Nixon. He walked unsteadily across the stage of US politics twice in the last week. Or so I thought – and I shuddered. I am told, however, that it wasn’t him, but two nightmarish Doppelgängers.
Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s right-hand man, conjured him up last week when comparing Trump’s address to Nixon’s at the same convention 48 years ago.
“I think what Nixon understood is that when the world is falling apart, people want a strong leader whose highest priority is protecting America first,” Trump said recently, drawing inspiration from a somewhat tarnished source.
What started a year ago, the New York Times observed, as an occasional borrowing of Nixonian phrases, such as describing Trump voters as a “silent majority”, has turned into a brazen homage. “Literally plagiarism,” says Kevin Mattson, a Nixon biographer. Trump, plagiarism, surely not!
What did Nixon down, of course, was the cover-up of involvement in the Watergate break-in at the premises of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters. How strange, then, that this week should also begin with a rather similar revelation: the DNC’s emails had been illegally hacked and leaked to the press to discredit the party.
This time it was not Nixon’s thieves, but allegedly Russian intelligence agents working if not in league with Trump – there is no evidence of his involvement – then at the very least to help his cause on behalf of a fan, Vladimir Putin. The admiration is mutual.
As it happens, the emails were not particularly secret or revealing : “something closer”, as one writer put it, “to the embarrassing emails that fly across every office in America – griping, the testing of stupid ideas, the banal musings that take place in private correspondence . . . ” And gossip between staff about the awfulness of party donors.
Nuggets of indiscretionDebbie Wasserman SchultzHillary ClintonBernie Sanders
However, the hacking by the Russian state should be taken seriously, whether intended as mischief-making or, as some Democrats maintain, as a deliberate means of sabotaging the party.
Dirty tricks, a breach of privacy, theft , illegal interference with mail . . . criminal acts that if carried out by a political rival would have seen him or her drummed out of office. (Remember that Watergate brought Nixon down.) Arguably worse, it is external interference in the political system carried out when all foreign entities are forbidden to make campaign contributions and non-citizens forbidden to vote.
Trump has not exactly discouraged the hacking, even suggesting that the Russians could usefully search for Clinton’s missing emails. We may think this was a humorous aside, but it’s difficult to tell . . . Trump has made it clear that he believes he and Putin would get on well. Putin will also have been delighted by Trump’s repudiation of Nato obligations to come to the defence of fellow members.
As for Nixon’s reincarnation in Trump, Rick Perlstein, a Democratic biographer of the former president, writes in the New Republic: “Nixon’s little finger, of course, was more interesting and complex than Trump’s entire being.”
Nixon evolved significantly from the demagogue he started out as. The 1968 speech was indeed a cry of despair at the state of the US, but subtly “reinvented”, Perlstein argues, “in the image of America’s hopes instead of its fears”.
“The single most telling divergence between Trump’s acceptance speech and its Nixonian model, and the easiest to forget, comes down to this: Nixon never said it would be easy. Trump says nothing else. It was the theme of his convention: ‘Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored’.”
Richard Nixon, poor Richard Nixon, Perlstein despairs, would despise this above all.
“Amid everything else, he was a grinder, obsessed with meticulous preparation, study, details, discipline, knowing your stuff. I almost wish I had a magic time machine so the Old Man could have watched the candidate who’s claiming his legacy. I wish I could hear the creative words Nixon would use. Because when he was not delivering soaring perorations, he sure knew how to call bullshit when he saw it.”
Richard Nixon, RIP.