The Right Wing

Nixon Nostalgia Trip: Trump's Administration Already Recalls the Worst of Tricky Dick

Eight weeks in, Trump displays all the petty paranoia that sank Nixon—but without his shrewd executive competence.

Larry Summers in Beijing on September 6, 2010. Summers has withdrawn from the race to succeed Ben Bernanke at the Federal Reserve.

Presidents almost always hate the press or at least find them a necessary evil. Some handle the relationship better than others. John F. Kennedy’s press conferences were celebrated for their erudition and Ronald Reagan’s were often upbeat laugh fests. But part of the reason that presidents hate the press is because people inside the government leak information to reporters and they publish it for all to see.

One can only imagine how stressful this is, even if a president isn’t hiding illegal or unethical behavior. Bill Clinton was fighting scandal throughout his presidency and seemed to become inured to the din after a while. But he had to have been distressed by leaks from the Justice Department and the independent counsel’s office throughout the Monica Lewinsky affair. Reagan was notably calm about the Iran-contra scandal but he also professed to not recall any involvement, which no doubt spared him a lot of anxiety.

The president who most passionately loathed the press, in the modern era anyway, was good old Richard Nixon. In 2008 some previously unheard Nixon tapes were released  that reminded the world just how overwrought Tricky Dick was about his perceived enemies. In one conversation in December 1974 he uttered these now-famous words to his national security advisers, Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig:

Never forget, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy, the professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard 100 times.

Nixon was also preoccupied by his predecessors, particularly Kennedy, who had beaten him by an agonizingly narrow margin in 1960 and someone with the casual, stylish confidence he didn’t have. Nixon was desperate to discredit JFK and even ordered his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, to have someone raid the Brookings Institution to uncover information about Kennedy.

All this comes to mind as we read the latest stories of chaos and ineptitude leaking out of the Trump administration. Frankly, they make Nixon look good by comparison. I’m not the first to note the similarities, but when you think about the fact that Donald Trump has declared the press to be the “the enemy of the people” and accused his predecessor of illegally wiretapping him. it’s clear that the new president is in a different league altogether — and he has been in office less than eight weeks. The sheer scope of grievance, pettiness, petulance and vindictiveness he shows daily in his tweets and interviews is staggering. As the historian Rick Perlstein has said, on a Nixonian scale of 1 to 10, “Trump is an 11.”

But Nixon was a shrewd and intelligent man despite his psychological issues. He understood what the presidency is and what it does. He was competent at doing the actual job — exceptionally so in certain ways — and surrounded himself with professionals who did what they were hired to do. Trump is in completely over his head and so is his staff.

One of the ways we know this is because the Trump administration is nearly paralyzed. Politico published a piece on Tuesday with this startling headline: “‘People are scared’: Paranoia seizes Trump’s White House.” The subhead suggested that Trump staffers were leaving their personal phones at home and monitoring one another on social media and the piece gave further details:

It’s an environment of fear that has hamstrung the routine functioning of the executive branch. Senior advisers are spending much of their time trying to protect turf, key positions have remained vacant due to a reluctance to hire people deemed insufficiently loyal, and Trump’s ambitious agenda has been eclipsed by headlines surrounding his unproven claim that former President Barack Obama tapped his phone lines at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign.

One senior administration aide, who like most others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the degree of suspicion had created a toxicity that is unsustainable.

The story goes beyond the Oval Office. This is pervasive throughout the executive branch. Tellingly, the article says that after one Trump loyalist was forced to resign when a career federal employee noticed that the man’s Facebook page was filled with racist Islamophobic posts, many other political appointees rushed to erase elements of their social media, complaining that they were being unfairly examined. Apparently “extreme vetting,” or any vetting at all, is no longer a requirement for a presidential appointment.

Another Politico article observed a bizarre custom in the Trump White House: Every close adviser is in every meeting. Nobody has ever run a presidency this way. Usually, the work is delegated by the chief of staff and only people who needed are there at meetings. In this administration all the top advisers stick to Trump like glue, going with him on every trip and crowding into the room for every photo op, meeting and gathering. An insider is quoted as saying this is because “they are all terrified of being undercut.” The article explained:

[B]ecause the president doesn’t like to read policy papers or use the Internet, he is more focused on advice and information delivered to him verbally — putting even greater importance on proximity. . . . “He likes to ask other aides what they think about each other,” said a former campaign aide. “If you’re not with him, he might be listening to someone else tell him how you’re wrong. You might be the topic of conversation, and it might not be good for you.”

As anyone who’s ever read a management book knows, dysfunctional workplace cultures like this are generally attributable to dysfunctional leadership. To put it more crudely, the fish rots from the head.

Nixon was brought down by his paranoia and grievances and they were legion. The same thing may happen to Trump. But if he goes down, it could just as easily be for blatant corruption or sheer incompetence. There is literally no aspect of this job for which he has shown any aptitude at all.

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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