The carpet shampoo is barely dry in the Oval Office from the change-over in presidents, and the Trump administration has already given us a defining phrase: “alternative facts.” As Richard Nixon often said, “Let me say this about that”: Kellyanne Conway’s words will outlast her time in the White House and become a symbol of her administration’s prevarications as surely as Ron Ziegler’s famous words “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative” have stood as a marker for the deceitfulness of the Nixon administration. We know that Trump not only has a tenuous relationship with the truth but also has a strategy of devaluing objective fact. You have your facts; Trump has his “alternatives”: biggest inaugural crowd in history, one of the largest margins of victory in electoral college history, millions of illegal immigrants voted, and so on.
It will be important to see whether Trump misleads about the big stuff, as well as the little stuff, the way Nixon did. Nixon deceived on everything from the quality of the wine served to him vs. his guests, to body counts in Vietnam. So far, Trump’s deceptions seem less sinister. So far, he’s like Nixon, but without the polish. Easier to catch. So far.
Both men seem to share something else in common: a deep-seated resentment for the media and other elites. Nixon never felt completely legitimate as president; he always saw a plot by the Kennedys to thwart or defeat him. No matter his success, the “Ivy Leaguers” seemed to look down upon him. In the end, Nixon’s resentments both motivated and defeated him. He took his mantra of “I am not a quitter” and turned it into criminal activity. He forgot that he was venerated by millions of Americans, the silent majority, who identified with him as an underdog. Instead, he was obsessed with the approval of those who would never give it to him. Unrequited, he sought revenge.
Trump shares some of these same qualities. He comes from Queens and had to muscle his way into the hierarchy of Manhattan real estate, whose elite have always seen him more as a marketer than a builder. He is acutely aware of the disdain elites have for his outsize ego and gilded properties bearing the large stamp of his name. He is everything certain old-style elites disdain: loud, brassy, crude and boastful. Like Nixon, he seems to fear he isn’t viewed as legitimate. Instead of embracing the people who identify with his story of success, he, too, stews over those who slight it. Like Nixon, he hates the press. And, like Nixon, he is frequently underestimated.
A question to follow in the Trump years will be whether he can harness his resentments and use them as positive motivation, or whether he will succumb to their darker instincts. Right now, it seems, he could go either way.