After Bob Woodward revealed that President Trump admitted on tape that he had deliberately undermined the nation’s covid-19 response, his former reporting partner Carl Bernstein told CNN that Trump’s act was perhaps the “greatest presidential felony” of all time and an act of “homicidal negligence.” He said it was a “dereliction of duty, recorded as no other dereliction of duty has been, even more so than the Nixon tapes in this instance.”
Bernstein isn’t the first to compare Trump to Nixon. “Donald Trump makes Richard Nixon look good,” tweeted former Nixon White House counsel John Dean. The compliments may be backhanded and the praise rather sparing, but former president Richard Nixon seems to be enjoying a modest reputation boost propelled by those who revile Trump and proclaim him — not Nixon — the most corrupt president ever.
But regardless of how history judges Trump, it would be a mistake to let the immediacy of our political moment mitigate or soften the singular record of damage and destruction that Nixon did to our politics, society and civic culture — and to people around the world. In fact, this damage and destruction played a role in the pathway to Trump’s presidency.
Those finding newfound value in Nixon cherry pick a few of his accomplishments, particularly his opening to China and his willingness to work with a Democratic Congress in establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. Occasionally they note his failed proposal to give all Americans a guaranteed annual income, and some commend him for trying to expand health insurance to more Americans.
No one excuses his Watergate crimes, but, as Dean put it, Trump “is making Nixon’s authoritarian behavior look tame.”
Yet there was nothing really “tame” about the Nixon presidency. He corrupted our elections, authorized criminal behavior, obstructed justice, abused the powers of his office, mainstreamed the politics of racial resentment, politicized the Supreme Court, demonized journalists, crafted policies to punish political opponents and caused immense pain and suffering overseas.
Nixon’s corruption began even before his election with, arguably, an act of treason against the United States. In the waning days of the 1968 campaign, he sent a backchannel emissary to the South Vietnamese government to sabotage peace talks President Lyndon B. Johnson hoped would lead to a winding down of the war.
Nixon feared the talks would help his opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and his emissary told the South Vietnamese not to participate because a President Nixon would give them a better deal. We have no idea the role Nixon’s message played in South Vietnam’s decision to reject the talks, but the war dragged on four-plus more years — even though Nixon knew it was not winnable — costing more than 20,000 American lives and killing hundreds-of-thousands, if not more, Vietnamese.
As president, Nixon pursued his Vietnam strategy with equal cynicism. He crafted his “peace with honor” slogan to appeal to his “silent majority” supporters who did not want to see America lose the war — but “peace with honor” meant little more than handing off our losing effort to what he knew was a corrupt South Vietnamese army on the verge of collapse. Nixon didn’t care that South Vietnam would quickly lose the war, so long as it wouldn’t appear that the United States lost the war under his leadership.
He also broadened the war to neighboring Cambodia soon after taking office in 1969. This secret and brutal carpet-bombing campaign so destabilized Cambodia that it strengthened and emboldened the communist Khmer Rouge insurgency. The eventual result: the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government and began its genocidal “killing fields,” resulting in the deaths of 1.7 million people.
Nixon also authorized an American ground invasion of Cambodia in April 1970 — offering a questionable legal rationale and sidestepping not only Congress but also his secretaries of state and defense. At home, these actions led to mass protests nationwide and the killing of four students at Kent State University in Ohio.
Nixon’s international damage was not limited to Southeast Asia. His CIA destabilized Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, which led to his ouster and the savage dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, under whom more than 3,000 Chileans went missing or died and upward of 40,000 faced torture and abuse.
Nixon also elevated the shah of Iran — his friend — to regional leadership, making him the linchpin of the United States’s Middle East strategy. This was a massive geopolitical miscalculation that overlooked the shah’s lack of popular support, and helped fuel the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the further destabilization of both the Middle East and global politics.
Domestically, while most know of Nixon’s Watergate misdeeds, they were simply a fraction of his dirty — and downright illegal — tactics.
He used the FBI and Internal Revenue Service to harass his opponents, authorized burglaries against perceived foes, approved hush money payments to Watergate burglars, targeted journalists with wiretaps and tax audits, sabotaged opposing campaigns, tried to undermine our elections, obstructed justice and initiated a witch hunt of Jewish employees of the Department of Labor, among so much more.
“You’re to break into the place, rifle the files and bring them out,” he told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, when authorizing the burglary of the Brookings Institution. Explaining why such break-ins were necessary, he pounded his desk and told Haldeman and Henry Kissinger: “We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy that are using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear?”
While President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon for crimes he may have committed in office, Nixon’s chief of staff, his domestic policy adviser, two members of his Cabinet, his White House counsel, his top campaign aides and officials throughout his government all served time in jail.
Nixon’s racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism are also well-documented on his tapes: referring to African Americans by slurs, saying that it was hard to find a Mexican or Italian “that is honest,” and repeatedly railing against Jews, such as “the Jews, you know, that are stealing in every direction.”
These views had concrete consequences, shaping the politics he practiced and the policies he advanced. To get elected in 1968, Nixon channeled racial grievance into mainstream politics through his silent majority and southern strategy, all with the goal of moving White working-class voters from Democrats toward the Republican Party. He also promised segregationist senators that he would appoint only “strict constructionists” to the Supreme Court, which was code for justices unfriendly to desegregation and civil rights.
As president, Nixon initiated a war on drugs with the specific intent to harass and criminalize his critics. As his domestic policy adviser, John Ehrlichman, explained in 1994: “The Nixon White House … had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Even proposals that in hindsight seem forward-thinking had their roots in Nixon’s divide-and-conquer cynicism. Consider his Philadelphia Plan to impose racial hiring quotas on construction unions working on federally funded projects. He had two goals in mind, neither of them to help African Americans: inoculating himself from charges of bigotry, and splitting two key Democratic constituencies, Black people and White union members, forcing the Democrats to choose between them. Nixon then spoke out against quotas when campaigning in White communities.
As for his guaranteed annual income proposal often lauded by Nixon apologists, to him it was little more than a political device to undermine Democrats. Ordering Haldeman to secretly undercut the bill, he told him: “Be sure it’s killed by Democrats, and that we make a big play for it, but don’t let it pass, can’t afford it.”
These tactics and policies, while often less overt than Trump’s own machinations, fueled the rise of the very politics that Trump uses with regularity, including warnings that Democrats will destroy the suburbs and promises of “law and order.” Further, a generation of hardball Republican operatives, several with ties to Trump, began their careers on Nixon’s team. While Trump can and should be assessed on his record, his presidency is no reason to reassess Nixon’s positively. If anything, given how closely Trump has emulated Nixon’s politics, it may make Nixon look even worse.
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