Trump evokes Nixon at his paranoid worst, says Michael D'Antonio
Recently Trump said his opponents and the media are part of a vast conspiracy
Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the new book, “The Truth About Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
As Donald Trump tries to shift the presidential campaign narrative away from accusations of sexual assault and his boasts about groping women, he’s reviving themes, and a style, America has not heard so clearly since the Nixon years. Indeed, with a candidate tutored by one of Nixon’s dirty tricksters facing an opponent who worked for the Congressional committee that investigated Watergate, we may be witnessing the last skirmish in the only political war that ever brought down an American president.
Trump’s current emphasis, offered at recent rallies, has been on what he terms the corruption of the “establishment” that supposedly controls America in collaboration with “media corporations” who recognize in him an “existential threat.” Leaving out only the Illuminati, his argument is a fever dream of conspiracy theories that evokes Nixon at his paranoid worst.
The main difference is that, unlike Nixon, Trump constructed his multi-billion-dollar brand, and his presidential bid, with the ample assistance of the media he now scapegoats. How strange it must be for a man who has received free publicity worth billions of dollars to find himself feeling victimized by the press.
For Nixon, journalists became a sworn enemy in 1962 when he was defeated in the race for governor of California and declared, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” In fact it wasn’t Nixon’s last press conference because, like Trump, he couldn’t resist the lure of attention and power. He was back to run for president in 1968, getting advice from a young Roger Ailes (now the disgraced founder of Fox News and a Trump adviser), who helped him adjust to the medium of television.
Once Nixon was in office, Vice President Spiro Agnew served as his anti-press attack dog. But instead of crude, Trump-like rants – Trump says reporters are “scum” and “slime” and “disgusting” – Agnew preferred the elegant “nattering nabobs of negativity.” When Agnew was driven out of office in a bribery scandal in 1973, Nixon added the press to his portfolio of complaint, which included grievances against many groups of people he considered elites.
Nixon came to his anger in a natural way. Born into a poor family, he long nursed grudges against people he perceived as haughty, over-privileged snobs. He took this chip-on-the-shoulder attitude into politics where, in his successful 1950 Senate campaign, he smeared his opponent as a secret communist. (His campaign also placed phone calls in which she was described as a “movie Jew.”) Nixon believed, in the words of Roger Stone, “You had to galvanize those who shared your values, resentments, and anger to reach a governing majority by winning an election.”
A young Stone served Nixon by planting false stories about his opponents during the 1972 campaign. After his president was driven from office by the Watergate scandal, Stone became one of the Nixon alumni who would convert the trauma of disgrace into decades of seeking to settle scores. Like Nixon’s first campaign manager, who said “the purpose of an election is not to defeat an opponent, but to destroy him,” Stone takes a scorched-earth approach that includes promoting conspiracy theories, such as the notion that Lyndon Johnson was behind John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
In the current campaign, he is best known for developing outrageous theories about both Clintons, including much of the material Trump now uses, without proof, to argue that Bill committed many sexual assaults, and somehow it is Mrs. Clinton who should be scorned for enabling him.
Trump wasn’t born poor. In fact his father was one of the richest men in America. However, he was an outer borough kind of fellow who found himself snubbed by Manhattan society, and this rejection hurt. In the early 1970s, ironically enough, the Nixon administration charged his family firm with discrimination against black applicants for apartments. Trump responded with pugnacious aggression, claiming “reverse discrimination” in a lawsuit that was soon dismissed.
Later came reports of his prejudicial view of Jews and African-Americans and a stream of his own racially insensitive remarks. Having received an admiring letter from the ex-president himself – “whenever you decide to run for office you’ll be a winner!” – Trump began to express himself as a Nixon-like law-and-order tough guy as he bought newspaper ads to advocate for the death penalty. He expressed resentment over affirmative action and opposed marriage equality for gays and lesbians.
During the current presidential race, Trump has borrowed one of Nixon’s catch phrases, calling his supporters the “silent majority.” Like Nixon, who said he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam war, Trump says he has a secret plan to defeat ISIS.
His main campaign theme of “Make America Great Again” evokes nostalgia for the 1950s, when the United States dominated world affairs and heterosexual white males enjoyed unchallenged primacy. In Trump’s view, as in Nixon’s, rivals are enemies who lurk everywhere and form wicked conspiracies.
In a recent campaign speech, Trump gathered all of his enemies together and described them as participants in a vast conspiracy intended not only to defeat him, but to destroy the country. Clinton resides at the heart of the conspiracy because, he said, she “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends, and her donors.”
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Historically, the term “international banks” has been modified with the word “Jewish” by those who seek to exploit anti-Semitism for political purposes. Today, just as overt racism is socially unacceptable, anti-Semitic views about international finance are beyond the pale. But there’s no mistaking the dog whistle signal Trump offered as he spoke of a “small handful of global special interests rigging the system.”
At the Florida rally where Trump made these accusations, he was interrupted several times by cries of “Lock her up! Lock her up!” The chant echoed Trump’s promise that, if elected, he will seek his opponent’s prosecution and imprisonment. Trump’s threat, which defies our democratic traditions, went beyond anything Nixon ever said, even though he did seek to use the government to punish his enemies. Trump, who seems willing to take Nixonism to its logical end, might consider how it worked out for the man who created the art form.