So now the big word is “Nixonian.”
To recap: President Donald Trump recently fired FBI director James Comey, who was subsequently reported to have written a memo alleging that the president had asked him to shutter an investigation into the Russia-related activities of General Michael Flynn in his capacity as a senior advisor to the Trump campaign, but previous to his being hired for, then fired from, the post of national security advisor. In typical knee-jerk, media-frenzy fashion, this has everybody screaming “Watergate!” and equating Trump with Richard Nixon, the only one of his predecessors who resigned from his office rather than face impeachment for abusing its vast powers.
This is ridiculous. There are numerous key ways in which Trump bears absolutely no resemblance to Nixon, and it is a disservice both to historical record and current debate to ignore the distinctions. To name just a few:
Nixon had tremendous intelligence. As a high school senior, he received a full scholarship to Harvard, and later a full scholarship to Duke Law School. Throughout his life, he was routinely described by friend and foe as “brilliant.” Of course, many people criticized many of Nixon’s policies. But no one ever suspected him of an inability to grasp what policies were or how they came to be made.
Nixon was a truly self-made man. Notwithstanding that scholarship, Nixon didn’t actually go to Harvard, but rather to the far less illustrious Whittier College, close to home. His family simply couldn’t pay for his trip from California to Massachusetts, nor his living expenses once he got there. By many accounts, this disappointment seeded a lifelong bitterness and resentment that came to darken his character and perhaps to foster future misdeeds. But it also indicates just how far Nixon came in life, entirely on his own steam.
Before becoming President, Nixon had serious government experience. By the time he entered the White House, Nixon had served as a Congressman, a U.S. Senator, and a two-term vice president, in which capacity he had traveled to Asia, Africa, South America and the Soviet Union; informally debated Nikita Khrushchev, and helped to get the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through the Senate.
For much of his presidency, Nixon led a highly effective White House. Until he sunk it in scandal in his second term, Nixon’s White House worked, both in the sense of functioning and in the sense of achieving. The left may never forgive Nixon for giving Henry Kissinger the keys to U.S.. foreign policy. The right still hates him for placing the domestic-policy playbook in the charge of then-nascent Democratic lion Daniel Patrick Moynihan. One may love, hate or otherwise argue about the Environmental Protection Agency, affirmative action, Title IX, a vastly expanded social safety net, the normalization of relations with China, the desegregation of schools, the war on drugs, the war on cancer, or any number of other things that Nixon did as president. But one cannot remotely equate him with a chief executive who, from day one, by dint of his own missteps and misstatements, has prevented himself from doing anything.
Nixon had moments of real personal integrity. Although it would make for a convenient contrast with Trump, I'm not counting the fact that Nixon was married to the same woman for 53 years because a) bad marriages can happen to good people and b) for political reasons he bragged about keeping Pat in crummy cloth coats. But how about this: Having been born a Quaker, Nixon could have opted out of military service in World War II. Instead, he joined the Navy and ended up in the South Pacific. Can you imagine a young Donald Trump doing that?
Needless to say, these and all of Nixon’s admirable traits were compromised by years of red-baiting and dirty tricks, and then totally crushed under the weight of Watergate. All that intelligence, all that experience, all those achievements and potential achievements were washed away in a criminally paranoid sea.
That’s the great tragedy of Nixon: He allowed his negative characteristics so completely to overwhelm the many aspects of his public life that were inarguably positive.
The tragedy of Trump, by contrast, is that he seems to have no positive characteristics, at least as it relates to the presidency. Then again, in the classical sense, that can hardly be called a tragedy, for that would require a great moral height to fall from. Technically speaking, then, it's mere abomination.
Unable to bring myself to salivate at the prospect of the demise of any American president, I still hope against hope that there turn out to be no grounds to impeach this one. I still hope against hope that there will surface some reason, at some point, to applaud him for something. But so far, Trump has demonstrated much in the way of paranoia, little in the way of smarts. He is alive to every personal slight, yet blind to political nuance. His is a grimace without gravitas.
So yes, Donald Trump is very much like Richard Nixon —- without the trip to China.