Who says Donald J. Trump knows nothing about history?
Don’t look now, but Mr. Trump is in the throes of attempting a Full Nixon.
Not undermining the Constitution – or, at least not right now. Not using the levers of government to punish his enemies – or, not yet. Not flirting with impeachment – been there, done that (twice).
But in the 45th president’s relentless effort to become the 47th president, Mr. Trump is tearing a page from the libretto of the 37th president. He’s laying the groundwork for his 2024 campaign in the 2022 midterm elections. It is a clear echo of how Mr. Nixon – defeated in the 1960 presidential election, then mortified by losing the 1962 gubernatorial race in California – used the 1966 midterms to mount a comeback that won him the White House two years later.
Mr. Nixon’s reaction to being defeated by sitting Democratic governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown was as nearly as ungainly as Mr. Trump’s reaction to being defeated by Joe Biden. He spat out a petulant apparent withdrawal from politics in which he told his tormentors in the press that they wouldn’t “have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
Mr. Trump has made no such assertion – his last press comments likely will come with his last breaths – but he has copied the Nixon playbook in attempting to mount a comeback. Mr. Nixon campaigned furiously in 1966 around the country for Republican candidates for the House, Senate and governors’ chairs, collecting political chits that he redeemed a year later when he laid the formal groundwork for his second try at the White House.
This is exactly what Mr. Trump is doing – endorsing candidates even for low-level positions in state legislatures, preparing to appear for Republican contenders across the country, setting in motion primary challenges to the GOP lawmakers who voted to impeach him, dedicating himself to defeating, among others, Trump Republican critics Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming.
In all, Mr. Nixon campaigned for 86 Republican candidates across the country in 1966, making a substantial difference; 59 of those candidates prevailed in their contests. He knew what the effect of his intervention was; as results cascaded in on Election Night, an unusually ebullient Mr. Nixon proclaimed, “We won, we won,” and then bid his entourage to repair to the fabled El Morocco restaurant on East 54th Street in Manhattan to “have some spaghetti.”
This sort of campaign-before-the-campaign is unusual in the United States but is unremarkable in Canada. In his 2007 memoir, Brian Mulroney, who lost his leadership race in 1976, wrote of conducting subterranean meetings “in kitchens and living rooms from Vancouver Island to the Maritimes, in small-town Ontario and Quebec and on the Prairies” as part of his successful 1983 leadership campaign.
All this reflects the application of an aphorism of William James, often regarded as the father of American psychology – ”We learn to swim in winter and skate in summer” – to politics.
Indeed, the 1966 Nixon intervention – his effort not to swim or skate but to campaign out of season – was an essential element of what the historian Rick Perlstein, in his 2008 Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, called “one of the most improbable comebacks in American political history,” the result of Mr. Nixon’s willingness to work “three times harder than any mortal human being.”
One of the beneficiaries of that tireless work in 1966 was John Paul Hammerschmidt, who defeated an 11-term Democratic incumbent to become the first Republican elected to Congress in Arkansas since post-Civil War Reconstruction. Mr. Hammerschmidt, who later would defeat a young law professor, Bill Clinton, to win one of his 13 terms in the House of Representatives, remained one of Mr. Nixon’s staunchest supporters even as impeachment loomed.
In his Fort Smith, Ark., remarks in favour of Mr. Hammerschmidt, Mr. Nixon for 45 minutes attacked president Lyndon B. Johnson for his government spending and his Vietnam policy. It was part of a parallel campaign to restore Mr. Nixon – who had served in the House and Senate as well as eight years as second-in-command to president Dwight D. Eisenhower – to the front ranks of American politics.
“Nixon had been the big winner of 1966,” his aide, the future commentator and presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan wrote in The Greatest Comeback, his 2014 account of Mr. Nixon’s return to prominence and power. “[He] personally met with and converted a large slice of the leadership of the conservative movement. He had emerged as the party’s point man on law and order, Vietnam, and foreign policy. He had gone head to head with President Johnson in the last five days of the campaign and, by everyone’s scorecard, bested him.”
It also allowed Mr. Nixon to bridge the growing divide between moderates and conservatives in the mid-1960s Republican Party. Though the 1966 election marked the emergence of moderate GOP Senators Charles H. Percy of Illinois and Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts, it also thrust into office GOP conservatives such as Governors Ronald Reagan of California, Paul Laxalt of Nevada and Jack Williams of Arizona.
Mr. Trump’s effort reflects the difference between the Republican Party of the mid-20th century and the one he began to shape at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, where differences of political approach prompt purges rather than tolerance.
“The Republican Party is a far less all-encompassing party than it was 55 years ago,” David Greenberg, a Rutgers University historian and author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image, said in an interview. ”Nixon was trying to be a unifying figure in 1966 to bridge two distinct wings of the party. Trump has never been that kind of politician, and doesn’t even make any pretense of being anything but the leader of a right-wing populist movement.”
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