Donald Trump is the new Richard Nixon – without the brains

Like Trump, Nixon blamed the media for most things that went wrong with his political career. The key difference is that Trump doesn't have quite the same political experience as Nixon did

Sean O'Grady
Friday 17 February 2017 14:59 GMT
Donald Trump is the new Richard Nixon

I was bemused watching Donald Trump’s first news conference. Where, I wondered, have I heard this sort of thing before?

Where before have I come across an American president obsessed to the point of insanity with what the press writes about him and how the TV news reports his actions? A man who is engaged in a war with the media? A president who is obsessed with conspiracies, and with a determination to end the “leaks” that were undermining his authority and, as he sees it, national security?

Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the USA. He is compellingly reminiscent of Trump, but with many more redeeming features.

Donald Trump denies 'ranting and raving', attacking media, Clinton, Democrats

Nixon too was at war with the media, and made no bones about it. His White House famously had a “master list” of political opponents – including many journalists.

Like Trump, Nixon blamed the media for most things that went wrong with his political career. However, maybe Nixon’s paranoia did have more grounding in reality than Trump’s, or than history has given him credit for. After all, it was journalists Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post that brought him down.

In a press conference on 26 October 1973, Nixon said of the American press that in all his years in public life, he had never seen such “distorted”, “frantic”, “hysterical” reporting, which was shaking people’s faith in the American system. He had zero respect for the media, and told them so. He appealed directly to the television audience in an infamous quote, to tell them: “People have got to know whether their president’s a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.”

Like Trump, Nixon shared the belief that the likes of the Washington Post and the New York Times were biased and out to “get” him, above all treating him unfairly in the 1960 presidential contest with Jack Kennedy, and his failed comeback in a contest to become Governor of California in 1962.

When he lost this vote, conceding defeat, Nixon came down from his hotel room in the early hours, exhausted, over-wrought and wrathful, and gave the gathered representatives of the newspapers both barrels. In a Trump-esque lecture on their failings, he ended with the observation that they would miss the fun they had had at his expense: “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

Of course his 1962 outburst was far from his last appearance in the press. Like Trump, Nixon was badly disfigured by an insecurity that, in essence, led to his fall from grace in the Watergate affair. One wonders whether the same will happen to Trump – coupled with an overweening sense of the power of the “imperial presidency” – until the courts, Congress and, yes, the media choose to challenge him on legal, moral and constitutional grounds.

Amateur psychology, maybe, but one can easily detect the same sort of inner fragility in Nixon than in the outwardly bombastic and ever-boastful Trump. The current President, too, over-estimates the power of his office (Nixon went so far as to try to develop a doctrine that “if the president does it, it’s legal” when he was in power).

Why else, other than some deep-seated insecurity, does Trump keep wanting to remind everyone about how he won the campaign, despite the media? Why does he feel the need, long after the campaign proper is over, to carry on appearing at rallies to adoring, chanting crowds? Like his poring over his media coverage, or getting wound up about Alec Baldwin’s hilarious renditions of him on Saturday Night Live, President Trump should have better things to do. He seems to be forgetting to get on with his sometimes tedious day job, and, as a result, making the sort of elementary errors that Nixon did, albeit in a different sphere.

Nixon was an experienced figure who had met and learned much from most of the world’s leaders, from Winston Churchill to the Shah of Iran, before he was elected President, who had served as Vice President, Congressman and Senator, who was a gifted lawyer and debated with Nikita Khrushchev on TV, and had a much surer touch about his cabinet appointments – Henry Kissinger, for example. Trump doesn’t have quite the same experience, skill or credentials. Both men would keep a faculty of psychologists busy, but essentially Trump is Nixon without the brains. That’s not so smart, as Trump himself might say.

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