Third in a Series
In earlier installments, we examined the 2016 elections and their impact on the Democrats. We have also pondered the likely contours of the 2018 midterm elections and how Republicans might think about solidifying their Congressional majority. Now, we will take a look, through the prism of history, at the 2020 presidential election.
1. A New Yorker in the White House
First, some background: The New York Republican presidential candidate was controversial—that’s for sure.
The Democratic establishment disliked him, the media loathed him, and legions of sometimes violent street-protestors hated him.
And yet the American people liked him—after all, they had elected him president. He had campaigned on popular themes, notably, extrication from foolish foreign entanglements, “law and order,” and a general routine to normalcy after eight years of increasingly bizarre left-wing Democratic dominion in the White House.
Still, because the opposition was so intense, his popular-vote percentage, even in victory, was in the mid 40s.
And yet during his first term, he proved to be an effective advocate for his right-of-center policies. Thus he consolidated his political base and won over many moderate Democrats.
Furthermore, after his first victory, the New York Republican’s re-election chances were greatly boosted when the Democrats went off the deep end, lurching far to the left. Specifically, they nominated a far-left candidate who was obliterated in the voting. And so the president sailed to a second term, winning a massive re-election landslide.
Am I describing Donald Trump here? No, I’m not, at least not yet. None of us, here on earth, can know the future. The best we can do is gather clues as to what will come next, and the best source of clues, as Virgil has argued, is the pattern of the past.
One such pattern is a sequence of events from the relatively recent past: the 1968 election and the 1972 re-election of our 37th president, Richard Nixon. Indeed, the parallels are instructive, and so they might serve usefully to illuminate Trump’s path in the quadrennium ahead.
Trump, as we all know, was elected this year with a comfortable majority in the electoral college, but with less than a plurality of the popular vote, at last count, 46.7 percent. So it’s no wonder, then, that opponents are already saying that Trump has no true mandate. And that, of course, is a prelude to the further effort to de-legitimize his presidency. To be a sure, a determined Trump supporter might be quick to riposte, Give us time. That is, since Trump has accomplished so much already, by winning as a long-shot candidate, it would be be a serious mistake to underestimate him in the future. And thus, once again, the battle is joined.
So with Trump’s future in mind, let’s learn from our history.
Let’s consider, as a case study, how Nixon traversed from election squeaker to re-election stomper. That is, how he went from winning 43 percent of the vote in 1968 to winning almost 61 percent in 1972. And oh yes, Nixon won an even more spectacular victory in the electoral college—521 electoral votes, the third-largest total in U.S. history.
Nixon, of course, was originally not a New Yorker at all—he was a Californian. He was elected to the U.S. House from the Golden State in 1946, and then to the U.S. Senate in 1950. Then, after eight years as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, he suffered defeats in the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 California gubernatorial election. After that, it was generally believed that he was washed up, politically, especially after he moved to Manhattan to take up a law practice.
And so when he did decide to return to the political arena in 1968, few observers thought he could win. As always, he was reviled by the press as “Tricky Dick” and dismissed by the Eastern establishment as an interloper.
Yet Nixon was smart. He could see things other couldn’t see: Unlike the liberal Republican elite—epitomized by then-New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller and New York City Mayor John Lindsay—he could see that middle-class America was horrified by the impact of liberal policies on the nation. The impact, that is, on both personal safety, on national security, and on general sanity.
Yet at the same time, unlike the conservative ideological elite—epitomized by Barry Goldwater, the badly defeated nominee of 1964, and by William F. Buckley, the publisher of the then-influential National Review—he could see that most Americans were not ideologically right-wing; they had no desire to launch more wars abroad or to repeal the New Deal at home, including such building-block programs as Social Security and the more recently enacted Medicare.
So we can see: In terms of ideology, Nixon wasn’t a liberal, but he also wasn’t a right-winger; he was a man of the realistic center-right.
Thus Nixon went through the middle to win the 1968 election: He was in the middle of the GOP in the primaries, and he went through the middle of country to win the general election. And it’s in the middle, of course, where victory is most often found—either center-right or, gulp, center-left. (In 2014, an astute observer here at Breitbart reviewed a memoir about Nixon’s comeback, as recalled by no less a first-hand observer than Pat Buchanan.)
And yet at the same time, as a matter of personal style, Nixon was always, at the same time, tough-minded. He liked to call himself a “nut cutter,” someone who never hesitated to “pick off the scab.”
