Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the election of President Richard Nixon. It is a chance for some perspective. While many seem convinced that the United States will never recover from the Donald Trump presidency, the truth is conservatism, the Republican Party and our nation survived Nixon — and we will survive Trump.
Many conservatives are dismayed with Trump’s failure to condemn the racist alt-right. But let’s not forget that Nixon came to power based on the “Southern Strategy,” winning over disaffected white voters who left the Democrats because of civil rights and the dismantling of Jim Crow.
Many were appalled by Trump’s Helsinki news conference and embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But it was Nixon who gave us detente with Moscow, invited Leonid Brezhnev to the White House, and signed the disastrous Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty which restricted U.S. missile defense for decades.
Many are concerned with Trump’s outreach to North Korea and his willingness to hold a summit with its brutal dictator, Kim Jong Un. But it was Nixon who led the opening to Communist China, and sat down with its murderous founder, Mao Zedong — a man responsible for the death of an estimated 65 million people.
Many are disheartened by Trump’s tariffs and trade wars. Well, Nixon gave us anti-free market economic policies such as wage and price controls.
Many are worried about Trump’s attacks on the media as the “enemy of the American people.” But it was Nixon who sent Vice President Spiro Agnew out to attack the media as a “tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one” and actually attempted to stop the publication of the Pentagon Papers.
Many are disturbed about a possible criminal conspiracy with Russia to steal and publish Democratic Party emails. But, of course, it was Nixon who gave us the coverup of the break-in to the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.
And, if you think Trump’s Twitter feed is bad, listen to the Nixon tapes and imagine what he would have been like on Twitter.
So, in many ways the Trump presidency is like deja vu all over again. Except that Trump is, at least for conservatives, arguably a much better president than was Nixon. While Nixon had a mixed record in Supreme Court appointments, Trump has, so far, given us two of the strongest conservative justices in modern history. While the chairman of Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers, Herb Stein, bragged that, under Nixon, “probably more new regulation was imposed on the economy than in any other presidency since the New Deal,” Trump has given us a historic regulatory rollback. While Nixon boasted over dramatic cuts in defense spending, Trump has enacted historic increases. While Nixon’s 1969 tax reform increased taxes, Trump’s reforms have cut them. While Nixon withdrew U.S. troops from Vietnam, Trump has unleashed our forces against the Islamic State and has halted the withdrawal from Afghanistan begun during the Obama administration.
Nixon also showed us that our constitutional system of checks and balances works, and that if the president crosses a constitutional line, the rule of law will prevail. And while Nixon resigned over Watergate, we still don’t know how the Russia inquiry will turn out. It may well be that there was no criminal conspiracy with Russia. Even knowing what we know about Watergate, the United States would not have been better off with George McGovern as president, just as we would not be better off today with Hillary Clinton in the White House.
As bad as things got for Republicans, six years after Nixon’s resignation we elected Ronald Reagan and, just like that, it was Morning in America. Those of us fortunate enough to have lived through the Reagan Revolution have great expectations for the presidency. We want to not just support the policies, but admire the person who occupies the Oval Office. So our disappointment in Trump’s moral failures is profound. But the truth is, if you look back at U.S. history, there have been few Reagans. Most presidents are mediocre, and some are downright awful. But the idea that Trump has ushered in an end to the hopeful, optimistic vision for conservatism is absurd. All conservatism needs to recover is for one great, hopeful, optimistic leader to emerge.
Until then — to paraphrase the man who implemented Nixon’s wage and price controls, Donald Rumsfeld — we go to war with the president we have.
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group