The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nixon saw Trump coming. But he wouldn’t have supported him.

The past and future presidents aren't as similar as they seem.

President Richard M. Nixon seen in the HBO documentary “Nixon by Nixon.” (HBO)
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The “silent majority” has spoken.

They voted for jobs for the little man. A new relationship with Russia. “Law and order” through fear and ethnic segregation. President-elect Donald Trump celebrates his reputation for strength, and he airs his enemies list on Twitter.

You can almost forgive the media for comparing Trump to former president Richard M. Nixon. Even Nixon’s grandson Christopher Nixon Cox swears the old man would support Trump, but Cox is a failed politician with reason to parrot the party line. I’ve written in Nixon’s voice almost every day for the past four years on Twitter, where I created the present-day character of @dick_nixon, informed by countless hours of living with his books, interviews, tape transcripts and conversations with people who knew him. If you look past isolated policies and into Nixon’s political brain, there’s no comparing the two men.

Trump intimidates the news media. He lies well enough to win a close election. He’s even charged with fraud. But compared with Nixon — who won more votes than any candidate in American history and caused the worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War — Trump is a piker.

Nixon the football nut admired a fourth-quarter win against the odds, and he knew what he lacked. His 1987 letter to Trump, where he wrote of Pat Nixon’s praise for Trump’s performance on “The Phil Donahue Show” and passed along her encouragement to run for office, has circulated on social media for months.

Here’s what demagogues like Trump do to their countries when they take over

Some commentators see Nixon — scourge of Berkeley and the Upper West Side — recognizing a kindred spirit. “Have you listened to the Nixon tapes?” Jon Stewart, former host of “The Daily Show,” asked Charlie Rose on CBS about Trump this week. Trump’s social media director, Dan Scavino, Jr., boasted about the letter in a tweet on Saturday.

The association falls apart, though, when you remember a smooth TV performer destroyed Nixon in 1960. Although he was occasionally capable of warmth in private, Nixon’s TV manner never improved, and his later success is all the more remarkable despite it. Nixon wrote the letter during Trump’s first flush of fame, when he was a rakish, liberal, isolationist Democrat who sold himself as changing the face of New York City.

Nixon was never an isolationist. In the early 1990s, he openly disagreed with his old counsel Pat Buchanan about that. He wasn’t liberal, either; although he believed government had a responsibility to help people, his more progressive policies were as much to do with the political reality of a Democratic Congress. But he understood the power of television. “There’s only one thing worse in politics than being wrong,” Nixon told Buchanan. “And that’s being dull.”

Trump has never fallen short there.

As he did in countless letters from exile, Nixon was briefly ingratiating himself with a stranger, a talented amateur who might be useful as he fought his way back. And the old lawyer hedged; he passed along Mrs. Nixon’s word, not his.

Nixon broke laws for political expediency, but Trump ignores civil rights and due process. In 1989, he demanded the death penalty for the Central Park Five; in 2016, long after the men were exonerated, he still demands it. He ran on mass deportations of illegal immigrants and compulsory registration of Muslims, and his Cabinet shortlist shows he’s serious. Contrast this with Nixon, who in the late 1950s and early 1960s was as much for civil rights as a mainstream politician could be; as vice president, he met with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and in 1964 he warned that it would be a “mistake” to follow Barry Goldwater and “write off the Negro vote.” “Our party would eventually become the first major all-white political party,” Nixon said. “And that isn’t good. That would be a violation of GOP principles.”

Nixon’s principles didn’t survive the 1968 campaign. His “Southern Strategy” — veiled appeals to “law and order” racists in the suburban South — poisoned American politics forever. But his presidency threaded a delicate needle. Nixon appeased his angry white base by ordering the large-scale desegregation of Southern schools (6 percent were desegregated in 1968, almost 75 percent by 1974); requiring federal contractors to hire minority workers; and endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment. “Give the nuts 20 percent of what they want,” he said.

Yet he still won 49 states in 1972. As Attorney General John Mitchell advised the news media in early 1969, “Watch what we do, not what we say.” Where Nixon skillfully, if destructively, played both sides of an issue with his eye on the future, Trump seems prepared to land wherever rage carries him.

Trump’s foreign policy would destroy the “one world” that Nixon and his hero Woodrow Wilson fought to build. Nixon opened China; achieved detente with the Soviet Union; reestablished American relations with Egypt and built a strong, logical relationship with Israel based on its willingness to seek peace with the Arab world. Trump is a shakedown artist who promises to bring U.S. troops home if host countries refuse to pay for them. The consequences of this are almost too horrific to imagine. Withdrawing troops from Japan and South Korea, for example, would trap these countries between North Korea and a newly expansionist China, probably forcing Japan to acquire nuclear weapons. Withdrawing from Germany would give Russia’s Vladimir Putin a free hand in Eastern Europe, which Trump may be only too happy to accept in return for Putin’s help in defeating the Islamic State.

Nixon made alliances; Trump looks for deals. There is a difference.

As I’ve written elsewhere, Nixon’s great skill was knowing what the public wanted before it asked. At the height of the 1992 culture wars, he reacted to an HIV-positive woman speaking at the Republican National Convention:

We have too much bashing of everyone in this party. It’s an embarrassment. So many people are gay — or go both ways. I don’t care. And I don’t want to hear about abortion. That’s people’s own business. Tolerance in this party is far too low. Fifty-percent of families are single parent; sixty-five percent of all women work. We can’t crap on them. We’ve got to reach out — and mean it.

We find ourselves with Trump as president-elect because both parties ignored Nixon’s advice. With the Hillary Clinton campaign pitched to a middle class that increasingly doesn’t exist, enough of the poor, weak and vulnerable stayed home or looked elsewhere. Celebrities were “with her,” but Trump said “I’m with you.”

After 35 years of Republicans exploiting little people — shipping jobs away, policing bedrooms, shutting doors — it was enough.

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