I never thought I would say this, but: poor Richard Nixon. Last week, Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, raised eyebrows when he promised last night’s acceptance speech would be based on Nixon’s in 1968: no “happy talk” about unity, just a Nixon-like response to the “angst” abroad in the land over the Nixonian issue of law-and-order. “If you go back and read,” Manafort said, “that speech is pretty much on line with a lot of the issues that are going on today.”
Well, last night I sat in person through the whole damned 77-minute hot mess, and I’m here to say: Mr. Trump, I’ve studied Richard Nixon. And you’re no Richard Nixon.
Nixon’s little finger, of course, was more interesting and complex than Trump’s entire being. In my book Nixonland, I describe how the tacking between uplifting rhetoric and snarling rhetoric, between the “old Nixon” who slashed and burned and the “new Nixon,” when he reinvented himself in the image of America’s hopes instead of its fears, was the systole and diastole of Nixon’s political heartbeat.
That 1968 speech was classic “new Nixon.” Manafort might have heard echoes of a Trumpian vision in its most famous, and best-remembered section:
As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame.
We hear sirens in the night.
We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad.
We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home.
And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish.
Did we come all this way for this?
And he must have loved the part where Nixon brilliantly granted racial absolution to his audience, especially the racists among them:
And to those who say that law and order is the code word for racism, there and here is a reply: Our goal is justice for every American. If we are to have respect for law in America, we must have laws that deserve respect.
But read those words again. Say them aloud! We think of Nixon (when we don’t think “Watergate”) as a boring plodder, and of course often he was. But the ’68 speech was his masterpiece: poetic, shot through with rhythm and imagery and propulsion, layered into a carefully constructed latticework that propelled both reader and listener through its dawning logic artfully, from beginning to middle to end.
And, contra Manafort, there was a hell of a lot of “happy talk” in Nixon’s speech. That was the soul of its success. Nixon was fond of a spiritual ideal he learned in his Quaker youth: “peace in the center.” This speech’s very logic was saturated by it—that a God-spark of grace lay buried underneath America’s currently, temporarily degraded circumstances: the “quiet voice in the tumult and the shouting,” heirs to “world’s oldest revolution, which will never grow old.”
Sure, it was in some respects a rhetorical con: Nixon identified that quiet voice with a certain type of American, the “good people,” the “decent people; they work and they save, and they pay their taxes, and they care.” But his conception of this core—which he later, with a more snarling tinge, tagged the “Silent Majority”—was considerably more gracious than the angry, cornered victims, straining to lash out at their tormenters, that Trump had in mind last night. Nixon stepped back from that brink, granting them a charitable core and calling them to further charity: “They know that this country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless it is a good place for all of us to live in.” Later, he said, “Just to be alive in America, just to be alive at this time, is an experience unparalleled in history. Here is where the action is.”
Try imagining those words coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth. Try to imagine them getting the warm, extended applause that they got from the Republicans of 1968.
When Trump got around to foreign affairs, you could certainly pick up echoes of Nixon’s plea that “all of America’s peacekeeping operations and all of America’s foreign commitments must be reappraised”—way too much foreign aid and military assistance for far too little in return. But Nixon didn’t justify this with absurd fantasies that America was on the verge of penury: He could grant that “we are a rich country, we are a strong nation.” Way too reality-based for Trump.
Here, Nixon doesn’t talk like a thug: America “does not seek domination over any country,” but would lead through the strength of “ideas, which should travel on their own power and not the power of arms.” America’s enemies were not the dehumanized monsters Trump summons; indeed, Nixon declared, “after an era of confrontation the time has come for negotiation,” because “there is no acceptable alternative to peaceful negotiation.”
Yes, it was almost sappy: “We extend the hand of friendship to all people, to the Russian people, to the Chinese people in the world. And we shall work toward the goal of an open world”—Nixon’s voice veritably swoons—“open skies, open cities, open hearts, open minds.” Ideas! Hearts! Open! Take that, Paul Manafort. If only he had truly listened, and learned.
The crux of the similarity between Trump’s speech and Nixon’s was supposed to be its grand law-and-order theme. But in 1968, Nixon could reasonably speak of “unprecedented lawlessness” and “unprecedented racial violence” because these things were unprecedented. Nixon spoke four months after the riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, including one in Chicago that burned two straight miles of Madison Street to the ground. Compare that to Trump followers cowering in terror at violence like last March’s in Baltimore, which left a single burned CVS in its wake. The number of violent crimes in the U.S. in 1960, according to the FBI, was 288,460. In 1968, it had exploded to more than twice that, 595,010. Now? The murder rate is down from eight homicides per 100,000 people in 1995, to under six in 2006, to four-and-a-half now.
