Politics & Policy

Nixon the Populist Technocrat

NIxon on the campaign trail in September 1968 (National Archives)
Like Trump, he knew how to appeal to blue-collar voters and was not strongly ideological.

Richard Nixon might have been right at home in the bully-boy politics of today. As a young candidate, Nixon conducted what he called “rock ’em, sock ’em” campaigns. Donald Trump sometimes seems to be channeling Nixon in his pursuit of “the silent majority,” a phrase coined by Nixon. Trump would be lucky to do as well as Nixon did in attracting voters with his populist rhetoric. While winning a second term in a landslide in 1972, Nixon got the votes of 35 percent of self-described Democrats — many of them lower-middle-class blue-collar whites.

Trump also seems to suggest that he would be like Nixon in another way: as a deal maker. This side of Nixon sometimes gets overlooked, but it is worth examining as Republicans (and possible the country as a whole come November) contemplate whether Trump would be a good president.

As president, Nixon was willing to compromise. Democrats controlled Congress, so Nixon worked with their leaders to pass a raft of environmental and social-welfare legislation. In part, Nixon was being politically opportunistic. Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine hoped to ride the nascent environmental movement to the Democratic presidential nomination and the White House in 1972. Nixon saw a chance to outflank Muskie by creating the Environmental Protection Agency. Nixon was not just posturing — he really did want to get things done. In his crafty way, Nixon was willing to outmaneuver his own subordinates. He told Chris DeMuth, a young aide assigned to write up the new environmental-law regulations (and later president of the American Enterprise Institute), to steer clear of Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans, a prolific Nixon fund-raiser who was closely allied with big industry. “I’ll take care of Stans,” said Nixon, and he did, keeping him away from the rule-making process.

#share#Nixon’s capacity to play to the emotions of voters while still governing effectively was best displayed in his approach to civil rights. In 1968 and 1972, Nixon employed what was called the GOP’s “southern strategy.” Appealing to southern Democrats (then the majority), Nixon loudly inveighed against forced busing to integrate schools. To liberals, he seemed to be pandering to racists. But with Nixon it was important, as his attorney general, John Mitchell, said, “to watch what we do, not what we say.” Working quietly behind the scenes to overcome resistance to federal court orders, Nixon set up citizens’ committees in each of the Deep South states to integrate the schools. When Nixon became president, 70 percent of black kids in the Deep South attended segregated schools. Within three years only 10 percent did.

Nixon saw that times and circumstances change and political principles need to be flexible.

Perhaps in today’s noisy and instantaneous media environment, Nixon could not have gotten away with such politically deft sleight of hand. Nixon, who was always muttering that “the press is the enemy,” did not have to contend with bloggers or cable-news talking heads. Nixon wrote many of his own speeches (including the “silent majority” speech) but was cunning about using the right speechwriter to set the tone he wanted in any particular moment — Pat Buchanan for red-meat populism, Ray Price for high-minded good governance. Still, sometimes he was too clever by half, especially when trying to be both a hawk and a dove on Vietnam.

#related#Nixon was a deep student of political philosophy and the history of political power. He read far more than most politicians, with the possible exception of Theodore Roosevelt and the early Founders. Partly because he preferred his own company, he would often retreat to his hideaway or the Lincoln Sitting Room with his books and yellow legal pad (his “best friend,” joked his aides). Nixon, who claimed to hate Harvard but appointed Harvard professors to be his chief advisers on domestic and foreign affairs (Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Henry Kissinger, respectively), liked to talk about Benjamin Disraeli with Moynihan, who had given Nixon a copy of a biography of the 19th-century British statesman. Nixon particularly appreciated the way Disraeli, a member of the conservative Tory party, outfoxed his liberal foes by stealing their thunder as a social reformer. Nixon saw that times and circumstances change and political principles need to be flexible. Hence the arch-anti-Communist Nixon went to China to negotiate with Mao Tse-Tung and went to Russia to personally negotiate the first strategic-arms-limitation treaty. Nixon learned by studying the past. But, of course, he was all too human and did not always learn well. He claimed to have read all ten volumes of the Hay and Nicolay biography of Abraham Lincoln. Somehow, he missed one of the main themes: Don’t hold grudges.

In the end, Nixon’s insecurities cancelled out his political wiliness, and he destroyed himself in the Watergate scandal. Though Trump would never compare himself to Nixon, he seems to be running as the same kind of leader: a rough, tough, populist deal-maker. Voters will have to decide if Trump is just as good — or just as bad.

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