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20 January 2018

By drawing parallels to Nixon, The Post pays Trump a compliment he doesn’t deserve

Does Spielberg’s paean to the great American newspaper offer some insight into how the current US president will be remembered?   

By Will Dunn

No review of Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The Post, has failed to mention how well-timed it is. It tells the story of how the New York Times and the Washington Post published documents that revealed the US government’s dishonesty about the Vietnam War – and Richard Nixon’s attempts to gag them. Its UK release this weekend came just two days after Donald Trump announced his Fake News Awards, a derisive list of perceived slights that takes aim at, among others, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The same newspapers are being targeted, and the intended effect is the same. Only the means have changed: while Nixon tried to silence the press with the brute force of the Supreme Court, Trump aims to discredit it using the kangaroo court of social media, to keep repeating the phrase “fake news” until people can’t watch the news without hearing it.

It is not the first time Trump has appeared to borrow strategy from Nixon. In diplomacy, the Nixon administration pioneered the “Madman Theory” of nuclear brinkmanship – the idea that the President was a hornet’s nest of rage, that he could not be controlled, and that any Russian provocation might lead to Nixon petulantly destroying all human life. “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone,” Nixon is said to have boasted to a group of congressmen, “and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.”

In his own international negotiations, Donald Trump’s threat that he is a “crazy guy” appears to be thought out, if thought was involved, along similar lines. A tweet about hitting the red button is the modern equivalent of Nixon’s terrifying boast. There is a horrendous logic to this approach: as Theresa May pointed out in the Commons during the Trident renewal debate in 2016, nuclear weapons are thought to work as a deterrent only if the politician in charge of them is committed to killing millions upon millions of civilians at a stroke (May reassured the SNP’s George Kerevan that she was).

Nixon and Trump have also shared similar language, especially when talking about race. Trump’s description of Mexicans as “bad hombres” and “rapists” echoes Nixon’s tirades, in 1972 and 73 against Jewish people (“atheistic, immoral bunch of bastards”) the Irish (“can’t drink”), the Italians (“don’t have their heads screwed on”) and black people (“bastards”; “dogs”).

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And of course, both men were elected after break-ins at the Democratic National Congress.

But actually the two men lived very different lives. Nixon was born into abject poverty, while Trump was born into immense wealth. Nixon’s academic performance won him a Harvard scholarship, but he was unable to take it up because his mother needed him to work in the family grocery store while she cared for his brother, who was dying of tuberculosis. Nixon later took up a full scholarship at one of the world’s top law schools. According to Trump biographer Gwenda Blair, Donald Trump’s transfer into the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School was enabled by “friendly” admissions officer, who had been a classmate of his older brother.

Following America’s entry into the Second World War, Nixon was entitled, having been born a Quaker, to claim exemption from the draft. He did not, and having joined the Naval Reserve in 1942, worked as a base officer in the South Pacific. Trump received medical exemption for the Vietnam draft due to a foot condition.

And while there are parallels between the Watergate break-in and the hacking of the DNC’s computers in 2016 – there are also revealing distinctions. The Nixon administration was in charge of the plot to steal information and install listening devices in the rival party’s office. The person in charge of hacking of the DNC’s computers was almost certainly a Russian military intelligence officer. The Trump presidency is a product of the modern world but Nixon, for better or worse, took an active role in creating it.

It’s worth remembering that Nixon also won the election after Watergate by the old-fashioned means of getting more votes than his opponent, in a huge, 49-state landslide.

If Spielberg hopes The Post will make Trump voters think about how history will judge their president, Nixon may not, then, have been the best choice. Tricky Dicky has become a byword for dishonesty but he has also become a nostalgic figure. Stephen Colbert said in 2006 that he had “tender feelings for Nixon, because everybody has warm feelings about their childhood”; many Americans remember Nixon as the President of the Moon landings, the end of the Vietnam War and an America that still accounted for around a quarter of global GDP. If Spielberg wanted to sow doubt in the minds of Trump voters then perhaps Bill Clinton, whose sexual misconduct and lack of honesty about it inspired such loathing on the American right, would have been a more effective analogue.

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