Even when he talked “law and order,” Nixon gave lip service to liberal ideals: “not the order that suppresses dissent and discourages change, but the order which guarantees the right to dissent and provides the basis for peaceful change.” He could have easily gotten much, much more nasty than he did in 1968: After all, this was a year when the popular new activist slogan on the left was “Up against the wall, motherfucker!” He resisted that.
Nixon also resisted the temptation of a captive audience: He went for 32 minutes to Trump’s 77—really little more than 20 minutes if you delete the applause and the long (and gracious!) draught of political throat-clearing at the beginning. Nixon was a political pro, and he believed 20 minutes was the ideal length for a speech. In vivid contrast, Trump’s doughy bleats were piled one on top of the other, until his exhausted speechwriters had picked through every subject they could think of.
But the single most telling divergence between Trump’s acceptance speech and its Nixonian model, and the easiest to forget, comes down to this: Nixon never said it would be easy. Trump says nothing else. It was the theme of his convention.
Nixon: “And so tonight I do not promise the millennium in the morning. I do not promise that we can eradicate poverty and end discrimination, eliminate all danger of war in the space of four or even eight years.”
Trump: “I have a message for all of you: The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end.” (That was what the teleprompter said. Trump spontaneously added, “and I mean very soon.”) “Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.”
Trump, again: “We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS.” (Again, that was the teleprompter version; he added, “And we’re going to defeat them fast.”) And then these words on the teleprompter—“we must work with all of our allies who share our goal of destroying ISIS and stamping out Islamic terror”—followed by his own hasty interposition: “Doing it now, doing it quickly, we’re going to win, we’re going to win fast!”
That was something. It was as if Trump couldn’t just leave the notion of relying on allies hanging out there, humiliatingly, as a possibility. For if Nixon speaks of collective effort, deploying the word “we” 76 times, Trump’s favorite locution is “I alone”; and it made its dutiful cameo by the halfway point. (“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”) Trump is always alone, the solitary savior. In the speech he too said “we” a lot, but almost exclusively it was the royal “we,” referring to himself, accomplishing everything immediately, as if by magic.
Magic. It’s one more word we have to add to our expanding analytical lexicon to think through the Orange-Haired Monster. Indeed, his supporters have already done so. I began noticing the word popping up in the convention speeches at the end of the third day. On the fourth, Thursday, I started listening for it. There was Jerry Falwell Jr., describing how his family built “the largest and most prosperous Christian university in the world,” and how he’s “convinced Donald J. Trump can work the same magic for a nation with $19 trillion in debt.” There was Representative Marsha Blackburn, invoking the loaves-and-fishes mythology that a free, competitive market, unfettered by government regulation, can drip down prosperity on everyone as “the magic of this country.”
But the spirit of magic pervaded everything: Trump, with his wand, making awesome things happen instantaneously. You had Jon Voight, narrating Trump’s biographical film, described Trump “helping a great city rediscover his soul”: him, alone. You had fellow developer Tom Barrack, prowling the stage like a Svengali, describing his friend’s life as “like a Michener tale, from businessman, to father, to celebrity, to president of the United States,” with the power “to make once upon a time this time.” Above all, you had Ivanka Trump, marveling at “a man who spent his whole life doing what other people said could not be done,” growing skyscrapers like mushrooms (“When my father says he will build a tower, watch the skyline”), ripping stories out of the paper about sad-sack New Yorkers and getting assistants to invite them to Trump Tower (“and they would leave his office, as people often do after being with Donald Trump, feeling that life would be great again”). Which was why he will make America again a place “where the impossible happens.”
Trump’s prepared text had even been massaged to make it more magical. It originally read, “On January 21st of 2017, the day after I take the oath of office, Americans will finally wake up in a country where the laws of the United States are enforced.” In the telling, this miraculous transformation occurs 24 hours earlier: “On January 20th of 2017, the day I take the oath of office.”
It all came down to Donald Trump’s own patented brand of alchemical magic: turning coal into diamonds, bending steel with his mind. After all, “Our steelworkers and miners are going back to work. With these new economic policies, trillions of dollars will start flowing into our country. This new wealth will improve the quality of life for all Americans.”
Don’t ask how. Like the proprietor of Ash’s Magic shop in Chicago told my 8-year-old nephew: “If you ask how a trick is done, then it loses its magic.”
Richard Nixon, poor Richard Nixon, would despise this above all. Amid everything else, he was a grinder, obsessed with meticulous preparation, study, details, discipline, knowing your stuff. I almost wish I had a magic time machine so the Old Man could have watched the candidate who’s claiming his legacy. I wish I could hear the creative words Nixon would use. Because when he was not delivering soaring perorations, he sure knew how to call bullshit when he saw it.