In the winter of 1987, Pat Nixon was watching real estate developer Donald Trump on the Phil Donahue program. Trump had been invited on the daytime interview show not only to promote his book The Art of the Deal, but to discuss his thoughts on how to solve the problems that were ailing America. The former first lady was so impressed with Trump’s performance that her husband, former President Richard Nixon dashed off a quick missive to the multi-millionaire. In his comments, Nixon said that based on the enthusiastic observations of his wife, the 38th President of the United States believed Trump had a great career in front of him not only in business, but in politics as well. “Whenever you decide to run for office you will be a winner!” Nixon wrote.
There is no doubt that the man who signed the letter “RMN” would have appreciated Donald Trump’s electoral victory last week. Nixon would have found it fascinating that the new president-elect was successful in running a similar campaign to the one he ran nearly half a century before. Both Nixon and Trump were able to harness the anger of members of the white working class, who believed their concerns were not being addressed by elites in Washington. Trump was able to portray the economic and social problems that plagued the nation as being linked to an administration whose programs were ineffective in solving problems like job creation and income inequality. He also argued that White House policy makers had chosen to forsake working class communities in the Midwest and the Northeast in favor of those that represented the growing demographic of identity politics. Nixon had utilized a similar strategy during the 1968 campaign, in which he had characterized the policies of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” as being responsible for ineffective solutions to the problems of growing poverty and increasing levels of disorder in the nations metropolitan areas.
While one can contend Nixon and Trump each attended elite universities, followed by successful careers in law, business and politics, the two were able to portray themselves as not only political outsiders, but champions of the common man. The authenticity that caused their messages to resonate with their supporters can be attributed to the fact that over the course of their lives, both Nixon and Trump had to swim against the tide to achieve national legitimacy and acceptance, that only came when each won the presidency. It is certainly true that both men’s backgrounds and career paths were decidedly different. However, each was considered a striver who possessed a driving ambition, a willingness to work hard and a belief in doing whatever it took to win. That street fighting tenacity soon allowed each man to achieve national recognition. Trump became a renowned figure in the New York business community, by taking his father’s small real estate concern and transforming it into a multi-billion-dollar international brand. Nixon, used his great intelligence and political instincts to convert his early celebrity of being the man who brought down Alger Hiss, into becoming Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president.
But there were setbacks for both as well. Despite their individual successes Nixon and Trump were each viewed with mistrust and suspicion by those within the New York and Washington establishments. While Trump was perceived as a savvy businessman, he was frequently viewed as someone who did not always pay his debts and whose assets were consistently over leveraged causing a number of his businesses to file for bankruptcy. Trump was also known to possess an unpredictable temperament that often caused him to make provocative comments that frequently landed on the pages of the New York tabloids. That reputation caused him to be ridiculed and dismissed by social elites in places like Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Florida’s gold coast. Despite becoming vice president at 39, with an incredible grasp of international affairs, Nixon was viewed by many as an unscrupulous figure, who engaged in name-calling and other examples of underhanded campaigning in order to achieve his political goals. When he lost the 1960 presidential election followed by the 1962 race for governor of California, many within the American establishment were pleased to see him go.
Despite their personal and professional defeats both men refused to allow these financial and political circumstances to short-circuit their dreams of success. While Trump’s brand was often in crisis, the real estate baron was able to reinvent himself by capitalizing on the new trend of reality entertainment. Trump’s program, “The Apprentice,” allowed the charismatic New Yorker to portray himself to millions of viewers, not as a figure of questionable character or suspect business judgement, but as a decisive, no nonsense, innovative businessman who had risen from nothing (as he implied) to create one of the great industrial empires of the age. In using television as his vehicle, Trump became a mentor to those frustrated Americans desperate to solve the mysteries of financial success.
Nixon re-emerged as well. Following his two political defeats, the “New Nixon” who traveled across the country campaigning for GOP candidates and convening meetings with leaders around the globe during the mid 1960s appeared less combative and more thoughtful than the figure who told the media in 1962 “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” During the course of that period, the former Vice President presented himself to Republicans as one who was extremely conversant with the problems facing the nation. Many of those on the Right were willing to overlook Nixon’s more Machiavellian-like instincts in believing that the hawkish anti-communist Californian was the right man to turn the tide in Vietnam. Others also believed that Nixon’s encyclopedic knowledge of domestic policy in areas like tax and welfare reform would come in handy at at time when the liberal programs of the “New Deal” had become outdated and obsolete.
Over the last few years many have laughed at the idea of Trump running for president. However, since 2011, the businessman’s ongoing comments about the loss of jobs have resonated with those frustrated over Washington’s inability to find a solution for the sluggish economic recovery. Those attracted to Trump’s tough and brusque manner along with what the public perceives as a strong negotiating and business acumen came to believe that he was the person necessary to drain the Washington swamp as well as revive the country’s economic and national greatness.
In winning their elections nearly half a century apart, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump both displayed qualities that have been exhibited by successful political figures throughout history. Both men were able to capitalize on social and economic anxieties that were not being addressed by current policy makers nor by those who sought to compete with them for the presidency. Each positioned themselves as men of change, who were able to utilize hold up the dismissive attitudes of the media and political establishments as a badge of honor that gave them a sense of authenticity with those who believed they had also been dismissed by those who hold power. Finally, Nixon and Trump exhibited incredible grit and determination in being able to reach the heights of political success. Despite moments of doubt and defeat neither was willing to give up or give in until their goal had been achieved.
Laurence Jurdem is an independent scholar who received his Ph.D. in U.S. History from Fordham University. For more information, please visit the authors website laurencejurdem.com