If you want to annoy Donald Trump, one simple trick is to mention his disgraced predecessor Richard Nixon. On Thursday, CNN reported that Trump has banned any mention of Nixon in the White House. “He told one adviser during an expletive-laden conversation recently never to bring up the ex-president ever again,” the cable news network noted. “During the passing mention of resigning this week, Trump told people he couldn’t count on Vice President Mike Pence to pardon him like Gerald Ford did Nixon, anyway.”
Trump’s Nixon allergy is understandable. As the only president to be impeached twice, Trump naturally doesn’t want to be reminded of Nixon’s fate. Nixon, to be sure, was never impeached, but the threat of impeachment hearings spurred the Republican party elite to abandon Nixon and force his resignation. Trump has good reason to fear that the current impeachment, which is seeing a small but significant number of Republicans breaking partisan ranks against him, is a harbinger of his own diminished political capacity.
After his resignation, Nixon became a nonperson to the GOP. Unlike other former presidents, he never spoke at political conventions, nor was his endorsement of value. He did make a valiant effort to rebrand himself as an elder statesman, penning a string of books offering foreign policy advice. But as a political force, he was dead.
This is a fate Trump hopes to avoid. There are hints that Trump might want to run again—or at the very least remain a kingmaker in American politics. The impeachment drive is a roadblock to both goals. If the Senate votes to convict, the punishment could include forbidding Trump from running for federal office again. The same goal could be achieved in the Senate with a simple majority using the 14th Amendment, although that is a legally shaky move that might be contested. But even without a conviction, impeachment is weakening Trump’s brand, as resignation did Nixon’s reputation.
Despite Trump’s disavowals, there are many ways in which he deserves to be seen as Nixon’s heir—or, perhaps more harshly but also more accurately, as Nixon’s pale mimic. With his 1968 victory, Nixon initiated the breakup of the long hegemony of New Deal liberalism that started in 1932. A transitional figure, Nixon was the first post–New Deal president to bring into his inner circle figures of the hard right (notably Vice President Spiro Agnew and Pat Buchanan), although he balanced them with more liberal advisers like Elliot Richardson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Nixon ran on reactionary slogans like “law and order” and “the silent majority” that Trump still echoes.
It’s hardly an accident that Trump’s political mentor was Roy Cohn (whom Nixon knew as a fellow Red-hunter in the McCarthy era). Trump’s oldest political friend is Roger Stone, who cut his teeth doing dirty tricks for Nixon’s 1972 election. The pardon that Trump granted to Stone shows the continuity of Republican politics over more than five decades.
Trump is really the tail end of the Nixon era, perhaps the last dying gasp of the sort of backlash politics that Nixon perfected. But if Trump is a Nixonian president, he’s also a much less complex and compelling figure.
As befits a giant who started a political era, Nixon lives on in the imagination. Nixon was devious but that also meant he was complex. He was many-faceted, and the same intelligence he brought to political crimes was on occasion used to good purposes. Compare the way Nixon outwitted the national security establishment to open up relations with China with the way Trump was constantly hemmed in by the foreign policy elite when he pushed to withdraw from Afghanistan and Syria.
After Nixon died in 1994, my colleague Katha Pollitt wrote a brilliant obituary in which she argued that “Nixon really was the last President. He was the last Leader of the Free World who controlled events rather than being controlled by them, who acted—albeit deplorably, deceitfully, disastrously—in his own person rather than as the tool and mouthpiece of organized economic and political interests. He was the last President who actually had a personality about which it was meaningful to inquire.”
As mindful as anyone of Nixon’s crimes and disastrous policies, Pollitt hit on the quality that makes Nixon imaginatively interesting. It’s hardly a surprise that Nixon belongs to the small cohort of presidents who have consistently engaged creative artists, including a raft of novelists ranging from Robert Coover’s grotesque portrait in his fierce 1977 satire A Public Burning to the more sympathetic portrait in Thomas Mallon’s 2012 Watergate. Not to be outdone, Ann Beattie has given empathetic life to Pat Nixon in Mrs. Nixon (2011). Nixon has also inspired movies from Robert Altman and Oliver Stone, among others. Perhaps equally important, the potent paranoid strain of American cinema in the 1970s, in conspiratorial movies like The Conversation (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975), was an offspring of Nixon’s reign and downfall.
Trump, by contrast, has inspired much comedy, some of it funny (as with Sarah Cooper’s inspired lip syncs) but most of it dire (as in many painful Saturday Night Live skits). But it’s hard to imagine a good novel or movie coming out of Trump. He’s too flat a character, too moved by transparent narcissism, too fundamentally boring. Where Nixon was worthy of Shakespearean dramaturgy, Trump hardly merits more than a five-minute skit.
Trump bristles at being compared to the only president who has ever resigned. But that speaks to Trump’s touchiness and lack of historical awareness. The truth is that Trump is unworthy of even being mentioned in the same breath as Nixon because he lacks any of Nixon’s depth of intellect and complexity of character.