Richard Nixon. Donald Trump. Two of the most controversial and belligerent presidents in recent memory. One was brought down by journalistic work, and the other seems intent on making sure that doesn’t happen to him.
At this point in time, after a 16-month campaign, three months as President-elect, and 29 days as President Trump, it should be deadly clear to everyone that Mr. Trump sees himself in perpetual conflict with the majority of the press apparatus. He has made certain to point out which outlets he feels are responsible for “fake news” — a buzzword he’s twisted nearly beyond recognition of its original use.
Mr. Nixon is perhaps best known for his own conflict with the press — or rather, the pivotal role that the press had in bringing him down during the Watergate scandal.
However, when you look into both presidents’ relationships with the press, and their public and private speaking styles, you can find some eerie similarities.
Last week, a tweet drew some attention that referenced a taped conversation between Mr. Nixon and his National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, saying that the “press is the enemy, the professors are the enemy.” You can listen to the audio file here.
[Audio by The Nixon Tapes]
Doesn’t that repetition sound familiar? Even barring Mr. Trump’s tweet on Friday about the “fake news media” being the “enemy of the American People,” the cadence of Mr. Nixon’s voice in this conversation must bring to mind the repetitions from Mr. Trump’s campaigns and public addresses. Particularly similar is his statement during an interview with ABC’s David Muir that “the world is a mess. The world is as angry as it gets.”
Notice the refrains of “the world is a mess,” and “take a look at what’s happening in…” Mr. Trump seems dedicated to repeating this narrative in much the same way that Nixon practically chanted his to Mr. Kissinger all those years ago.
This is only one example of Mr. Trump’s similarities to Mr. Nixon. Another glaring one comes clear in his convention speech five months ago at the Republican National Convention.
The New York Times reported in July on the subject, stating the following.
“[…] Mr. Trump sees the path to victory this fall as the exploitation of the country’s anxieties about race, its fears of terrorism and its mood of disaffection, especially among white, working-class Americans.”
This is, essentially, the article goes on to say, exactly what Mr. Nixon did at the 1968 convention.
All of this is all well and good, but the most unsettling part of all of this is, as said before, both Presidents’ conflicts with the press. Mr. Nixon’s hostility toward the press during the Watergate scandal makes sense: their investigation essentially engineered his downfall. And the threat he posed was real; reporters working on the story did fear for their safety and their lives during the scandal.
However, Carl Bernstein, one of those reporters, has come forward saying that Mr. Trump’s attacks on the press are “a demagogue’s statement.” These comments, reported in CNNMoney, build on the allegation by adding this.
“We live in a time now where there is no civic consensus in this country like there was at the time of Watergate about acceptable presidential conduct. There was a consensus that Nixon had to leave office because he had breached that acceptable conduct.”
No such consensus exists regarding Mr. Trump’s behavior; that much has been made clear throughout the campaign that brought him to power. Partisan dogmatism, in part because of the polarization of hyper-conservative media sources (Fox News and Breitbart News being major examples), has destroyed that consensus.
The job of a free press has always been to check and balance its government. This is the purpose of the First Amendment and its clause regarding the free press. This is one of the oldest of American values, and we cannot allow Mr. Trump’s attacks to muddy that.
For all Mr. Trump’s allegations of fake news and all of his aping of Nixon, we must, as a country of citizens and a free press, vigorously resist the notion that the “opposition party” should be done away with, or that the press is, in general, lying to the people. We must remember Mr. Bernstein’s work to uncover Watergate, and Ida B. Wells’ and Nelly Bly’s social-crusader journalism.
The truth becomes partisan only when the administration refuses to root its actions and policies in real-world data, information, and facts.
If this is the world we live in now, we must remember that.
[Featured Image by National Archive/Getty Images]