“The press is the enemy.”
Those words were spoken by President Richard Nixon on December 14, 1972, to his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, and were emblematic of his ongoing war with the Fourth Estate. This showdown, which would see the first resignation by an American president, was a battle fought in the headlines, over press conferences, and in extensive investigations that would bring to light one of the most damning scandals in the country’s history.
When President Donald Trump tweeted this Saturday “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people!” it was met with near-universal scorn and condemnation, some going as far as to say it signaled Trump’s dictatorial leanings, others noting it was the kind of statement the 37th President might have uttered when only the secret tapes in the walls were listening.
The comparisons between the two have mounted in the first weeks of Trump’s presidency. Critiques trend toward a sense of inevitability that this president is destined to collapse in ruin and disgrace, that Trump’s multitude of lies and scandals will eventually catch up to him, possibly much, much faster than Nixon’s demons caught up with him. The similarities run much deeper than their public behavior and instead lie in the motivating factors that made them and their administrations bodies fraught with deep anxieties, not to mention a dangerous paranoia that finds them surrounded by enemies real and imagined.
Born of Poverty and Privilege
For such similar men, Nixon and Trump could not have had more disparate beginnings. Richard Nixon was born to a poor family in California on a failing lemon ranch and had to scramble his entire life to make ends meet while fighting and clawing to climb the ladder of influence. The son of a real estate developer, Donald Trump grew up in privilege in Queens before being gifted a million dollars-some have claimed that “small loan” amounted to $14 million-by his father to expand the family’s business.
However dissimilar their backgrounds, both have been motivated by entrenched insecurities rooted in their outsider statuses: Nixon in his impoverishment and lack of an Ivy League pedigree and Trump in his long-chronicled desire to be accepted by high-society in Manhattan. Both men’s ascensions were feats of will, the result of lifelong obsessions with sticking it in the eye of those who would underestimate them.
Fear of being ostracized spurred them forward, but also instilled in them a necessity to reject any reality that didn’t suit their needs. Both believed the political world was run via cooperation between dynastic families and the fawning press, a silent deal in which they were on the outside looking in. Both rejected negative polls and disagreeable information as fabricated distortions and proof of their enemies nipping at their heels. Both clutched for dear life to their perceived status as victims as they victimized the rest of the world.
The Law And Order President
When Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention speech leaked the afternoon of his address, it didn’t take long for those reading to realize it amounted to the most pessimistic, dark acceptance speech in modern history. The nation Trump planned to portray that night was an apocalyptic wasteland bereft of decency, an America beset by murder and chaos.
“In this race for the White House,” he’d say later, as supporters outside the convention showered him with Nazi salutes, “I am the Law and Order candidate.”
It was rhetoric straight out of the Nixonian playbook, a nod to his 1968 speech where he described “cities enveloped in smoke and flame” and Americans “killing each other at home.”
The difference was that Nixon’s portrait wasn’t entirely inaccurate. The late 1960’s were marked by unrest and violence. There were race riots, bombings, politically motivated murders and beatings. The country felt like it was coming apart at the seams because it was coming apart at the seams.
The America Donald Trump addressed, the country inhabited by the “Silent Majority”—another term cribbed from Nixon—only felt like it was on the verge of collapse. Under President Barack Obama’s steady hand, America had been led back from the edge of economic ruin and crime rates were down across the board. The Republican nominee, however, was operating under the assumption that the manipulative propaganda shoveled by Right Wing media was reality because it most suited his worldview.
In Trump’s world, he, much like Nixon before him, was the last thing standing between the country and murderous anarchy. Life in 2016 America was as rife with lawlessness and disorder as the tumultuous Sixties. In reality, he was running to inherit an America growing healthier by the day.
The marked difference between Nixon and Trump, in this case, is that Nixon recognized the reality of the country while misunderstanding it, and Trump simply invented a crisis to validate his twisted perception. The elections of 1968 and 1972 showed that Nixon’s Silent Majority was, in fact, a majority. Trump’s victory, predicated on the antiquated Electoral College as opposed to a popular mandate, only proved the world he touted was anything but real.
The comparisons between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump are grounded in their embattled, paranoid natures, but fall short when comparing the men themselves. Despite his slew of mistakes, Nixon was a brilliant political mind and capable of great strategic feats. His Triangular Diplomacy positioning Soviet Russia and China against one another is taught in virtually ever political science classroom in the world. Despite a complete lack of charm and a closet full of skeletons, Nixon managed to win reelection and might have survived two terms had it not been for a pair of reporters going above and beyond. His greatest political achievement, it could be argued, was lasting that long.
The Trump we find today, just barely a month into his presidency, is besieged by questions that could very well lead to his demise. Four weeks in and there already exists a framework for impeachment, resignation, or imprisonment. With every press conference, interview, and leak, the hole only gets deeper and we see just how inept Trump is at answering even the simplest questions.
The reason for this discrepancy lies in the nature of these two presidents’ disorders. Nixon’s insecurities were born out of a real and honest inequality. His disadvantaged childhood meant he really did have to work harder than anyone else. Nixon was admitted to Harvard, but had to pass when his brother’s health declined and he was forced to pitch in with the family store. Even his personal life was shaped by this desperation: when his wife Pat initially declined to date him, he’d drive her to Los Angeles to go out with other men just to be near her.
Trump’s personal conquests are well known. They played out on the covers of tabloids as he continually bragged about his sexual exploits. Despite the perceived snub by Manhattanites, Trump’s insecurities have been continually self-constructed and, at nearly every point, he has fallen upwards as his efforts and businesses failed.
In other words, Trump has all of Nixon’s flaws and none of his talents.
A Tale Of Two Press Conferences
Following his most recent bizarre press conference, pundits and media analysts fell all over themselves to say Donald Trump’s performance was one for the history books. They said no president had ever behaved in such a way. That no president had ever been so disrespectful of the media or so openly contemptuous.
“The press has become so dishonest,” the president said in his opening remarks, “that if we don’t talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people. Tremendous disservice. We have to find out what’s going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.”
Trump would go on to scold journalists for questions he saw as unfair and tell others to sit down. At one point, visibly frustrated, Trump would say, “…I’m having a good time. Tomorrow, they will say, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press.’ I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it.”
Again, the president reminded some of Richard Nixon. In particular, the Richard Nixon who was futilely fighting off journalistic inquiries into the burgeoning Watergate scandal while becoming increasingly aware the jig might be up. The same Richard Nixon who took questions in October of 1973, not eight months before resigning from office.
“I have never heard or seen such outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting in twenty-seven years of public life,” he said. “I’m not blaming anybody for that. Perhaps what happened is, that, what we did, uh, brought it about and therefore the media decided that they would have to take that particular line, but after people are pounded, night after night, with that kind of frantic, hysterical reporting, it naturally shakes their confidence. And yet, don’t get the impression you arouse my anger…”
The journalists in the crowd chuckled.
“You see, one can only be angry with those he respects,” he said, finishing with a devilish smile.
At that point, five years into his presidency, Nixon was knee-deep in a war he knew he couldn’t win. The smile was temporary, a remnant from the years he’d spent making nice with the press while plotting behind closed doors. Trump’s press conference was joyless, an exercise in abuse. Not a month into his administration and the shine had already worn off.
The enemies were after him.
Real and imagined.
Jared Yates Sexton is an author, academic, and political correspondent who currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University. His book The People Are Going To Rise Like The Waters Upon Your Shore will be released by Counterpoint this fall.