It was a look we haven’t seen from the man who has been the constant focus of media attention for more than 30 years. Donald Trump appeared wan, if not a bit shocked, as he sat with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on Thursday.
Aides told The New York Times that their man was truly surprised by the success of the get-out-the-angry-voter campaign that won him the presidency.
In Washington, Trump and Obama discussed the upcoming transfer of power and the awesome responsibility of the office. By the sound of things, the President-elect appreciated the session. During the brief moment when the press was invited to see the two men, Trump repeatedly called Obama “a very good man” and predicted he would seek his counsel in the future.
This note seemed more sincere than the usual bland talk of cooperation that follows an election, as if Trump recognizes that he needs help. A day later he spoke of retaining parts of Obamacare, which he had previously said he would immediately repeal in its entirety upon taking office.
Although Trump may come to appreciate Obama’s strengths, he’s not going to model his presidency on the man whom he has trashed for much of the past eight years. This leaves him challenged to find a presidential role model that would help him to deliver on the claim that he has the temperament to serve.
His irritable tweet about people protesting his election — “Very unfair!” — revealed this is a work in progress for the famously direct man who has confessed to being “a fabulous whiner.” However, Trump has no choice but to transform himself from tetchy celebrity into the chief executive and commander in chief.
Not a reader of books, Trump won’t seek a role model in the Abraham Lincoln of “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin or the Andrew Jackson of “American Lion” by Jon Meacham. However, he is perhaps the most avid consumer of mass media ever to be elected president, and he has formed impressions of those presidents who have served during his lifetime.
Among the most recent presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Obama, Trump has seen much to criticize. Although he recently praised Reagan, when the Gipper was in office Trump questioned his ability to deliver the goods. In his book “Trump: The Art of the Deal,” he said Reagan was so “smooth” that it took seven years for people to “question whether there’s anything beneath that smile.”
Trump was once close to Bill Clinton but shredded him in the 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton. In that campaign he also repeatedly lashed out at George W. Bush. And, though he told me he admired Obama’s skills, Trump built his political base on a racially provocative and false suggestion that his predecessor was not born in the United States and was thus ineligible for the office.
In light of his wavering attitude about those who occupied the White House since 1980, we must go back further to seek a Trump role model.
Trump would have been a bit young to identify with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Besides, it was Ike who sicced the federal bureaucracy on Trump’s father, Fred Trump Sr., on suspicion that he abused a housing program for veterans and the middle class. So the general would be out as an exemplar for Trump.
John F. Kennedy’s wealth, glamor and sex symbol status would have appealed to Trump when it came to style. However, to my knowledge, Trump has never said anything notable about Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson or Gerald Ford.
Jimmy Carter, in Trump’s view, “had the nerve, the guts, the balls” to get elected, but “couldn’t do the job.”
Nixon’s the one
The process of elimination, if nothing else, suggests that it may be Richard Nixon whom Trump will choose to emulate.
A close look shows that Trump has already followed the Nixon model in important ways. During his winning campaign, Trump borrowed from Nixon the term “silent majority,” which was used by the Republican ticket to refer to Americans who quietly supported their agenda in 1967.
When the words appeared on Trump placards in 2015 few, if any, of the reporters covering him were old enough to recall the origins of the term. They were also too young to have experienced the anti-press sloganeering that Nixon running mate Spiro Agnew practiced (he called reporters “nattering nabobs of negativism”), or the law-and-order rhetoric that was Nixon’s dog-whistle signal to Southern whites who had been discomfited by the civil rights movement.
In the search for Trump’s guiding example, the President-elect’s temperament and his campaign performance evoke another of the slogans — “Nixon’s the One” — that resonated in 1968. (Trump said “only I” can fix the country’s problems.)
Trump’s Nixon connection was cemented when the disgraced president, forced from office by the Watergate scandal, sent him a kind of fan letter after his wife Pat reported seeing young Trump on TV in 1987.
“I did not see the program,” wrote Nixon. “But Mrs. Nixon told me you were great. As you can imagine, she is an expert on politics and she predicts that whenever you decide to run for office you’ll be a winner!”
Another Nixon connection
Nixon’s references to Trump’s future greatness and winning touched on themes that the candidate would use frequently in the 2015-2016 campaign. Trump would also rely on a former Nixon hand, one of the few surviving tricksters of the old man’s 1972 reelection effort, to inform both his political identity and his strategy.
When it comes to politics, no one has been closer to Trump for as long as Roger Stone, who maintains to this day his credibility as an extreme operator, which he established when he posed as a socialist donor to undo Nixon’s fellow Republican and antagonist Rep. Pete McCloskey of California in 1972.
Just as Trump used a no-holds-barred approach to prevail in business, Stone is known as a dark-arts genius in politics and his Nixonian style could be seen in the “Lock her up!” chants directed at Hillary Clinton at his client’s rallies. (It’s not clear whether Stone coined the phrase, but he loved using it.)
Besides calling on prejudice and labeling the press an enemy of the people, Trump matches Nixon when it comes to his resentment of the elite. Nixon hated Brahmins, and Trump has long sought to separate himself from the elite by fashioning himself as the People’s Billionaire.
And like Nixon, who kept an enemies list, Trump does seem to nurse grudges.
But as alike as they may be, two key factors separate Trump and Nixon. First, Trump is a much less focused man and is thus more subject to influence. Second, Trump is more eager to be loved (a classic Baby Boomer trait), which makes him eager to please.
Pushed properly, Trump could be like the Nixon who surprised the world by using his Cold Warrior credibility to reach out to communist China. Trump’s backtracking on his promise to immediately repeal Obamacare indicates just this trait.
Those who fear Trump at his worst should try to encourage this element of the President-elect’s style, reminding him that his outsider status gives him a chance to succeed in surprising ways.