If you had asked me in, say, 2003–as we were waging war in Iraq–whether I would ever look back on the Presidency of George W. Bush with anything less than disgust, I’d have suggested a mental health checkup. If someone had argued that, in retrospect, Richard Nixon had his good points, I’d have gagged.
But here we are.
George W. wasn’t–as the saying goes–the brightest bulb, and at times his religiosity tended to overcome his fidelity to the Constitution–but he listened to the people around him (granted, several were unfortunate choices) not his “gut,” and his faith was evidently sincere. His official performance left a lot to be desired, but when he left the Oval Office, the country was still standing. (Talk about a low bar–but still…) And he’s been a pretty decent former President.
Nixon was actually smart. True, he was paranoid and racist, but he was really good on environmental policy and worked (unsuccessfully) to improve the social safety net. As Paul Krugman recently wrote
Donald Trump isn’t Richard Nixon — he’s much, much worse. And America 2020 isn’t America 1970: We’re a better nation in many ways, but our democracy is far more fragile thanks to the utter corruption of the Republican Party.
The Trump-Nixon comparisons are obvious. Like Nixon, Trump has exploited white backlash for political gain. Like Nixon, Trump evidently believes that laws apply only to the little people.
Nixon, however, doesn’t seem to have been a coward. Amid mass demonstrations, he didn’t cower in the MAGAbunker, venturing out only after his minions had gassed peaceful protesters and driven them out of Lafayette Park. Instead, he went out to talk to protesters at the Lincoln Memorial. His behavior was a bit weird, but it wasn’t craven.
And while his political strategy was cynical and ruthless, Nixon was a smart, hard-working man who took the job of being president seriously.
His policy legacy was surprisingly positive — in particular, he did more than any other president, before or since, to protect the environment. Before Watergate took him down he was working on a plan to expand health insurance coverage that in many ways anticipated Obamacare.
As Krugman–and many others–have pointed out, the most relevant difference between “then” (the 60s) and now is the profound change in the Republican Party and the spinelessness and lack of integrity of the people the GOP has elected. Yes, Trump is a much worse human being than even Richard Nixon; but the real problem lies with his enablers.
Trump’s unfitness for office, his obvious mental illness and intellectual deficits, his authoritarian instincts and racial and religious bigotries have all been on display since he first rode down that ridiculous escalator. But aside from a small band of “Never Trumpers,” today’s Republican Party has been perfectly happy to abandon its purported devotion to the Constitution and the rule of law–not to mention free trade– in return for the power to enrich its donors and appoint judges who will ensure the continued dominance of white Christian males.
The good news is that the GOP is a significantly smaller party than it was in Nixon’s day. According to Pew,
In Pew Research Center surveys conducted in 2017, 37% of registered voters identified as independents, 33% as Democrats and 26% as Republicans. When the partisan leanings of independents are taken into account, 50% either identify as Democrats or lean Democratic; 42% identify as Republicans or lean Republican.
The 8-percentage-point Democratic advantage in leaned partisan identification is wider than at any point since 2009, and a statistically significant shift since 2016, when Democrats had a 4-point edge (48% to 44%).
As utterly depressing as it is to see 42% of our fellow Americans still claiming allegiance to a political party that has shown itself to be unmoored from its principles and origins–and for that matter, antagonistic to fundamental American values–the fact remains that more people reject the party of white supremacy than embrace it.
Republicans who supported Nixon in the 60s rarely defend him these days. It will be interesting to see how today’s 42% remember their loyalties fifty years from now.
Assuming, of course, that we still have a country (and a planet) when the devastation wrought by this administration clears….