It’s becoming a popular comparison and it’s no surprise. Comparing President Donald Trump to President Richard Nixon is easy and, for opponents of the current administration, a satisfying one. The two Republicans are superficially similar, but Nixon was a very different man and would have disliked Trump almost as much as his liberal opponents.
Trump, like Nixon, hates the mainstream media. Trump, like Nixon, relies on a small, fiercely loyal circle of advisers and like Nixon, Trump has little respect for political norms of his own party or anybody else’s. Nixon interfered in the Vietnam peace process during the 1968 election and sidelined Congress to open relations with China. Trump has defied GOP orthodoxy with openly pro-Russian statements and issued sweeping executive orders without consultation. But Nixon and Trump’s similarities are only skin deep.
Richard Nixon’s childhood was a poor one marred by his abusive father. The hardship Nixon experienced as a child may have been the origin of his resentment and paranoia in later life. He attended Whittier College in California before studying law at Duke University. Later, Nixon was ridiculed for attending Whittier by rivals who studied at elite colleges like Harvard and Yale.
Nixon despised President John F. Kennedy as a privileged, East Coast elitist. Kennedy came from money; his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was a prominent Democratic politician and Kennedy attended an Ivy League school. For Nixon, people like Kennedy were the enemy. He resented their inherited wealth, their unearned connections to power and their sense of entitlement. Nixon spent decades working to succeed in spite of the elite politicians he hated.
Donald Trump is very much in the mold of those elites Nixon fought against all his life. Trump likes to claim he built his business from nothing, but this is far from true. When Trump shrugged off a ‘small loan of a million dollars’ from his father, many were disgusted by his flippant attitude to such a large amount of easy money. Nixon would have been disgusted with that, too. Trump is the modern embodiment of the people Nixon hated – rich, entitled and undeserving of power.
Nixon’s background was not the only thing that separates him from Trump. Unlike Trump, Nixon experienced a series of bitter failures. He lost the 1960 presidential election in a narrow defeat, he lost the 1962 California governor’s race and he became the first president to resign in disgrace. Trump has been insulated from his business failures, writing off financial losses while contractors, shareholders and employees suffered the consequences. Trump’s wealth has protected him from the consequences of his own actions.
Nixon’s downfall was of his own making and he deserves no sympathy for the events surrounding Watergate, but comparing him to Trump is lazy and ignores historical reality. The Trump/Nixon comparison is tempting because so many want Trump impeached and see in his catastrophic administration signs of Nixon’s last months in office. But Nixon would have hated Trump for the same reason millions of Americans do. And Nixon eventually showed something Donald Trump seems incapable of – regret for his mistakes.