Imagine a president of the United States who rambles on about the “f***ing Jews,” most of whom opposed his policies, and listened while his sometime spiritual adviser egged him on with references to “satanic Jews.” This President might make exceptions for some Jews, notably his foremost “Jewboy” adviser. Unfortunately, we do not have to imagine such a president. There was one between 1969 and 1974. His name was Richard Nixon. Billy Graham was the spiritual adviser and Henry Kissinger the “Jewboy.” i
A look back at Nixon’s bigotry illuminates two current issues. First, where does Donald Trump’s administration fit into the history of the modern presidency and of the modern American right (“modern” in my view dating from the 1930s). Second, why do men and women who at minimum feel uneasy about Trump’s de facto alliance with zealous nativists, white supremacists, and avid anti-Semites continue to serve in the White House and cabinet or fail to break with the administration?
Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury, and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, are Jewish. In August, 350 fellow members of the Yale class of 1985 asked Mnuchin to resign as a protest against the President’s “support of Nazism and white supremacy.” Mnuchin denied that Trump equated neo-Nazis with peaceful protesters against bigotry, personally repudiated actions by those “filled with hate,” and offered an Ivy League invocation of the best and the brightest. The presence of “highly talented men and women” in the Trump administration should reassure his classmates as well as other Americans. His own chief concerns would be tax reform, economic growth, and a halt to terrorist financial activities. Speaking as a Jew and a “patriotic American” later that month, Cohn denounced “ranting” hate groups on the right and expressed sympathy for their victims. He nonetheless planned stay in office in order to “fulfill my commitment on behalf of the American people.”ii
The one African-American Republican in the Senate, Tim Scott (South Carolina) has criticized Trump’s de facto alliance with bigots but remains loyal in other matters. Considered as a group, the most prominent Hispanic Republicans have offered the least public criticism. Their ranks include Senators Marco Rubio (Florida) and Ted Cruz (Texas), Governors Brian Sandoval (Nevada) and Susana Martinez (New Mexico), and Representatives Ileana Ros-Lentinen (Florida) and Raoul Labrador (Idaho).
Before Trump, Nixon looked like the most bigoted modern president. This distinction is especially poignant when Nixon is viewed in the context of his times and his background. For scholars, though not necessarily for activists, these contexts are important because various kinds of intolerance were usually the presidential norm. FDR brought some Jews and Roman Catholics into his inner circle and appointed many more to high office; his frequent public statements about God and country were consistently ecumenical. Yet even Roosevelt privately commented that Jews and Catholics should not forget their minority status in a predominantly Protestant nation.
Not until Bill Clinton’s election was there a president who had had African-American friends throughout his adult life. Although Dwight Eisenhower enforced court decisions ordering desegregation, he never really favored integrated schools, let alone inter-racial social mixing. Jimmy Carter, having grown up in rural Georgia, accepted racial segregation as a matter of course for decades before he became an advocate of racial equality and affirmative action. Harry Truman, a grandson of slave owners, reluctantly and formally supported civil rights legislation; Lyndon Johnson did so seriously and enthusiastically. Both nonetheless talked about “N***ers, Truman frequently and Johnson occasionally.
Truman sympathized with Jewish victims of Nazism and in 1948 quickly extended recognition to Israel. Yet he referred to “kikes” and sometimes responded to lobbying by Zionists with anti-Semitic outbursts. If Jesus could not satisfy the Jews when he was on earth, Truman blurted out at one point, “how could anyone expect that I would have any luck?” In the 1940s and 1950s, across the political spectrum in the White House and on Capitol Hill, “wetback” was a standard label for immigrant Mexican agricultural workers—legal and illegal.iii
Nixon’s case is noteworthy because he got more bigoted as he got older. He came from a partially Quaker family and as a young law student admired Jewish Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. As Eisenhower’s vice president, he favored civil rights legislation and was friendlier than most others in the White House to Ike’s few African-American appointees. As president, however, Nixon ruminated about racial hierarchies with Asians on top, whites in the middle, and blacks on the bottom.
Unlike Eisenhower, who felt constitutionally bound to enforce judicial decisions ordering school desegregation, Nixon did his best to evade such rulings a decade later. Moreover, he catered to the “white backlash” by advocating a constitutional amendment to ban busing. His disdain for “N***ers” as well as the “f***ing Jews” is readily available to anyone who can read White House tape transcripts. (You can listen to one here.)
The Nixon administration is often credited with generosity toward Native Americans, a policy skeptics attribute to his need for good relations with at least one minority. He seems to have been neutral toward Hispanics as a group (which coincidentally became a census category during his presidency). Cuban-American Charles (Bebe) Rebozo may have been Nixon’s closest friend. Immigration from Latin America had not yet become a component of the white backlash at the national level. Federal funding for bilingual education, which some proponents saw as a program to promote assimilation rather than multiculturalism, expanded during Nixon’s term.
