From Nixon to Clinton

Pundits have been drawing the wrong comparisons for months: Hillary Clinton is a modern-day Richard Nixon.

I’ve been saying for months that Donald Trump is the George McGovern of the GOP, the fractious leader who so alienated the elders of his party that they deserted him in droves, handing the election to his opponent. We’re already seeing the signs.

From Talking Points Memo:

A former aide to John McCain, who served both as the Arizona senator’s chief of staff and a senior advisor on his 2008 presidential campaign, made clear Tuesday that he would vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in the general election.

“I’m with her,” Mark Salter tweeted, referring to Clinton’s campaign slogan, after noting the likely nomination of Trump, “a guy who reads the National Enquirer and thinks it’s on the level.”

From the Associated Press:

Already, aides say, a number of Republicans privately told Clinton and her team they plan to break party ranks and support her as soon as Trump formally captures his party’s nomination.

“We have an informed understanding that we could have the potential to expect support from not just Democrats and independents, but Republicans, too,” said Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon. “There’s a time and place for that support to make itself known.”

. . .

Clinton has begun casting her candidacy in recent days as a cry to unify a divided country. After a series of victories last week, which all but ensured she will capture her party’s nomination, Clinton called on Democrats, independents and what she called “thoughtful Republicans” to back her bid.

Guy Cecil, chief strategist of Priorities USA Action, the super PAC backing her campaign, echoed that language Tuesday night, calling on “Democrats, independents and reasonable Republicans” to reject Trump’s “outdated ideas.”

While a vocal segment of the Republican Party has denounced Trump, few have been willing to go as far as saying they would back Clinton in the fall.

Ben Howe, a Republican strategist who has worked for Cruz, said he’d be actively working against Trump — a decision he recognizes means backing Clinton.

“Anything right now that would allow Donald Trump to become president is the wrong move, so the de facto result is that Hillary would win,” he said. “I don’t agree with Hillary Clinton. What I think is Hillary Clinton is more honest than Trump, and that’s saying a lot.”

Endorsements from prominent GOP backers could potentially pave the way for Republican voters to back Clinton, particularly women.

In the same way that McGovern prompted an exodus from the Democratic Party — most visibly and prominently among elites, but also among rank-and-filers — so will Trump. Indeed, it has already begun. And it will only gain strength in the coming months.

But if Trump is the McGovern of the Republicans, what does that make Hillary Clinton? As the Associated Press notes:

There is some irony in Clinton playing the role of a unifier: She’s long been one of the most divisive figures in American politics. But while 55 percent of Americans said they had a negative opinion of Clinton in an Associated Press-GfK poll released last month, 69 percent said the same of Trump.

The same was true of Richard Nixon. Long before Watergate, Cambodia, and the Plumbers, Nixon was widely viewed, and loathed, as one of the most divisive figures in American politics. People forget, but Nixon had been on the front lines — and in the headlines — of partisan warfare since his days on the House Un-American Activities Committee. Indeed, if there is any precedent for today’s conservative hatred of Hillary, it is yesterday’s liberal hatred of Tricky Dick.

That moniker raises another parallel.

Not unlike Clinton, Nixon had trouble in the authenticity department.

In his 1960 book Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference?, Arthur Schlesinger devoted several pages to the proposition that Nixon was perhaps the most inauthentic man in American politics. The book features Evelyn Houston claiming that Nixon suffered from a “pervasive and alchemic falsity,” that Nixon had “a veritable Midas touch for making ersatz of the real.”

Schlesinger even resorts to David Riesman’s famous theory of the “other-directed man” to explain Nixon’s being “obsessed with appearances rather than the reality of things, obsessed above all with his own appearance, his own image, seeking reassurance through winning, but never knowing why he is so made to win or what he will do with his victory.” Sound familiar?

In fairness to Clinton — and Nixon — such charges of inauthenticity and shiftiness often dog what Steve Skowronek calls “preemptive” presidencies. That is, presidents who are opposed, at least in a partisan sense (ideologically, they are more ambivalent and ambiguous), to the dominant, still-resilient regime. (In Clinton’s case, the regime is Ronald Reagan’s.)

Classic trimmers, these are presidents who must nip and tuck, constantly maneuvering between a restive base that wants to see an overthrow of the dominant regime and an opposition that is still strong enough to call the shots. These are presidents who never make anyone happy, least of all their own supporters.

That is why, in their moments of crisis, they often find themselves deserted, without any friends or allies. That is also why I don’t envy Clinton, who’s about to face one of the biggest shitstorms of her already shitstorm-ridden career, once she wins the election in November. (Yes, if she wins the nomination, which it seems she will, she’ll most definitely win the election.)

Despite all these deficits, Nixon was able to repackage himself in 1972 — with the aid of an extraordinarily unpopular opponent, who couldn’t muster the support of his own party (sound familiar), and a robust economy — as the great unifier. Indeed, he went on to defeat McGovern in one of the all-time greatest landslides in American history.

And we all know how that ended. As I said, I don’t envy Clinton.

A final word from the pages of history: there’s going to be an awful lot of Clinton liberals trying to present Clinton’s candidacy as the second coming of the Popular Front, that hoary moment in progressive history when all the forces of the good and the gallant on the Left gathered together to defeat the forces of fascism on the Right.

However you cast your ballot in November, please remember this: Léon Blum was a Socialist, and the Popular Front was not simply about defeating fascism, but about defeating fascism through socialism.

“He who does not wish to speak of capitalism,” Max Horkheimer famously said, “should also remain silent about fascism.” I’m not exactly sure how that translates into the present moment, but of this I am certain: don’t talk about Clinton and the Popular Front in the same breath.