The Nixon-Trump Comparison

Trump’s “Monday Night Massacre” of Sally Yates recalls Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, but the connection between the two presidents is deeper. There is, of course, the psychological dimension: Trump, like Nixon, is an outsider (or sees himself as one) and deeply resents the elites who look down on him.

But the real connection goes deeper still. Nixon rose to power by attacking political elites for coddling communists during a period in which the public was deeply worried about the threat posed by the Soviet Union, first, and then Red China. International communism really was a threat to the United States, but most of the Soviet spies and communist sympathizers in the U.S. government had been caught and purged before Nixon came along. Nixon mastered an effective demagogic tactic: he not only portrayed reasonable security policies in place at the time as inadequate in light of an exaggerated threat; he argued that the inadequacy of those security policies served as evidence that government officials were indifferent to public safety and indeed sympathized or even collaborated with the enemy.

Replace communism with radical Islam, and Nixon with Trump, and the story seems familiar. A decade and a half after 9/11, both establishment Republicans and Democrats felt that the domestic terrorist threat posed by Islamic extremists had been contained. With the benefit of hindsight, they clearly misunderstood the psychology of a significant portion of the public. Trump, also taking a page from Nixon, strengthened his case by blurring the lines between domestic and foreign terrorism, but, more important, he—also like Nixon—presented the establishment’s failure to take Islamic terrorism seriously as evidence that it was too incompetent, weak, and self-centered to keep American jobs from moving overseas and protect the borders. In Trump’s account, the government did not merely make poor policy choices; it betrayed America, and it betrayed Americans because of its inexplicable softness toward a foreign enemy.

If we want to understand the rise of Trump, then, we must move beyond the usual suspects—the financial crisis, the weak economic recovery, growing inequality, and the Iraq War—and focus on Obama’s Syrian refugee policy as well as his statesmanlike refusal to demonize Muslims, which Trump skillfully connected with Obama’s generosity toward Hispanic immigrants by appealing to the latent xenophobia of many Americans. And this raises an uncomfortable question: is a new McCarthy era, aimed at Muslims, around the corner? If Yates thought so, we can understand better why she refused to enforce the otherwise apparently lawful immigration executive orders.