In countless ways, Donald Trump has stolen shamelessly from Richard Nixon.
On the campaign trail, Trump recycled the precise slogans of his Republican predecessor, assuring voters that he was the “law and order” candidate who would be a tireless champion of “the silent majority.” But it wasn’t just rhetoric. Trump took some of the president’s men, too. One of Nixon’s best-known accomplices, the infamous operative Roger Stone, aided Trump on the campaign trail, while Roger Ailes, who began his career with a media makeover for dour Nixon, helped prep Trump for his own presidential debates.
Through Trump’s first year in office, the Nixon notes in his politics have only become more pronounced. In foreign affairs, for instance, Trump has followed a decidedly Nixonian path, perhaps informed by his meetings with Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Much like Nixon did with détente, Trump has sought friendlier relationships with Russia and China. In his dealings with North Korea, Trump has embraced the “madman theory” Nixon once used to stoke uncertainty among the Soviets and North Vietnamese.
Meanwhile, at home, the president has engaged in public feuds with a range of political enemies. Recently departed presidential adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman even acknowledged that the Trump White House is, like the Nixon administration, “keeping a list” of its perceived enemies, and is likewise planning retribution against them.
While Nixon’s “enemies list” included a number of Democratic politicians, liberal organizations and labor unions in its ranks, the news media figured most prominently. Nearly five dozen reporters, correspondents, columnists, editors and publishers were named on Nixon’s hit list, as were liberal papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
While we don’t yet know the names on Trump’s purported enemies list, it seems likely the media will be prominently featured. Indeed, given his statements, the media likely looms even larger on Trump’s list than it did on Nixon’s. Nixon fumed behind closed doors that “the press is the enemy,” but Trump has done so in public, and repeatedly. Indeed, he has declared that the media isn’t just his enemy, but rather the “enemy of the American people.”
The goal of Nixon’s “enemies list,” as White House counsel John Dean noted in a 1971 memo, was to determine “how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”
Enemies list in hand, the Nixon administration targeted the media in a variety of ways. First and foremost, the White House used its bully pulpit to denounce the press. Vice President Spiro Agnew led the way, attacking the major networks and newspapers as “a tiny enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government.” The war of words begun, the media readily returned fire. (In a famous cheap shot, ABC talk-show host Dick Cavett later observed that the letters in “Spiro Agnew” rearranged to spell “Grow a penis.”)
Trump’s attacks are not just more prominent than Nixon’s, they’re more strident. While Nixon largely delegated the dirty work of anti-press broadsides to his vice president, Trump has happily led the fight himself. On balance, the Nixon administration largely complained that media elites demonstrated a liberal bias in prioritizing some stories over others. Trump, however, has accused the “fake news media” of making up stories entirely. Ultimately, Agnew’s harshest public criticism was that the press was too pessimistic; Trump has accused it of intentional lies and willful fabrications.
Beyond bullying, both presidencies threatened the press with political payback. In 1971, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler privately complained to CBS reporter Dan Rather that the networks were all “anti-Nixon” and “they’ll have to pay for that, sooner or later, one way or another.” In a meeting with the head of CBS News, Nixon aide Chuck Colson warned that the White House would retaliate. “We will bring you to your knees,” he promised. “We will break your network.”
As the Nixon White House plotted its revenge, it readily drew on the “available federal machinery” to which Dean alluded. Naturally, the Federal Communications Commission loomed large. When The Washington Post began its investigations into Watergate, for instance, Nixon urged his staffers to hurt the paper by blocking FCC license renewals for the profitable television stations it owned.
“The Post is going to have damnable, damnable problems out of this one,” the president predicted. “There ain’t going to be no forgetting and there will damn well be little forgiving.”
Trump has made similar threats but, once again, it’s notable that he’s done so in public rather than in private. “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked,” he tweeted in October. “Not fair to public!”
While the president’s threat here was ultimately empty ― as many pointed out, individual stations have FCC licenses, but the larger networks do not ― when coupled with other threats to ban critical media outlets from the White House, loosen libel laws and prosecute whistleblowers, the FCC threat suggests that Trump, like Nixon, is ready and willing to use all the powers of the presidency against his “enemies” in the press.
Nixon, of course, lost his war with the press. For all of his fulminations against the Post, the newspaper’s investigations not only helped topple his presidency but also inspired a new generation of journalists.
It’s too soon, of course, to say whether the media will have the last laugh with Trump, too. By many measures, the press is thriving. Trump insists that his enemies in the media are all “failing,” but in truth business has rarely been better. Subscriptions to the major newspapers are up sharply, and Trump’s critics on cable television have likewise seen a ratings boost.
Ironically, the most significant source of support for the Trump White House’s war on the media comes from within the ranks of the media itself. Unlike Nixon, who believed that the press, with some slight exceptions, was universally against him, Trump has relied on the considerable support of conservative outlets like Breitbart News and Fox News. They have effectively blunted the effect of other outlets’ revelations about the president, dismissing facts as “fake news” and advancing the administration’s arguments to audiences who rarely, if ever, hear from more critical outfits.
With the media landscape fractured, the administration and its allies have a chance to seize the initiative. This time around, the president’s list of friends might prove to be more important than his list of enemies.
Kevin M. Kruse, professor of history at Princeton University, is the author, most recently, of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.
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