On May 9, hours after Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, journalist Rick Perlstein took to Facebook to complain—not about what the president had done, but about the contents of his inbox. “Trump is Trump, people! TRUMP! Stop messaging me about OTHER PRESIDENTS!!” the Nixonland author wrote. Two days later, he posted an article comparing Comey’s ouster to Nixon’s firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox (aka the “Saturday Night Massacre”), and bemoaned that “editors and writers keep clamoring to tap my expertise for more such listicles (histicles? Nixicles?).”
One of the nation’s leading experts on “Tricky Dick,” Perlstein has been in high demand since Trump’s rise, and even more so as the Russia scandal increasingly resembles Watergate. It’s not that he hates the attention, necessarily; as one of his Facebook posts coyly concludes, “by all means buy everyone you know copies of NIXONLAND and THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE.” But the prevalence of the Trump-Nixon comparison is making him question all such comparisons between past and present. “More and more,” he wrote in a post, “I’m seeing the whole concept of the ‘historical parallel’ as perverse, and bearing little resemblance to actually mature understanding of the present in light of the past.” As he explained further in an interview, “People want to grasp for the familiar in confusing times, but it’s often just an evasion of the evidence in front of them. People should be looking at what’s happening now.”
Not all Nixon historians are tired of discussing Nixon’s contemporary relevance. With interest in their expertise (and books) spiking, many are happy to respond to the press inquires filling their inboxes. While there’s widespread agreement that the Trump-Nixon parallel is imperfect, the experts differ on the value of making such parallels at all. “Who is saying it’s a direct analogy? People are just saying there are some similarities,” said Kevin Mattson, an Ohio University professor and author of Just Plain Dick. “For God’s sake, if you don’t see an analogy there, where the heck do you go for analogies?”
Perlstein did not come around to his position lately. He’s been stressing the dissimilarities between Trump and Nixon since the campaign. “Mr. Trump,” he wrote in the New Republic in July, “I’ve studied Richard Nixon. And you’re no Richard Nixon.” In January, he argued in these pages that Trump is more dangerous and paranoid than Nixon. Earlier this month, he told New Yorker editor David Remnick that “the comparisons at this point obscure more than they reveal. Nixon was just so shrewd, so strategic: it’s simply inconceivable he would get caught with his pants down implicating himself on the record, like Trump now does almost daily.” A few days later, in The New York Daily News, he argued, “The right lesson of Watergate: Forget facile Trump-Nixon parallels — and get the damn evidence.”
Perlstein has also been questioning the value of history to inform the present. In a Baffler essay, “Time Bandits: Why our political past is rarely prologue,” he wrote:
I fully allow that Donald Trump may end the world as we know it, if he does, it will happen in a way different from any other prospective end of the world as we have known it. History will help us understand that. But not a history that leans on easy intellectual crutches.
All of the Nixon experts who spoke to the New Republic rattled off dissimilarities between Trump and Nixon. Though the presidents share many personal traits—secrecy, paranoia, conspiracy-theorizing—Nixon was a scholar with a serious foreign policy vision. Trump is a superficial showman. Nixon’s first 100 days were smooth. Trump’s were tumultuous. Watergate involved domestic rather than foreign interference in a U.S. election. Back then, Republicans didn’t control Congress as they do now. And so on.
Perlstein is most bothered by direct comparisons between Trump and Nixon. (In his Baffler essay, he specifically rejects claims that current events are “just like” the history he details in his books.) Still, some experts were confused by his position.
“Quite honestly, I don’t understand where he’s coming from. I’m kind of at a loss,” Mattson told me. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but often it rhymes. I think there’s a lot of rhyming going on here.”
“I would politely disagree with my friend Rick that studying previous parallels obscures, but I agree with him that if it’s the end of the analysis it’s unhelpful,” said Timothy Naftali, who directed the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum from 2007 to 2011. “It doesn’t mean Donald J. Trump is the 21st century reincarnation of Richard M. Nixon,” he added. “That’s not why these questions are useful.... History is not a grab bag but it could be a tool box. The list of Nixon’s abuses of power is not exhaustive and doesn’t cover every bad thing a government can do today, but what harm is there in reviewing that?”
“Watergate was the last time we had a president in deep trouble,” said veteran Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew, author of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall. “I think the parallels [to Trump] can be overdone, but essentially you have a president who might have been presiding over a series of very questionable perhaps illegal acts.” Unlike Perlstein, Drew isn’t bothered when people ask her about the comparisons. “I think it’s a fair question,” she said. “I think it’s a very understandable question. It’s what you do with the question that makes the difference.”
“I don’t see a huge harm to the republic to go back and study the three cases of impeachment,” said John Aloysius Farrell, author of the new biography Richard Nixon: The Life, who noted that Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton didn’t resign or leave office as Nixon did. With that caveat, he’s comfortable with Trump-Nixon comparisons—“as long as I’m not telling people this is all going to end the same way and he’s as guilty as Nixon.”
Some historians, though, fear that what they tell the media won’t be what the public hears.
In the days after Trump fired Comey, Luke Nichter received at least a dozen media inquiries by his count. He passed on most of them. “I don’t think it’s any more right to say he’s not Nixonian than that he is Nixonian,” Nichter, a professor at Texas A&M University and co-author of The Nixon Tapes, told me.
Nichter is hesitant to wade into a media environment of snappy sound bites and 140-character tweets, where all too often the nuance and complexity of history is lost. The media’s comparisons to Nixon are “more designed to get a knee-jerk reaction” than illuminate what’s true about the past, and Nichter worries his commentary will be used for short-term political purposes. “I guess, as a historian, it’s not in my training to work hard to get my name in the press,” he told me. “At the end of the day, my bread and butter is contributing to our understanding of the past, not of the present.”
Mattson respects Nichter’s stance, but it’s not his approach. “I understand the fear and trepidation and not wanting your words to be used in an ugly way,” he told me. But “as someone who teaches history often to disinterested undergraduates,” he’s happy to engage. At a time when state universities face steep budget cuts—not to mention the decline in humanities degrees generally, and history majors specifically—he also feels an obligation to show the public history’s relevance to the here and now. “We in some ways make history more legitimate by applying it to contemporary situations and illuminating contemporary situations,” Mattson said.
“Engaging the present is not a professional obligation for an historian,” Naftali said, but he does believe that “anybody who’s studied Nixon and Watergate has an obligation to be a resource so that nothing like that ever happens again.” “I think we can be useful, especially in tumultuous times, in helping our fellow citizens make sense of the present by asking good questions about where we are and where we have been,” he said. “One of the reasons for studying Nixon is it teaches you the playbook used by people who want to use federal power to hurt political enemies.”
So Naftali is embracing this golden age for Nixon historians, even if Trump is the reason for it. “For me, it’s both sad and fascinating,” he said. “It’s sad because I spent five years at a library about a failed presidency. I’ve seen that movie, and I’m hoping I’m not watching it again. I’m fascinated because, like anyone who’s studied Nixon deeply, I have some sense of what might happen.”