Electoral politics and adaptation to public moods influenced the attitudes and actions sketched here—for good and ill. Pundits and biographers typically exaggerate personality traits (sometimes traced back to childhood) as factors in presidential behavior. Personality traits undoubtedly play a part in human decisions. But all personalities are complex even if we do not always notice the complexity in ourselves and/or others (especially if we disagree with the others).
Presidential decisions are particularly susceptible to change according to time, place, and circumstance. Truman needed the votes of Jews and of African-Americans. Johnson valued African-American votes but also feared social disorder if civil rights and War on Poverty legislation failed to pass. As vice president, Nixon plausibly thought that some African-Americans might be lured away from the Democrats; as president ten years later, he intended to capture George Wallace’s third-party constituency that had almost cost him the election in 1968.
Nixon probably also believed that Hispanic immigrants and their descendants would follow the pattern of earlier ethnic groups that had been regarded as less than fully white. Indeed, it had only taken two generations for many descendants of Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, and Armenians to join Nixon’s “silent majority” in defending “Square America.” This conservative scenario for Hispanics seemed plausible as recently as the election of President George W. Bush in 2000.
Viewed in the context of 2017, Trump is a worse bigot then Nixon. For most of his life, he seems to have disdained African-Americans in general no more than other “losers”; apparently, he still feels this way though his language is less derogatory than Truman’s. Nor does Trump complain about the “f***ing wetbacks” while fantasizing about building a “beautiful wall” along the Mexican border. Yet unlike any other modern president—indeed, unlike any other president except perhaps John Adams—he placed nativism at the center of his campaign and his administration.
Even during the late-nineteenth century, when routine suspicion of Roman Catholics was a Republican staple, William McKinley accepted nativist support reluctantly and quietly; he then appointed a Catholic attorney general whom he subsequently promoted to the Supreme Court. Ulysses Grant not only apologized frequently for his order removing Jews “as a class” from the large military district he had commanded in 1862, but also, as president, appointed more Jews than any of his predecessors. On the other hand, Trump took office believing that his coalition could stretch from the Ku Klux Klan to Ben Carson and from devout Jews in his cabinet and family to grassroots anti-Semites on the side.
Trump differs from Nixon—and from other modern presidents prone to erratic behavior—in two important respects. First, to an unprecedented degree, he really enjoys stirring things up between elections. Any president who does anything significant for good or ill catalyzes divisions in the country. Still, since the so-called Progressive era, an unofficial American ideology has held, as Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed in 1903, that “in the long run, we all of us tend to go up or down together.” This (hopefully) benign nationalism would (hopefully) serve as a kind of surrogate religion transcending all significant divisions. In the process, socialists and (the real economic) Populists, would be rejected because they sanctioned conflict as a tactic to improve the nation.iv
Almost nobody literally believed in the surrogate religion of national unity all the time. Successful interest group politics required attention to differences in class, race, ethnicity, gender, and religion. Benign nationalism turned malignant on a grand scale as early as World War I. Cultural shouting matches—grandiosely mislabeled culture “wars” by intellectuals who studied and/or participated in them– have persisted from Prohibition in the 1920s to clashes about sex, gender, and abortion today. Nor should anyone expect an end to shouting about who “we” are and which of us deserve to go up or down.
Yet the surrogate religion of national unity must be taken seriously as an American dream and rhetorical motif—especially in discussions of presidents. State legislator Barack Obama first attracted extraordinary attention when, in his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic convention, he proclaimed, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America.” Richard Nixon promised to “bring us together” after winning in 1968. Castigating the “forces of organized wealth” arrayed against the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt professed during the 1936 campaign to “welcome their hatred”; in the same extraordinary speech, however, FDR, blamed “class antagonism” in these plutocrats and urged people “from all parties and all faiths” to join him in bringing “peace of mind instead of gnawing fear.” Between elections all modern presidents have wanted national unity—on their own terms—even if their actual policies catalyzed conflict for good ends (FDR’s support of the welfare state and labor unions) or bad (Johnson’s and Nixon’s war in Indochina).v
From time to time, President Trump invokes the surrogate religion of national unity. Probably his shrewdest advisers understand the power of this tactic in a country where (hopefully) benign nationalism remains the dominant surrogate religion. At some emotional level, too, he probably would prefer national unity on his own terms. Even so, Trump’s sheer joy in stirring things up is palpable.
We can see this joy almost daily because Trump has almost no psychological filter to keep him from saying in public what he feels in private and because no one around the President seems able to restrain him for more than a few days. Here he differs from Truman, Johnson, and Nixon, who benefited from aides who ignored many of their wackiest orders (though, in Nixon’s case, not the worst of them). These presidents also had had long careers in electoral politics, a training ground for public caution. Despite his legendary temper, Eisenhower had mastered the art of public relations during his climb to five-star general.
