WASHINGTON ― Last May, when I was in Donald Trump’s 26th-floor office in Manhattan, the topic turned to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
“Kissinger was in to see me the other day,” Trump said. “We had a long talk.”
Trump, who had just become the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, was clearly delighted that the famed author of diplomatic tomes and master of (often brutal) global diplomatic maneuvers came to offer him counsel.
I suggested that Kissinger, who had helped to engineer President Richard Nixon’s 1972 opening to China, must have useful guidance on how to deal with that muscle-flexing country today.
Trump waved it away. China wasn’t what he was interested in talking to Kissinger about. Nor did he really want a global tutorial.
“I loved talking to him about Nixon!” Trump said. “Kissinger has some amazing stories about Nixon.”
Trump has long been fascinated by, even fixated on, Nixon (who, late in life, fawned over the real estate mogul). In his first week in office, he was busy doing all he could to go the disgraced former president one better ― or worse.
In the space of seven days, Trump lied through his teeth, sowed division rather than sought unity, attacked the press, treated Congress with contempt, ignored his own party, clothed race-tinged rhetoric in law-and-order lingo, and grabbed all the reins of diplomacy in his own Oval Office hands. He behaved as if he were picking up where his idol left off in 1972, before Watergate intervened.
So far, Trump has been the worst of Nixon, weaponized. Here’s a look:
Beat the Press
Nixon had to be cautious in his day, working through secret “enemies lists” and largely private bullying by infamous aides such as Charles Colson and Patrick Buchanan. The press was widely respected back then, so Nixon’s team was careful in public.
The Trump White House, by contrast, set out from the first day to try to intimidate, divide and silence the media. Emboldened by his campaign successes attacking reporters and by the rise of “alternative facts” outlets, the president keeps denouncing the “dishonest” press. He sent his chief adviser, provocateur Steve Bannon, to issue a warning on the front page of The New York Times.
“I want you to quote this,” Bannon said, sneeringly. “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country.” He added that the “elite” media should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”
The insinuation that the press isn’t part of America is a dangerous old Nixonian trope. The slurring of the media as “elite” was especially laughable coming from a man who made his early connections at Harvard Business School and prospered for years at Goldman Sachs in New York and as a movie producer in Hollywood.
Of course Bannon & Co. know that journalists won’t shut up, and in truth he doesn’t want them to. He and his boss want the media to take the bait and declare that they’re proud to be the “opposition party” ― and in so doing, confirm the prejudices of Trump’s supporters.
Divide, Divide, Divide
In his inaugural address, Trump called for ― indeed, all but demanded ― “solidarity.” But in the following days, he stoked concern and resentment in the Latino and Muslim communities with executive actions against immigrants and refugees. He threatened dozens of “sanctuary” cities with loss of federal funding for welcoming undocumented immigrants. He stepped up his trolling of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, over the murder rate in Chicago. He even annoyed Jewish leaders by failing to mention in a remembrance statement that Jews died in the Holocaust.
Like Nixon, only more so, Trump doesn’t really seek to unify the country. As he did in business, the president operates by attack, and he would rather have a cadre of ardent supporters than a broader swath of tepid backers. A major poll at the end of his first week showed him with a glaringly low 36 percent approval rating, but he still played to those same voters as he strove to impress his “movement.”
Although he had been a member of the House and Senate, Nixon despised and disdained Congress, both Democrats and Republicans. He trusted no one and liked them even less.
Trump doesn’t have any history at all with most of Congress or the Republican Party, of which he isn’t really a member. But, like Nixon, he doesn’t care.
He is going to dump a series of half-baked proposals on them and demand action. If they don’t give it to him, he will rouse his “movement” and blame everyone in sight but himself for any failure.
Trump supposedly attended the big retreat for GOP lawmakers in Philadelphia this week. But all he really did was fly in, give a brief speech touting himself as the sole reason the party held onto power in the Senate, and then leave without conducting the closed-door Q&A he had promised.
The Presidency Is Me
Trump is, in many ways, a much more confident personality than Nixon was. Yet his insecurities are more vividly on display than the Old Man’s were. This week he fretted operatically about press reports that he had drawn a smaller inaugural crowd than other presidents in recent years.
He compensated, as Nixon always did, by taking total control of the United States’ “great power” diplomacy, handling it himself to the exclusion of all but a tiny group of his own White House aides. Trump communicated this week with Mexico and President Enrique Peña Nieto (making a complete hash of the situation), with the U.K. and Prime Minister Theresa May, and with Russia and President Vladimir Putin.
Trump has said he has no interest in multilateral deals and institutions because they can restrict U.S. freedom of action with a host of partners. But the real reason he prefers bilateral deals, as did Nixon, is that he can be the star.
In the 1970s, scholar Arthur Schlesinger dubbed this grasping of Oval Office power “The Imperial Presidency.” Democrats abhorred the idea, but Nixon hardly minded the critique. In fact, in 1970 he had the White House Secret Service detail outfitted in uniforms that looked like they had been lifted from a museum of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Trump will probably go for something more casino-style, but we aren’t quite there yet. Let’s see what Week 2 brings.