Nixon was probably born tough, and he was made tougher by adversity in his early life, and then he was toughened even more by a searing experience early in his political career. In the late 1940s, the lawyerly freshman Congressman led the investigation of Alger Hiss, the Soviet spy. Yes, Hiss was a perjuring communist, but he was also a golden boy of the establishment.
So in going after Hiss—in effect, prosecuting this golden member of the elite—Nixon confronted the liberal establishment, which was always strangely eager to cover up communist subversion in its midst. Thus Nixon put himself in the left’s crosshairs, and he would remain their target for the rest of his life. Not to put too fine a point on it, the establishment despised Nixon, and Nixon despised them right back.
Yet for all his personal edge—his enemies would say, his personal demons—Nixon was, at the same time, a supreme pragmatist.
And so, for example, in the late 1960s, he could see that the then-raging Vietnam War—however well intentioned its origins might have been when launched by his predecessors—had turned into a practical failure. The common phrase back then was “quagmire.”
Thus on January 20, 1969, a new president, promising a new approach, was inaugurated as president, and Nixon’s running mate, Spiro Agnew, was sworn in as vice president.
Let’s consider the many similarities between Nixon’s situation then and Trump’s situation now:
*Unpopular foreign entanglements, courtesy of a Democratic predecessor? Check.
*Slow economy? Check.
*Ferocious Democratic opposition in Congress and around the country? Check.
*The smug view of the establishment that the new president was somehow a mistake, even illegitimate? Check.
*Relentlessly hostile media coverage? Check.
*Motley crews of sometimes violent protestors everywhere? Check.
Nixon knew well—perhaps too well—that he had lots of enemies. Yet even so, pragmatist that he was, he set about solving major problems facing the country. And how he went about that problem-solving is instructive, even to this day.
Indeed, it’s even possible that Nixonian pragmatism might anticipate the sort of master deal-making that Trump loves. So as part of our case study, let’s focus on the biggest policy challenge that Nixon confronted.
2. Vietnam as a Foreign Policy Issue and as a Political Issue
The hottest controversy in the country in 1969 was the Vietnam War, which the 37th president had “inherited” from the 36th president, Lyndon B. Johnson.
As noted, Nixon could see that the war was unwinnable, because under the palsied “rules of engagement” established by Johnson, the North Vietnamese could endlessly resupply and replenish their offensive forces in South Vietnam. Moreover, the the Chinese, and the Soviets, could endlessly resupply North Vietnam.
Yet by 1969, with more than half-a-million troops in the jungle, the American public was in no mood to consider further escalation as a way of possibly winning the war. Such escalation would have meant carrying the fight directly into North Vietnam, with an eye toward disrupting those crucial supply lines.
Such an escalation, of course, would have brought the risk of a direct confrontation with China and the USSR, and thus possibly even World War Three. It was clear to everyone that South Vietnam simply wasn’t worth that sort of planetary gamble. After all, the war had been sold to the American public as a limited war, not as an unlimited war.
So again, President Nixon could see that Vietnam had to end with something short of all-out American victory. And in fact, the collective national decision to exit Vietnam had been made the year before, in 1968, in the wake of the Tet Offensive.
Indeed, back in May 1968, under the Johnson administration, peace talks in Paris had commenced. However, those those talks proved to be their own kind of diplomatic quagmire, as the negotiators spent months wrangling, for example, over the shape of the conference table.
Why this bogging? Because the Hanoi government, hardened by two decades of fighting and confident of ultimate victory, was simply in no mood to negotiate anything other than American and South Vietnamese capitulation.
Yet for his part, Nixon, joined by most—although by no means all—Americans, believed that America couldn’t simply cut and run. That is, we couldn’t just evacuate our troops from South Vietnam, Dunkirk-style. Painful as the war was, we still needed to maintain our national prestige and strategic credibility; we needed to achieve, as Nixon had pledged during the campaign, “peace with honor.”
Thus Nixon launched a three-track strategy:
The first track was the slow and careful de-escalation of U.S. participation in the fighting.
The second track was the seeking out a new diplomatic solution to end the fighting through talks at the bargaining table.
The third track was the handling of the radical anti-war protestors who wanted, as they bragged, to “bring the war home.” As we shall see, the protestors, often violent, played into Nixon’s hands.
Stepping back, we can gather that Nixon had a challenging task—but then, being president is never easy.
So now let’s look at each of these three tracks in turn.
