Is Trump A Carbon Copy Of Nixon? We Should Be So Lucky

Recent Trump comparisons to Nixon obscure the fact that Nixon left a remarkably progressive domestic record, writes Thomas J. Whalen. (Both photos AP)
Recent Trump comparisons to Nixon obscure the fact that Nixon left a remarkably progressive domestic record, writes Thomas J. Whalen. (Both photos AP)

President Trump’s controversial firing of FBI Director James Comey and an ongoing special counsel’s probe into his presidential campaign’s alleged ties to Russia have led many to conclude that the former casino mogul and reality television star has become a latter-day version of Richard Nixon.

Nixon, who served in the White House from 1969 to 1974, is perhaps best known today for becoming the only president forced to resign from office for attempting to cover up a botched 1972 break-in by his supporters on the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Popularly known as “Watergate” in reference to the building where the historic burglary was committed, the scandal rocked the nation and greatly contributed to a general lack of faith in our political institutions that continues to this day.

Former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean, who took part in the Watergate coverup and served subsequent jail time, told Jeffrey Frank of The New Yorker the Nixon-Trump comparison is an apt one. “How can you conclude anything but that Trump knows he’s got problems?” Dean maintained. “Every move they make keeps signaling ‘coverup.’ ”

While “Russia-Gate” shapes up to be a serious political crisis that could result in Trump’s impeachment, to argue The Donald is Tricky Dick reborn is a stretch. That’s because Nixon was, as the famed left-wing polemicist Noam Chomsky has put it, the “last liberal president.”

Indeed, whereas Trump — a product of extreme wealth and privilege — is seeking to gut social safety programs, strip health care coverage from millions of Americans, and reverse decades of federal environmental protection regulations, Nixon was the opposite.

Having been born and raised under trying economic circumstances in California during the Great Depression, Nixon knew firsthand what it is like for a struggling family to scrape by. As a teenager, he remembered working long hours at the family grocery store to keep it from going under. “It was not an easy life,” he once admitted.

"[Nixon] was an activist. He wanted to do a lot of things no one had ever tried."

Bill Timmons, Nixon presidential aide

He also learned the importance of having health insurance as his beloved older brother Harold had contracted tuberculosis and died prematurely at 24. His family’s already shaky finances suffered a grievous blow, one that prevented him from attending an expensive Ivy League college in the East. He ended up going to a smaller, less prestigious Quaker college in his hometown.

To his credit, Nixon sought to ease the economic burden on those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum after he won the presidency in 1968. He, for example, raised the minimum wage, signed legislation to expand Social Security and food stamp benefits, introduced revenue sharing with state and local municipalities, and proposed a visionary welfare reform bill that set a minimum guaranteed family income for all Americans.

“We decided to provide federal financial aid not just to the unemployed poor, but to the working poor,” Nixon later wrote in his 1978 best-selling book, "RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon":

“Payments would go not just to families with fatherless children but to families in which the fathers lived at home. By providing a federal income floor we would ease the financial burden on the states; by setting nationwide standards and establishing automated payment procedures we hoped to cut down on red tape, and before long to eliminate social services, social workers and the stigma of welfare.”

Alas, the Family Assistance Plan, as it was officially known, received a lukewarm bipartisan response in Congress and went nowhere.

On the health care reform front, Nixon was equally farsighted — and unsuccessful. He unveiled a universal coverage plan that required all private employers to provide health insurance for their workers. For those businesses where such a government mandate would cause undue financial hardship, Nixon proposed federal subsidies to lessen the strain.

“Comprehensive health insurance is an idea whose time has come in America,” Nixon said in a Special Message to Congress in 1974. Indeed, he saw it as a way to reduce overall poverty in society and expand economic opportunity.

“Without adequate health care,” he maintained, “No one can make full use of his or her talents and opportunities. It is thus just as important that economic, racial and social barriers not stand in the way of good health care as it is to eliminate those barriers to a good education and a good job.”

Unfortunately for Nixon, his plan was ironically blocked by congressional Democratic liberals led by Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, who favored a single-payer option. Kennedy, who died in 2009, later admitted to Boston Globe columnist Farah Stockman he had made a grave miscalculation — the most grievous of his long and otherwise distinguished political career. “That was the best deal we were going to get,” he lamented. “Nothing since has ever come close.”

Nixon did score some major victories when it came to the environment, however. In 1970, he created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) whose important charge is to oversee compliance of existing national laws with regards to the environment and human health. He also signed off on the Clear Air Act of 1970 to reduce air pollution.

“He was an activist,” claimed Nixon presidential aide Bill Timmons. “He wanted to do a lot of things no one had ever tried.”

Is Trump too much of a carbon copy of Nixon? We should only be so lucky.


Headshot of Thomas J. Whalen

Thomas J. Whalen Cognoscenti contributor
Thomas J. Whalen is an associate professor of social science at Boston University, and author of "Kennedy versus Lodge: The 1952 Massachusetts Senate Race."



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