Donald Trump’s dark inner Richard Nixon
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Now we can be sure. Donald Trump will never tack to the middle. “Let Trump be Trump,” is his team’s new motto, which is baffling since he has not tried anything else. By recruiting Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News, the far right conservative website, to run his campaign, Mr Trump has banished whatever doubts still lingered: his White House bid is chiefly about inciting white resentment. For the next 10 weeks, he will trigger every dark fear he can find. It has been more than a generation since Richard Nixon ended America’s “long national nightmare” by resigning the presidency. Mr Trump’s version still has a way to go. There is little reason to think it would come to an end if he lost.
The former reality television star’s debt to Nixon is as much about psychology as ideology. America’s 37th president collected resentments like philatelists do stamps. Nixon never met a grudge he did not want to nurse. Roger Ailes, the disgraced founder of Fox News, made his name by training Nixon to smile more and treat TV as his friend in his winning 1968 campaign. It is no coincidence that Mr Ailes is now coaching Mr Trump for his televised debates with Hillary Clinton. He has his work cut out. Mr Trump may have borrowed Nixon’s 1968 playbook by running a fear-based campaign that appeals to law and order. But today’s silent majority is way less white than it was back then. As an electoral strategy, Mr Trump’s campaign is flirting with suicide.
Yet it works as a media strategy. Nixon believed people respond to fear rather than love. “They don’t teach that in Sunday school — but it’s true,” he said. He also harboured a deep hatred of the elites — the professors, Ivy Leaguers and experts whom Spiro Agnew, his vice-president, called the “effete core of impudent snobs”. Mr Trump is surrounded by people with the same Nixonian grievances. His first mentor, Roy Cohn, the legendary New York lawyer, advised people that you should know the judge not the law. Roger Stone, Mr Trump’s oldest friend with whom he speaks daily, believes “hate is a stronger motivator than love”. Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager, who resigned on Friday, made his fortune as an adviser to paranoid strongmen around the world. Mr Bannon’s website is dominated by conspiracy theories. Now he has a golden chance to turn his paranoia into a presidential campaign. What will it look like?
Nixon’s ghost was already visible in the Trump campaign’s content. Unlike Ronald Reagan, Nixon was happy with big government — he added more federal agencies than any president since. Mr Trump’s success with white middle-class voters derives partly from his pledge to leave federal entitlements, such as social security, in place. Unlike Reagan, Nixon pursued a foreign policy based more on national interest than American values. Such pragmatism enabled him to override the anti-communist hawks and do the historic deal with Mao’s China. Mr Trump’s admiration for autocrats, such as Russian president Vladimir Putin and even North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, shows a similar disregard for US sensibilities. But it was Nixon’s cultural message, the stoking of white middle-class anger, that really feeds Mr Trump. It will increasingly dominate what remains of his campaign.
Is there any way it could succeed? This is where Mr Trump and Nixon part company. The latter was the political genius of his age. Nixon certainly cashed in on white resentment against the civil rights reforms of the 1960s. But even at the peak of his “southern strategy”, he was careful never to express clear racist views. Mr Trump can barely finish a sentence without offending some ethnic group. Nixon also pivoted to the centre after winning the Republican nomination. Mr Trump is doing the opposite. Not only is Mr Trump moving further to the extreme for the general election — a tactic for which there is no precedent in US presidential contests — he also mocks standard practice, such as setting up professional operations in the swing states. Mr Bannon, like Mr Manafort, has no campaign experience. Mr Trump is an outsider, advised by outsiders, appealing to voters who see themselves as outsiders. Nixon would be aghast. This is not how you win elections.
But it is a great way to leverage your brand. Many have doubted whether Mr Trump really expected to win the Republican nomination, let alone have a shot at the presidency. They suspected his candidacy was just another way of boosting the Trump name. In the process, Mr Trump found a huge market of people who respond to white identity politics. In their view, Fox News has become the establishment. Its ousted founder, Mr Ailes, is at a loose end. Mr Trump has 11m Twitter followers, which is a multiple of Fox’s nightly audience. What better response to defeat than to monetise your base by launching a Trump News Channel? Stranger things have happened. Such a venture would convert all those resentments into hard cash. As a media baron, Mr Trump could also play chief thorn in the side of Mrs Clinton’s administration.
There would be a certain poetry to that. Mrs Clinton worked as a legal aide to the Watergate committee that brought down Nixon. All politics is personal in Mr Trump’s world. What more fitting way of completing the circle than avenging the ghost of Nixon?