early and often

Is Trump the New Nixon?

Twin nightmares for every old liberal. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Dirck Halstead/Getty Images, Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Among both his friends and his enemies, there is a tendency to think of Donald Trump as sui generis: a political figure, and certainly a president, unlike any other. In some respects, including his incessant mendacity and his tendency to publicly insult everyone who doesn’t bow down to him, he may truly be without equal in U.S. history and more comparable to foreign political strongmen from Juan Perón to Viktor Orban.

But at the New York Times, Ross Barkan suggests that as Trump pursues a comeback after his 2020 defeat (which, of course, he will not acknowledge), he may actually resemble a highly controversial 20th-century predecessor: Richard Nixon. The 37th president, like the 45th, survived periodic dismissal as a loser (Nixon narrowly lost the 1960 presidential contest to John F. Kennedy and then was upset two years later in a bid for the California governorship). And when Nixon made his comeback in 1968, he faced intraparty competition from both the left and the right, as well as from large-state governors just as formidable as today’s Trump rival Ron DeSantis. Barkan writes:

Mr. Trump today, like mid-’60s Nixon, has reasserted himself as a party kingpin. Now he, too, is contending with a popular governor from a large swing state.

In the 1968 G.O.P. primary, Nixon had to outflank three prominent Republican governors — George Romney of Michigan, Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Ronald Reagan of California — who could offer, in the immediate term at least, more allure.

In both cases, Barkan argues, the familiar if much-derided retreads benefited from divided opposition:

Just as a divided primary field worked to Nixon’s advantage, so it may for Mr. Trump, especially if several other candidates become viable. In such a scenario, Mr. Trump may need only pluralities in pivotal early states to take the nomination. His core fan base might be enough.

Some comparisons between these two Republican presidents are both compelling and intriguing. They both have aroused a particularly visceral — and fully reciprocated — hostility from liberals and the mainstream news media. They both introduced highly new and virulent cultural issues into national politics. They both were identified with the conservative movement but were often ideologically flexible when political opportunism demanded it. They both (in Nixon’s case, after his 1968 comeback, to be sure) abused and sought to massively expand presidential powers. And they both faced rare impeachment efforts (Nixon resigned before a near-certain House impeachment; Trump was impeached twice by the House and acquitted twice by the Senate).

But beyond that the Nixon ’68/Trump ’24 comparisons are at best strained. For one thing, the near-universal primaries that characterized presidential-nomination contests after 1972 weren’t in place four years earlier. Additionally, Nixon’s Republican rivals ran erratic and poorly timed campaigns. George Romney’s candidacy lasted just over three months; he dropped out before the New Hampshire primary after registering terrible numbers against Nixon. Nelson Rockefeller didn’t join the 1968 race until the end of April — too late to enter most of the remaining primaries — and mostly depended on electability-based appeals to Republican-convention delegates. And Reagan didn’t enter the race until the eve of that convention; his pincer move to work with Rockefeller to deny Nixon the nomination failed. There was nothing like the large and persistent field of primary rivals Trump overcame in 2016 and now faces (at this point in the cycle, at least) in 2024, led by the extremely well-financed and relatively well-known DeSantis.

The dynamics of the general elections of 1968 and 2024, moreover, are dramatically different. Nixon benefited from a highly unstable partisan landscape. The Democratic Party that swept the 1964 presidential election under Lyndon Johnson was steadily coming apart. As Barkan notes, Nixon had to compete in southern states with George Wallace’s right-wing crypto-segregationist ticket, deploying racially inflammatory “law and order” themes that indeed established demagogic models still being emulated by today’s Republicans. But most of Wallace’s voters, like Wallace himself, were ex-Democrats leaving their ancestral party. And Democratic divisions to the left (over the Vietnam War) and to the right (over civil rights) of Nixon made it possible for Tricky Dick to run as something of a centrist; a considerable number of anti-war Democrats and independents who didn’t trust Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey to end the conflict took a chance on Nixon, who claimed to have a “secret plan” to end the war.

Needless to say, Trump will not be perceived as any kind of centrist in the 2024 general election. And indeed, unlike Nixon, if he is again the GOP nominee, Trump will benefit from a deeply stable political environment in which mobilizing a large and increasingly extremist party base will get him very close to what he needs to win, though perhaps while losing the popular vote as he did in 2016 (Nixon, meanwhile won a plurality of the popular vote in 1968).

A final and most obvious difference between the two men is that after winning the presidency in 1968, Nixon went on to win reelection by a landslide in 1972; unless he undertakes a coup, Trump is done after 2024. And it’s very unlikely any Republican presidential candidate will win a landslide in the foreseeable future, given the party’s reluctance to change its ideology to expand its base. If he does win a second term in 2024, it remains to be seen if Trump will wind up, like Nixon, a disgraced figure needing a pardon.

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Is Trump the New Nixon?