First, the de-escalation track. This was hardly an ideal approach, because it meant continuing a war, albeit at a tapering pace, that few Americans believed in. And yet for reasons of Grand Strategy, Nixon had little choice. Yes, Vietnam was a terrible predicament for America—and a tragedy for the GIs doing the fighting and the dying—but Nixon had to deal with the world as it was, not as he wished to be. And that meant carrying on the fight.
As Nixon said in a speech on April 30, 1970, the US had no choice but to gut it out, lest it be dramatically humiliated in the eyes of the world:
If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.
We can further observe, with sorrow, that sometimes, as a matter of bitter necessity, good leadership means presiding over bad outcomes. (It helped, however, that Nixon had himself served in the Pacific Theater during World War Two—nobody could accuse him of being a “chickenhawk.”)
So from the perspective of nearly half a century, one can best say this: If you see a Vietnam vet, give him a hug, because without a doubt, he got a raw deal. In the words of the famous Tennyson poem about another misbegotten but nonetheless heroic military operation, “Theirs not to reason why/ Theirs but to do and die.”
Second, the diplomatic track. Nixon could see, as Johnson could not, that direct negotiations with the North Vietnamese were never going to succeed.
So Nixon and his top foreign-policy aide, Henry Kissinger, hit upon a masterful stratagem that didn’t seem to have occurred to the Johnson administration: They would go over the heads of the North Vietnamese and parley, instead, with Hanoi’s ultimate masters in Beijing and Moscow.
To be sure, these negotiations “at the summit” were long and torturous, especially since we did not, in those days, have diplomatic relations with China. Yet during Nixon’s first term, U.S.-China relations began to thaw, culminating in Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing in February 1972. And that historic journey was followed by a less-remembered, but also vitally important, visit to Moscow in May 1972. In the case of both capitals, it was the first-ever trip by an American president.
In those high-stakes meetings, Nixon and Kissinger worked out a new understanding with both the Chinese and the Russians—namely, that in the near future, the U.S. would bomb North Vietnam with an intensity that had never been seen before. This was a big deal because, in the past, the U.S. had held off such bombing out of fear that American ordnance would kill Chinese or Russian nationals on the ground in North Vietnam—of whom there were plenty. As noted earlier, the larger fear was that such escalation could escalate into nuclear war.
Yet once Nixon’s new understanding with China and Russia had been worked out, the U.S. could proceed militarily against North Vietnam. Hence the extremely intense U.S. bombing campaigns of 1972 were met, not with Chinese or Russian outrage, but, rather, with aloof indifference. That was the difference Nixon’s diplomacy had achieved. The message to Hanoi was clear: You’re on your own, now. So you’d better negotiate in good faith with the U.S. government.
The result was the Paris Peace Accords of January 1973. And so, after a dozen years of fighting and more than 58,000 Americans dead, the war was finally over. Unlike some more recent recipients, Kissinger had actually earned his Nobel Peace Prize. To be sure, the deal was not completely satisfactory, but then in this world, what deal ever is?
Still, it’s more than likely that the Paris Accords would have held firm, at least for a long time, were it not for the fact that Nixon was forced to resign, as a result of Watergate, in 1974. Once Nixon was gone, the dramatically empowered Democrats—who, as a party, had flipped, going from hawkish to dovish during the Nixon years—voted in Congress to abandon South Vietnam.
Thus in 1975, the relentless North Vietnamese—bolstered, once again, by China and the Soviet Union—were finally triumphant.
So we can look back and be reminded of just how consequential the Watergate scandal was: Most obviously, it ended the Nixon presidency, but, in addition, it doomed the South Vietnamese and gave the USSR a geopolitical momentum that lasted throughout the 1970s, till the coming of Ronald Reagan.
And now we can pause to consider how Trump might draw inspiration from Nixon’s geopolitical genius. We might also note that in comparison, the Watergate scandal, serious as it was at the time, will be remembered as a mere unfortunate footnote.
Third, the handling-the-protestors track. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, many millions of Americans honorably and decently opposed the Vietnam War. In fact, opponents of the war were a majority.
However, within this anti-war majority, major splits emerged as to how to extricate Uncle Sam from the conflict. As noted, Nixon had said that we shouldn’t just turn tail, that we should seek an honorable way out—and most Americans agreed with him.
Yet for a hard core of anti-war protestors, any delay was unacceptable. And so they took to the campus quads and to the streets demanding, “Get Out Now!”
Moreover, a considerable number of noisy anti-war protestors went further than that—much further. They took their activism around the bend, as it were, morphing into full-blown anti-Americans. They were haters, and they delighted in burning the American flag to prove it. These angry people proclaimed themselves to be “revolutionaries,” forming themselves into groups such as Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground.
