Damp and clammy. Last week was the 49th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation. Go back to your half-forgotten copy of Woodward and Bernstein’s The Final Days, or John Dean’s Blind Ambition, or Teddy White’s Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon, turn pages, browse a bit, and see if you don’t feel just a little damp and clammy.
Then, do as I did and try RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, where the former President gives explanations that are a lot like wargaming, and have those feelings intensify. If you are of a certain age, you can recall your own memories and emotions as history was being made. Perhaps you will also recall the sense of confusion, a growing anger, and then relief, as the “System” sputtered and lurched, moved backwards and forwards, and finally, with all its mightiness, resolved itself and decisively brought it all to a close.
There stood Richard Nixon, less than two years after a smashing landslide of a reelection victory, a solitary figure on a helicopter’s steps, his hands outstretched for last time, to be carried away to political oblivion.
There is a minor American myth about shame and regret. It goes like this.
In the years following Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation amid scandal and disgrace, polls found that fewer Americans admitted to having voted for him than actually did. Apparently many former Nixon voters now realized the error of their ways and were embarrassed to admit ever having pulled the lever for him.
Everything about this story is false, and the truth of it is worse. Nixon’s loyal supporters stood by him the entire way, despite his crimes. His popularity did not retreat behind a wave of shame; it was merely muted by the national embarrassment of his resignation.
What does this tell us about today’s Trump supporters? Partisan divisions are much worse now than they were during the mid-1970s, so Trump voters’ fierce loyalty to this sexist, racist charlatan is unsurprising. But in explaining why, we tend to focus on the Cult of Trump, as if he has special qualities that give him some magical hold over his supporters. True, in many ways Trump is a unique politician in American history. Yet given our history, it seems likelier that his supporters’ undying devotion is less about the spells Trump casts, and more about the constancy of American political partisanship.
Indeed, the difference between Trump’s and Nixon’s loyal supporters might be more about decibel count than sentiment. And so by looking back at the steadfast support Richard Nixon maintained right through his resignation, we can better understand the misguided loyalty keeping Trump’s reelection campaign afloat. Read more »