The following is a guest post by Dani Nedal, PhD Candidate at Georgetown University and Predoctoral Fellow at Yale University.
The surprising political ascent of Donald Trump has prompted two contradictory reactions. One is the impulse to declare Trump, and everything about him, “unprecedented” (nay, unpresidented!). The other is to search through history for the appropriate analogies that help explain his rise to power and prepare us for his presidency. Comparisons have been drawn with Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and distant figures like Caligula. Others reject the fascism angle and compare Trump with American populists Andrew Jackson and George McGovern. History can be useful, but can also be misused and misleading. Finding appropriate analogies and understanding their limitations is important. Trump may retweet Mussolini quotes, adopt Nazi slogans, and heap praise on foreign autocrats, but at the end of the day his closest parallel is Richard Nixon. The similarities are many and deep, from personality traits like illeism (referring to themselves in the third person) and vindictiveness, to racist and xenophobic views, campaign strategies, foreign policy doctrine, willingness to engage in borderline treason to win elections, and more. It’s not a coincidence that Trump has a framed letter from Nixon in the Oval Office.
While far more exuberant than the notoriously introspective Nixon, Trump has a few important traits in common with Tricky Dick: pettiness, vindictiveness, and paranoia. Insecurity and a need to assert themselves appear to be key drivers in their pursuit of power, but also in style and tactics. Nixon abused his office to harass political rivals, subordinates, and the media. His paranoia and disregard for the law were his undoing, leading to Watergate. Trump’s pettiness is epic. He voraciously attacks the media, blacklists #NeverTrumpers, threatens to jail his political opponents, forces rivals to kiss his ring, brags about destroying the lives of people who wrong him, and refers to detractors as “enemies”. He has spent more time attacking Rosie O’Donnell than explaining how he plans to defeat ISIS.
Conflict with the intelligence agencies
Nixon and Trump also share a profound disdain for the intelligence community, largely borne out of ego and personal resentment. Nixon felt wronged by CIA assessments of Soviet missile capabilities, which he believed cost him the 1960 race against Kennedy. Trump’s relations with the intelligence community are strained (he doth protest too much) as a result of inquiries into his ties with the Russian government and successive leaks. Nixon referred to the agency as “the clowns in Langley”. Like Trump, he declined to receive daily intelligence briefings, relying instead on his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger (who reportedly enjoys unusual access to Trump).
In office, Nixon often sidelined the Agency and coerced its director Richard Helms to engage in activities that violated the agency’s mandate and federal law. When Helms refused the order to kill the FBI’s investigation into Watergate, Nixon sacked him. Pressed by Congress about CIA involvement in Chilean elections in 1970 under Nixon’s orders, Helms lied to avoid divulging secrets. He was convicted and given a suspended two-year sentence. Trump has already indicated that he will be asking the agency to commit illegal acts such as torture. Trump’s CIA pick Mike Pompeo, whose willingness to carry on such orders is in question will have his work cut out for him.
Activating a “New Majority”
Trump’s path to the White House is also markedly similar to the strategy introduced by Nixon in 1968. While the two men’s political careers could not be more different (Nixon served a US Representative, Senator and Vice President before his first presidential campaign), the campaign strategy that won them the presidency is remarkably similar. Nixon’s campaign targeted what he called the “forgotten Americans”: white rural and urban working classes, alienated by civil rights and welfare policies of Johnson’s “Great Society” and “War on Poverty” and perturbed by the war in Vietnam and the mass protests against it.
Nixon promised his “silent majority” not the radical conservatism of Goldwater, but a right-wing populist vision of an end to the war in Vietnam, “law and order”, “national unity”, “jobs”, and social stabilization. Instead of attacking welfare recipients, he attacked the welfare bureaucracy. He attacked the ruling elites. He promised policies targeted at the white working class, not the poor or racial minorities. He courted labor unions, and spoke of an impending “massive crisis” in the healthcare system. Like Nixon, Trump capitalized on white status anxieties and ditched unpopular elements of conservatism and economic elitism of mainstream Republicans, in favor of a populist approach. He parroted Nixon’s strategy dutifully. Where reality had made the talking points obsolete, facts were actively ignored. When Nixon was campaigning on law and order, crime rates were at a historic high and rising. Trump’s alarmist dog-whistle rhetoric comes at a time when crime rates have generally been at their lowest point in recent history. Armies of fact checkers couldn’t move Trump off message.
At the international level too, the most appropriate comparison is also not the 1930s, with its Great Depression and the rise of fascism, but the 1970s. The decade witnessed a global backlash to the revolutions of 1968 and the stresses imposed by transition into the post-industrial age. The general trend, much like today, was one of gradual improvements in quality of life, interdependence, and political liberties. But progress slowed and major economies stagnated. Democratic backsliding, revolutions and coups were common. There was no global war, but transnational terrorism proliferated. The Western alliance was beset by economic competition and a crisis of confidence in the US. The Cold War seemed to be over and there was profound uncertainty about the future. There was a Trudeau in charge in Canada, an Assad in Syria, and a Park in South Korea. People bought vinyl records. Today we also see a backlash against globalization at the very core of the capitalist system (unlike the backlash in the late 1990s), and uncertainty about the global balance of power and the postwar order.
Trump’s similarities with Nixon in the realm of foreign policy are the most extensive and troubling. Trump’s doctrine of America First has been characterized as “transactionalist”, focused on short-term gains and devoid of moral content, distinct from ambitious “transformational” leaders. Others characterize Trump as a realist (or hope he embraces realism). Whether or not realist scholars are willing to label Trump a realist, the Trump Doctrine, in all its troubling aspects, is thoroughly Nixonian.