They vandalized public buildings, terrorized ordinary people, and organized themselves into pro-communist terrorist cells, from which they committed further crimes. (One of the best known of these radicals was Bill Ayers, who later became a mentor to Barack Obama.)
Meanwhile, the entire youthful counter-culture descended into a self-indulgent orgy of drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll.
Of course, all this craziness was appalling to most Americans. And so for every self-identified member of “Woodstock Nation,” there were a hundred who continued to play by the rules, pay their taxes, and serve their country.
Thus we can see an emerging political dynamic: The antics of the hippies, and the crimes of the Weathermen, did not, as they said back then, play well in Peoria.
And for his part, Nixon, crafty politician that he was, soon realized that he could take advantage of the situation—that is, use the protestors as a foil. Nixon made the case to Middle America: Who should run the country: The elected president, along with other constitutional officers, or these radical protestors?
The opinion numbers associated with that dichotomy weren’t even close: Nixon had the greater majority with him, even among moderate and conservative Democrats (there were plenty back then) who didn’t like Nixon.
Yes, Nixon skillfully played his hand. In a televised speech to the nation on November 30, 1969, he asked the “silent majority” to stand with him, and with America as we had known it—and not with the radicals.
That phrase, “silent majority,” was used only once in the speech, but it had an electric effect across the country. The folks at home knew that Nixon was talking to them, just as FDR had three decades earlier, in his famous fireside chats.
Meanwhile, that same year, the popular country and western song, Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee, also struck a resonant chord in the popular culture:
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free
Thus a new center-right consciousness was born. And at the end of 1969, Time magazine named “The Middle Americans” as its Man and Woman of the Year.
Thus politically, Nixon was on his way. He was the leader of what was called “the emerging Republican majority.” And unlike, say, an ideologue such as Goldwater, Nixon was careful not to antagonize public opinion: In office, he was no enemy of labor unions, and he even increased Social Security by initiating an annual inflation-based Cost Of Living Allowance for retirees. (A smart take on the making of the Nixon majority can be found here at Breitbart.)
In addition, beginning in 1969, Nixon unleashed Vice President Spiro Agnew to attack the biased media. Agnew’s famous volleys of angry alliteration—referring to the pundits, for example, as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” were political gold, and became part of political folklore.
Indeed, Agnew’s adversarial stance has provided the template that’s been used ever since by Republican/conservative critics of the MSM. (In 1973, Agnew was forced to resign because of a personal financial scandal, unrelated to Watergate.)
Yet because of his personality, as well as the polarized opinion of that era, Nixon himself was never truly popular, and after June 1972, the Watergate scandal, avidly stoked by the Democrats and the media, began to take its toll.
And yet at the same time, Nixon benefited from the nuttiness of his enemies. As Virgil has described, the Democrats, swept up in anti-war/countercultural enthusiasm, veered way to the left. And so their presidential nominee in 1972 was the hopelessly unelectable Sen. George McGovern.
Despite the bleeding from Watergate, Nixon carried 49 states that November, garnering 60.7 percent of the popular vote. Considering that he had won just 43.4 percent of the vote in 1968, that was a 17-point jump. In fact, it was, and still is, the largest percentage increase for a single president in U.S. history—not bad! And oh, by the way, in ’72 Nixon won 73.7 percent of the vote of Merle Haggard’s proud Okies in the Sooner State.
3. The Nixon Lesson: Implications for Trump
Trump, born in 1946, obviously remembers all this history—he was there to see it.
Today, as the soon-to-be 45th president prepares to take power, the U.S. doesn’t face a foreign military crisis as severe as was Vietnam in Nixon’s day. And yet still, there are plenty of crises that could benefit from fresh strategic thinking.
We can start with the grim situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, which count as the two mini-Vietnams that Trump has inherited from Barack Obama.
But first, let’s take a moment to consider the challenge of waging a counterinsurgency, whether it be in Vietnam in the ’60s and ’70s, or in Afghanistan and Iraq in the ’00s and ’10s.
Here’s a general rule for policymakers: If the counter-insurgency is aimed at an insurgency that can be resupplied and replenished from a contiguous country, it’s highly unlikely that the counter-insurgency will prevail.
To put this point more bluntly, the counter-insurgent force must isolate the insurgents—or else, admit defeat.
