If you Google the question “Is Trump like Nixon?” you get something like four million results, mostly answering “yes.” But we weren’t so sure about that, so we checked with Rick Perlstein. He wrote the book Nixonland, and his most recent is The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. This interview has been edited and condensed; listen to the full interview on the Start Making Sense podcast.
JW: Trump is not like Nixon in some important ways. I want to bounce a few of those off of you: did Richard Nixon start off in business with a 14 million dollar loan from his father?
RP He was born in a house his father built, he said in the famous first line in his autobiography. Then in his farewell speech to the White House staff, he said his dad had a lemon grove and it was “the poorest lemon grove in the entire state of California. He sold it—and then they immediately found oil underneath it.” Nixon came from modest circumstances—although he was lying about the oil story. That definitely is something he and Trump do have in common.
JW: Did Richard Nixon run for political office for the first time when he was seventy years old?
RP I believe he was the president of his high school class. He was head of student government at Whittier College. He has a long, long career in politics before he became President: he was Vice President, before that a senator, and before that a congressmen.
JW: Basically, he had no other job for most of his life except being an elected official.
RP He did a brief legal career in Whittier after World War II, but he had a terrible time because he handled divorce cases. Women would come in and describe the problems they suffered at the marital bed, and apparently he found that excruciating.
JW: Finally, did The New York Post ever run a headline quoting a woman who said about Nixon, “best sex I ever had”?
RP I would have to be agnostic about that. I haven’t seen every Post headline. But Hunter S. Thompson did ask Richard Nixon on the campaign trail in New Hampshire in 1968 if he had had his annual orgasm yet.
JW: As for the similarities people see, Howard Fineman wrote in the Huffington Post, “Trump portrays the media as the enemy of the American people”—and that’s like Nixon. Do you agree?
RP Both certainly believed that. But, Nixon would never say such a thing publicly. He would send out his Vice President to say it. Nixon was a disciplined and shrewd politician who knew when to play his hand and when to hold his cards close to his breast, which Donald Trump has absolutely no ability to do.