Thus, Ike did not openly say that he considered Senate Republican leader William Knowland a dummy. Johnson lambasted “Zionist dupes” in the White House who criticized escalation in Vietnam while urging reinforcement of Israel during the 1967 Middle East War but he did not go public with the complaint. Although Nixon, egged on by Kissinger, often railed against Indira Gandhi, “that bitch, that whore” who was prime minister of the ungrateful Indian “bastards,” he behaved properly during meetings with her. If Trump ever feels this much malice toward Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany, we will probably find out via Twitter.vi
Trump’s distinctiveness in some respects must not obscure the continuities in the history of presidential bigotry and of the modern right. As Fox News likes to emphasize, Democrats practiced expediency or worse with respect to African-Americans. FDR refused to support anti-lynching legislation because, as he famously told Walter White of the NAACP, he needed help from southern committee chairman in Congress. JFK appointed openly racist judges for the same reason. George Wallace began and ended his political career as a Democrat.
At the same time, however, conservatives ignore Trump’s precursors in their own ranks. Among prominent pundits on the right, only Pat Buchanan seems to remember Nixon (whom he served as communications director). In Buchanan’s recollections, Nixon’s prejudices and abuse of power sound like quaint eccentricities. A few of the Republicans who call Trump an aberration leap over Nixon, not to mention Senator Joseph McCarthy, and try to land way back in the Lincoln White House. Most often, however, these so-called mavericks contrast Trump’s bitterness with Ronald Reagan’s “sunny” optimism.
This is not the place for a full critique of the Ronald Reagan mystique—exemplified, for example, in the recent CNN documentary, “The Reagan Show.” Suffice it to say that his record is more complex than the mystique. Reagan’s sunshine did not fall on the labor movement or victims of AIDS. Although Reagan responded sensibility to a reforming Soviet Union, his cold warrior foreign policy caused tens of thousands of needless deaths in Africa and Central America. Aside from the sluggish response to the AIDS epidemic, Reagan used little more than smiles and ceremonies to retain the backing of the (then) New Christian Right. Even so, there is a clear path from Reagan’s smiles alongside Jerry Falwell, Sr. to Trump’s smiles alongside Jerry Falwell, Jr.
Certainly many—perhaps most—Trump supporters love him because he continues to stir things up. What about those supporters who feel queasy about his temperament and prejudice? Voters typically settle for less than they want, especially in countries without a parliamentary system and proportional representation. One issue may dominate in a way that opponents have trouble understanding. For devout evangelical Protestants and Catholics, the issue is often abortion and the prospect of Supreme Court appointees overturning RoevWade. At least some of the working-class whites who helped to provide the margin of victory in three crucial states hoped for—perhaps no more than that—economic help. In the final analysis, Trump’s erratic behavior and bigotry were not and are not deal breakers.
The question is more complicated for embarrassed Republican officials. Raw ambition counts for a lot. Nor should we discount personal loyalty even though, as Chris Christie, Rudolph Giuliani and Newt Gingrich could attest, Trump, like Nixon, treats loyalty as a one-way street. Policies count too. A belief in lower taxes and less government as boons to the country, advantageous as these may be for Mnuchin and Cohn personally, have become conservative articles of faith. The President’s Hispanic allies in Congress and the state houses, insofar as they are thinking in terms of ethnic politics, may hope to ride out the Trump era and resuscitate the tactic of bringing Latinos and Latinas into a conservative coalition.
In some cases, there is a sense of responsibility for the country and the world. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson obviously want to restrain an erratic president. Gary Cohn invokes the surrogate religion of national unity. The administration “must do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities.”vii
Cohn, Mnuchin, and the other officials embarrassed by Trump’s prejudice may say no more about this question so long as they stay in office. But Henry Kissinger could provide a historical perspective on why an adviser would stick with a generically bigoted president, even one who insults the adviser’s ethnic or racial group. Perhaps there could be a televised panel with John Dean and David Gergen, fellow veterans of the Nixon White House, who, as born-again CNN moralists, frequently express shock that anyone continues to work for Trump. Kissinger might be cynical enough to give a real explanation.
i Richard Reeves, President Nixon: Alone in the White House (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001) 42, 170, 343, 370.
iii David McCullough, Truman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992) 286, 599.
iv Theodore Roosevelt, “National Unity Versus Class Cleavage,” in William Harbaugh, ed, The Writings of Theodore Roosevelt (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967) 16.
v David J. Garrow, Rising Star: The Making of Barrack Obama (New York: HarperCollins, 2017) 938-939. Stephen E. Ambrose, Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician 1962-1972 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989) 221. Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Campaign Address at Madison Square Garden October 31, 1936,” in Richard D. Polenberg, ed, The Era of Franklin D. Roosevelt 1933-1935: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford St. Martins, 2000) 54-55.
vi Reeves, President Nixon, 391. Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and his Times 1961-1973 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 429. Gary T. Bass, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (New York: Vintage, 2014). 271.
vii “Cohn urges Trump,” p. 3.
Leo Ribuffo teaches history at George Washington University and is the author of The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War and Right, Center, Left: Essays in American History.