We can add that failure to isolate the insurgents was the mistake that the U.S. made in Afghanistan. Yes, it was easy enough for American forces to occupy Kabul in 2001, thus ejecting the Taliban regime. And yet in the years after, as the American mission morphed from legitimate punitive expedition in the wake of 9/11 to an amorphous goal of “nation building,” the original successful mission became, sadly, a “mission impossible.”
That is, so long as the Taliban, scattered as it was, could be resupplied through Afghanistan’s porous border with Pakistan, it was never going to be defeated—at least not by the U.S., with its finicky rules of engagement. And since Pakistan, population 180 million, has close ethnic- and religious ties to most of the Afghan people, there will never be a shortage of new Taliban fighters. Unless, of course, Pakistan chooses, on its end, to cut off the supply.
In addition, it pains Virgil to observe that the same doleful dynamic crippled the U.S. military in another war, Iraq. That is, so long as the Iraqi fighters, both Sunni and Shia, could be resupplied and replenished from neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, we were never going to win there, either.
Thus we can see: If the American government had truly wished to succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would have thought strategically, in advance of both invasions, about how truly to isolate the insurgents, through whatever possible military or diplomatic means.
And so today we can see: There’s no way that we will ever achieve anything close to “peace with honor” in Afghanistan without the full and honest cooperation of the Taliban’s masters in Pakistan.
Thus we can further see a better course of action in 2017: Just as Nixon went over the heads of the North Vietnamese to cut a deal with China and Russia, so President Trump might wish to go over the heads of the Taliban to cut the needed deal with Pakistan. That is, the road to peace in Afghanistan runs through Islamabad, not Kabul.
We can also make the same point about Syria. The solution will not be found in peace talks between combatants who would prefer to be killing each other—and certainly not in “free elections,” as Secretary of State John Kerry has laughably suggested. (Imagine: warring combatants will call a time out to vote!) Instead, the solution will come from Syria’s patrons, Iran and Russia.
And finally, a word about Iran. That country is now firmly embedded in a Eurasian alliance with Russia and China. Indeed, the Iranians and the Russians are currently negotiating yet another arms deal—this one for a reported $10 billion. Thus we can see: We aren’t going to get anywhere trying to muscle Iran if it has powerful patrons protecting it; in fact, China now has larger economy than the U.S.
So if the goal is to deal toughly with Iran, it will require the acquiescence of Beijing and/or Moscow. Otherwise, as in Vietnam, the U.S. is unlikely to risk a great-power confrontation. And so gaining that acquiescence to act firmly against Iran, if it can be gained, will take the same sort of direct high-level diplomacy that Nixon and Kissinger used more than four decades ago.
Here, Virgil will venture an informed guess about the near future: President Trump will see world diplomacy as an extension of what he has done best all his life—make deals. If so, that instinct will serve him well, as he differentiates himself from his failed predecessors and launches a new era of high-level give-and-take.
Most likely, a President Trump will treat China and Russia as great powers to be dealt with as potential partners, not as bad actors to be “reformed” by America. That is, it isn’t necessary to personally be fond of a leader, or to approve of his or her regime, to nonetheless get things done.
In diplomatic terminology, this pragmatic approach is known as realism, or realpolitik, and, in the end, it’s the only approach that works. After all, a leader must deal with the world as it is, not as he or she wishes it to be. From Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush to Barack Obama, we’ve had too many presidents who wished to “improve” other nations by force—and it almost never works.
Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Trump faces a situation that also echoes Nixon’s. During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s invocation of “law and order” recalled the 1968 campaign, and moreover, Trump’s hymn to “the forgotten man” was in keeping with Nixon’s tribute to the “silent majority.”
Meanwhile, as if they are determined to keep this parallelism going, the Democrats today are reprising their McGovern-era leftward lurch. The likely election of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) as the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee is one such sign, and so, too, is the reappearance of street protestors (although this time around, many of them seem to be funded by various George Soros front groups). It’s hard to see how the Democrats are on a track to nominate anyone other than a left-winger in 2020.
So that’s Trump’s trump card: He has a huge electoral advantage, being baked into the political cake right now.
Nevertheless, President Trump will still face all the challenges that he pledged to fix during the campaign. And so even if he is already the favorite to be re-elected, his place in the hearts of the American people, and in the pantheon of history, will be determined by his deeds in the years to come.
Thus as he readies himself for the awesome responsibility of the Oval Office, he might give some thought to the great foreign-policy successes of the last Republican president from New York. And of course, at the same time, he has surely long ago resolved never to make any of Nixon’s many mistakes.