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If Nixon Could Tweet

The similarities between our current president and Tricky Dick don’t bode well for the country—or for Trump.

Susan J. Douglas

Nixon’s own hubris undid his presidency. Sound familiar? (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

As I stood in the mid­dle of the defi­ant, buoy­ant, mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional, mul­ti-hued, mul­ti-gen­dered Women’s March in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., on Jan­u­ary 21, I said to my friend, the polit­i­cal orga­niz­er and LGBTQ activist Chris Arm­strong, that the ener­gy remind­ed me of the Viet­nam Mora­to­ri­ums, like the Novem­ber 1969 event bring­ing an esti­mat­ed 500,000 peo­ple to Wash­ing­ton. Chris respond­ed, Well, Trump reminds me of Richard Nixon.” I was instant­ly struck by how right he was. There is much here that we have seen — and fought — before.

We have seen some of this before. That does not mean we can simply ride this out.

Prob­a­bly the biggest dif­fer­ence between Nixon — one of our most dis­graced pres­i­dents — and Trump is that Nixon had polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence, for what that was worth. But the sim­i­lar­i­ties are strik­ing, and while they are chill­ing to us, they real­ly don’t bode well for Mr. Trump.

First, there is his noto­ri­ous­ly thin skin, the des­per­a­tion to be liked, the vis­cer­al resent­ment of crit­i­cism, lead­ing to the impulse to strike back at crit­ics in mul­ti­ple ways, legal and ille­gal. These traits con­sti­tute the core, and the Achilles’ heel, of both men.

And they fuel the deep hatred of and para­noia about the news media, and the inces­sant attacks on them. Spiro Agnew’s repeat­ed assaults on the press as mis­rep­re­sent­ing the facts, as com­mit­ting slan­der” against Nixon, as being hos­tile and as being mem­bers of the most unrep­re­sen­ta­tive com­mu­ni­ty in the entire Unit­ed States” are of a piece with Steve Bannon’s call­ing the media the oppo­si­tion par­ty.” To Agnew, reporters were also, famous­ly, the nat­ter­ing nabobs of neg­a­tivism,” with the tele­vi­sion net­works rep­re­sent­ing a con­cen­tra­tion of pow­er over Amer­i­can pub­lic opin­ion unknown in his­to­ry.” Trump is not so allit­er­a­tive; he just says fake news.”

Then, of course, there were the efforts at cen­sor­ship, most notably in the failed attempt to pre­vent the New York Times from pub­lish­ing the Pen­ta­gon Papers. Ban­non just said sim­ply that the media should keep its mouth shut.” Nixon and Agnew — before the lat­ter had to resign because of tax eva­sion charges — suc­cess­ful­ly launched the mantra of the elit­ist, lib­er­al” media that per­sists to this day.

Nixon, like Trump, was a racist, an anti-Semi­te, a misog­y­nist and a homo­phobe, and this absence of empa­thy crip­pled his abil­i­ty to read and lead the coun­try. Black peo­ple, accord­ing to Nixon, could nev­er run a gov­ern­ment, and Wash­ing­ton was full of Jews” — you can’t trust the bas­tards. They turn on you.” (Hen­ry Kissinger and a few oth­ers were excep­tions.) Mex­i­cans steal” and are dis­hon­est” but they don’t live like a bunch of dogs, like the Negroes do.” Women should not be in any gov­ern­ment job what­ev­er” because they’re errat­ic and emo­tion­al.” Gays have a prob­lem” and once a soci­ety accepts them, the vital­i­ty goes out of that soci­ety.” How to deal with blacks and hip­pies? Launch a war on drugs” to dis­rupt both com­mu­ni­ties,” as Nixon aide John Erlich­man revealed. With Trump (accord­ing to a tell-all by a for­mer employ­ee, he once said, The only kind of peo­ple I want count­ing my mon­ey are short guys that wear yarmulkes”), the homo­pho­bic Mike Pence, and the racist and anti-Semit­ic Steve Ban­non at the helm, we’re back to 1970. Of course, the big dif­fer­ence is that Nixon expressed these views in pri­vate. Trump blares them at ral­lies and on Twitter.

Like Nixon, Trump and his team are ask­ing for names — an ene­mies list? — of those in the Depart­ment of Ener­gy and the EPA work­ing on cli­mate change, and those in the State Depart­ment work­ing on gen­der equi­ty and end­ing vio­lence against women.

So we have seen some of this before — just not so naked­ly. That does not mean we can sim­ply ride this out. Because here’s what’s dif­fer­ent: From the time Nixon took office, peo­ple were in the streets, and — in addi­tion to the Civ­il Rights and anti-war move­ments — launched an envi­ron­men­tal move­ment, a women’s move­ment and a gay rights move­ment, all of which built lib­er­al and pro­gres­sive insti­tu­tions. The Democ­rats con­trolled Con­gress. Inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism was flow­er­ing. Today demands ongo­ing resis­tance, intense pres­sure on Con­gress (and a new one in 2018), revived pro­gres­sive coali­tion-build­ing and a ques­tion­ing, aggres­sive press to thwart Trump’s para­noia-dri­ven efforts at repres­sion. While it’s much too soon to think of Nixon and then utter the word impeach,” impede” is what we can do, every day.

Susan J. Dou­glas is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and a senior edi­tor at In These Times. Her forth­com­ing book is In Our Prime: How Old­er Women Are Rein­vent­ing the Road Ahead..
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