Is Trump a New Nixon? Historians Can’t Agree.

Historians in the News
tags: Watergate, Nixon, Trump

Related Link Historians Will Be Baffled by Our Times

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!!” theNixonlandauthorwrote. 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?” ...

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