It occurred to me that a possible precedent for Donald Trump might be none other than Richard Nixon. Now I think that Nixon was a far more intelligent man than Trump, and, for all his sins, a person of superior moral character to Trump. [Nixon’s most serious moral failing was deciding to cover up the Watergate break-in after he found out about it, and perhaps creating a climate of paranoia in which break-ins like that could happen]. In this case, democracy worked. As I said in “Andrew Sullivan on Trump”, dangers of authoritarian dictatorship are not rare in this country, but the White House is the least likely place for a dictatorship to be based.
Nixon was held in high regard by many conservatives, but he was not one of them. He did nothing to reverse Medicare or any of the other achievements of the Great Society. His policies gave us the Environmental Protection Administration and the Clean Air Act of 1970. Even more notorious, from a conservative point of view, was his declaration of August 15, 1971, removing the United States from the gold standard [giving us the system of floating exchange rates that we still have] and imposing wage and price controls, which I remember causing higher gas prices and toilet paper shortages before the great oil boycott of 1973 really began to settle in. His popularity, especially in the early stages of his career, was based on anti-Communism; an important part of conservative ideology in those days, but being anti-Communist in and of itself did not a conservative make. He continued the Vietnam War largely for that reason, though, in one of his most distinguished moves, he, under the influence of Kissinger the realist, went hat-in-hand to China in 1971 in order to strengthen its detachment from the Soviet bloc. [After Vietnam annexed South Vietnam, it proved to be a Soviet ally rather than a Chinese one until the Soviet Union dissolved.]
Rick Perlstein, in his book Nixonland, writes about how at Whittier College Nixon was excluded from the best clubs [Whittier’s equivalent of fraternities] and helped form a new one, the Orthogonians, for the losers. Ever since, Perlstein said, Nixon, though not an orthodox conservative, was able to play on the resentment of many of the public concerning ‘elites’, which also included war protesters and ‘hippies’. He originated the phrase Silent Majority, concerning which Blue Kennel often likes to quote Francis Schaeffer. This, by the way, was before what we think of as the ‘social issues’ really began to surface. Though Nixon’s team used the slogan of “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion” against McGovern, not long after McGovern was defeated, Roe vs Wade was enacted, partly by justices appointed by Nixon. Catholics led the ‘pro-life’ movement in those days, and it was a bipartisan movement; it took the Schaeffers, with their video series Whatever Happened to the Human Race? to move Evangelicals to take an interest in issues like abortion and euthanasia: this coincided suspiciously with an attack on newer Christian private schools by the Internal Revenue Service, which declared new private schools ‘guilty till proven innocent’ this being civil law, as I have pointed out of being ‘segregation academies’. Some of them had been, but more, as time went on, were intended to ‘segregate’ the kids from the culture, and not from people of other races.
Evangelicals also became disillusioned with Jimmie Carter on other matters like the U.S. Government sponsorship of the ‘Council on Families’ in 1979 and his turning back the leased Canal Zone to Panama. And by 1980 the new alliance of white evangelicals and Republicans was in place. [Black evangelicals did not follow, though their social views were increasingly marginalized in the Democratic Party and only came to the surface in non-partisan contests such as California’s Proposition 8.]
And, if Michael Lind has declared, the ‘social issues’ are off the table now, why would not a possible future look somewhat like the situation just before they were on the table? That was the Nixon era. When the ‘hardhats’ were beating up the ‘hippies’ in 1969, abortion and euthanasia were not particularly on the minds of either. Nor was homosexuality much on their minds, except to the extent that the ‘hardhats’ (a) thought long hair effeminate, and (b) had sexual envy and resentment of the ‘hippies’’ supposed habits. I used to find myself saying, “Why does everyone think we’re more polarized than ever now? Does no one remember 1968-69, with the Chicago ‘police riots’ and the hardhats beating up the hippies?” Well, it looks like 1969 has come back to us.
It turns out that I am not the only one to compare Nixon with Trump: Here are a few others.