Trump’s suggestion that US allies like South Korea and Japan may be allowed to have their own nuclear deterrents finds precedent in Nixon’s leniency with allies (Japan, South Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and South Africa) on nuclear proliferation. The same can be said for Trump’s desire for a nuclear build up and sanguine attitude regarding nuclear arms races. Despite having presided over the US signing of the NPT, SALT, and the ABM Treaty, Nixon’s attitude toward arms control and non-proliferation oscillated between indifference and loathing. This attitude was partly informed by skepticism about the revolutionary character of nuclear weapons, but also by cynical views on international treaties, another trait shared with Trump.
The Nixon doctrine was also remarkable for its emphasis on stability and rejection of the liberal vision of development and democracy promotion that was articulated (at least rhetorically) by Democrats before him. Trump is equally skeptical of democracy promotion and development assistance, and has articulated a plan to abandon those efforts. For Nixon, stability often meant close partnerships with autocrats in “key countries”. Trump praising Putin and embracing Bashar al-Assad rings echoes of Nixon’s support for dictators around the world, from Congo’s Mobutu, to Brazil’s military junta, to the Shah. Of course, Nixon wasn’t the first or last president to support autocrats, but he did it with unprecedented enthusiasm and vigor. We can expect the same from Trump.
Trump’s disregard for human life and willingness to use excessive force, including nuclear weapons, against ISIS also find precedent in Nixon. Nixon was convinced only he had the guts to do what it took in Vietnam, by which he meant bomb the entirety of North Vietnam with everything the US could muster, including nuclear weapons if necessary, to win the war. These weren’t just threats issued for the Soviet Union’s benefit in true “madman strategy” fashion (a strategy Trump appears to favor), but a reflection of the his ruthlessness and contempt for the laws of conduct in war.
For many, Trump’s desire for a rapprochement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin whiffs of appeasement, a heavily loaded term. But it also closely resembles Nixon’s policy of détente with the USSR. Nixon was cynical and disdainful of communism, yet nevertheless sought a dialogue with Moscow based not just on a confluence of interests, but also on personal relationships, often pursued through backchannels (even before taking office) to buttress state-to-state negotiations. In this vein, he sought a relationship with Brezhnev.
While Nixon often stressed that détente would not be pursued to the detriment of the Western alliance, in practice his tendency towards bilateralism and secrecy left NATO allies feeling marginalized. America’s European allies today are expressing similar fears of abandonment under the Trump-Putin bromance rapprochement. Trump’s complaints about US allies “not paying their share” and consequences for the balance of payments have been largely debunked by most angles. But his response will recall the Nixon Doctrine, by which allies are expected to contribute more of the money and manpower for their defense, while the US supplies technological assistance and arms (often at a steep price for allies).
Nixon didn’t just push allies to pay more for their defense; he also used leveraged security linkages to address imbalances in the balance of payments. Like Trump, he thought of international economics as just another area in which states compete and where American dominance was fading. To redress this, Nixon introduced in August 1971 a series of policies, devised in secret and announced abruptly, known as the Nixon shocks. The US forced Japan and Germany to revalue their currencies vis-à-vis the US dollar, and unilaterally declared that the dollar would no longer be convertible into gold, marking the death of the dollar-gold standard that undergirded the Bretton Woods system. He also forced Japan to settle trade disputes, adopt “voluntary restraints” on exports to the US, and reduce barriers to American imports. He imposed a 10% tariff on imports until more favorable exchange rates had been negotiated, and introduced price and wage controls to curb the inflationary effects.
The Nixon shocks were driven by pressures similar to the ones that animate Trump’s protectionism, but today’s economic landscape looks very different from that of 1971. More importantly, the Nixon shocks were a bait and switch. While at the time supporters of the embedded liberal order worried that Nixon was caving to protectionist interests, and workers were temporarily mollified by the short-term gains, Nixon’s economic policies had the precise opposite effect, producing further trade and financial globalization, and doing little to arrest the growing interdependence that had produced protectionist demands. Trump has clearly modeled his approach to foreign economic policy on Nixon’s, but without taking into account the changes in the nature of the global economy. He has suggested that the US could default on its foreign debt , start a trade war with China, renegotiate NAFTA and other trade arrangements, and impose surcharges on imports to coerce countries to adjust their policies to his liking. Like Nixon, while his rhetoric may be populist, he has power, not the people, at heart. Trump’s goal is not to unmake the postwar global order, but to reshape it to halt and revert a perceived decline of American power and prestige. Like Nixon, his policies are likely to backfire.
But Trump is no Nixon
We live in an age of reboots and remakes. Everything old is new again, but never quite as good. There is a reason why Trump’s rhetoric and policies often feel outdated. That’s because he is cribbing from a forty-year old playbook. For all the talk about Trump being unprecedented, there is little originality about him. His speeches, policies, and cakes are all imperfect copies. Like most remakes, Trump can count on nostalgia for instant popularity, but fails to deliver upon closer inspection. The differences between Trump and Nixon make him all the more dangerous. Nixon, despite many faults, was an intelligent individual. Trump is “like a smart person”. Nixon was also a committed Republican partisan who still cared a great deal about the party’s electoral future. Trump has no such allegiances and has proven willing to confront the RNC head on, leaving him to pursue his goals with no regard for the fate of the party and its members. Unpolished and unfettered, this Nixon remake will likely prove more disastrous than the original.