Enemies List Redux: Rick Perlstein on the Parallels between Trump and Nixon

January 09, 2017

With great power, comes great responsibility, so we are told by Voltaire and Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben. It’s something we learn anew with each presidency, as the person who holds the office must decide how they will wield the power they’ve been given. For Richard Nixon, power was something to be used in the service of itself, to be maintained and defended at all costs.

Soon to be our 45th president, Donald Trump comes to the office with some striking similarities to the 37th, complete with “enemies lists” and paranoid vendettas against foes real and imagined. To give us some historical perspective about the comparison between Trump and Nixon, we welcome historian, author, and journalist Rick Perlstein.

Peristein is the bestselling author of Nixonland and Before the Storm, about the conservative movement sparked by Barry Goldwater. His newest book is The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and The Rise of Reagan. Perlstein recently published his latest critical analysis of Trump and Nixon in the New Republic, in an expose entitled “He’s Making a List.”

This is point of inquiry, welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production of the Center for Inquiry. 

I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is my old friend Rick Perlstein. Rick is a historian and the author of The Invisible Bridge The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan and Nixonland, The Rise of President and the Fracturing of America. 

Think of Rick as a profiler for the paranoid, authoritarian hell bent on vengeance. He’s here to give us a historical perspective on the upcoming presidency of Donald Trump. Are we going to see a repeat of enemies lists, dirty tricks or even impeachment? Rick, welcome to the program. 

Hi, Lindsey. Good to talk to you. 

Thanks so much for coming on the show. I see you’re expert on Richard Nixon. What would you say are some of the most striking parallels between the president elect and Richard Nixon? 

Well, I think they’re kind of subcortical. I think within sort of the psychological makeup of the two men is a profound, profound insecurity, which is kind of narcissistically counter balance by the need to dominate this need for revenge. I’ve written that Trump’s organs of cognition are structured by enemies list. And of course, enemies list is a phrase we know about from Watergate. We learned from John Dean that Richard Nixon had these lists of hundreds of people, you know, everyone from politicians to football players to Hollywood stars, that he considered the people that were trying to destroy him. So he was going to destroy them first. 

He did so by setting logical by setting up an outfit in the basement of the IRS to try to audit and harass his enemies through their tax returns. Of course, he broke into his enemies offices. And, you know, it’s it’s you know, I don’t go too far with this because for one thing, Richard Nixon was distinguish uniquely among politicians with his obsession with preparation, with doing his homework, his patients. Part of his cunning was that he was, you know, for something like the opening to China. He was working at it, planning it. You could say since the mid 1960s, certainly was actively working on it for at least a year before it happened. Whereas Trump is this creature of instinct the accent has got he apparently can’t control himself, even at the expense of his own political position. 

So there could be problems out there with Taiwan to chat randomly here. 

And of course, another difference, as I explained in this recent piece in The New Republic, is that the infrastructure that the president has at his disposal to spy, to use the information he receives to exact revenge, is far more developed since 9/11. Things like the NSA metadata program and all those ways that the president can basically illegally or illegally get information about his enemies are just, you know, it’s like night and day. 

Can you talk a bit about how Barack Obama expanded the National Day? 

Frankly, Obama, you know, has to bear some of the responsibility for that. I’ve seen a petition. I didn’t sign it because I didn’t know how respectful it was that, you know, basically Obama should shut down the metadata program before Trump becomes president. But I have a friend named John Stokes is a wonderful computer journalist. He’s one of the founders of the site ARS Technica. And he pointed out that, you know, we were willing to accept that when the guy, you know, in the captain’s chair was Barack Obama, it was being done for, as you put it, this Jack Bauer reasons, you know, protecting us from terrorists. But, you know, as James Madison could have told us, you know, you know, if angels were the government, no laws would be necessary. And now suddenly we have someone is very much not an angel in the Oval Office. And one of the tragedies of Obama’s presidency may well be that he forgot as a constitutional scholar, James Madison’s lesson. 

It’s Trump seems to be doing something interesting, which is that he’s publicly beefing with the entire intelligence community now. How do you see that playing out? I mean, if he’s going to seize the national security state to pursue personal vendettas, does that mean that he’s going to have to have the cooperation, allegiance of the intelligence community to do that? 

Well, what the intelligence community, right. I mean, it’s a complicated. Formation that is populated by human beings, some of which will be willing to resist them and some who won’t. In the case of Richard Nixon, he was very good at finding the people within the bureaucracy or elevating the people within the bureaucracy or willing to do what he wanted to them and to punish those who did not know whether Donald Trump understands the capacities of the people he is going up against. You know, I don’t know. That’s a pretty interesting story to follow. 

What kind of signals this is sent in terms of the people that he’s picked for his national security intelligence slots so far in terms of what we can expect going forward? 

Well, I mean, they’re lunatics. I mean, obviously, in the case of Michael Flynn, he is barely better than Alex Jones. And I think it’s significant that he chose Michael Flynn to the one position within, you know, the commanding heights of the security establishment that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. You know, he’s sufficiently stupid that he might have shot himself in the foot by choosing as his defense secretary general Mattock, who seems to be a lot more schedules and thoughtful a figure. Trump, of course, we’ve learned like Mattocks nickname Mad Dog. And since that presume that he was a mad dog because of that nickname. He likes the way he looks and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So you might have shot himself in the foot for that one. But of course, because Madis is actually a press secretary, serves at the pleasure of the president. And, you know, it’s not like previous presidents have fired defense secretaries or even generals willy nilly left and right. But, you know, Donald Trump doesn’t play by those rules. 

This was a discussion among historians and historically inform people about the F word about fascism. Yes, we’d be thinking about that as we assess whether or not Trump has fascist tendencies. 

Well, I think he does. And it’s I think it’s a really important idea to wrap our mind around. I think that we shouldn’t shy from it. And, you know, I started talking about the possibility of Trump and fascism as early as summer of 2015. I mean, why actually is sort of like sharpen the question it want. What do you think people’s concerns are? What what what are the pros and cons about the analytical move of calling my fascism fascists or even the political move calling it a fascist? 

I mean, I’m curious about is what the rigorous historical definitions or what the helpful definitions of fascism, fascism are for this conversation? 

You know, fascism is not you know, this is a question of ideologies created by human beings. So there’s no, you know, material formation in the natural world called fascism. Right. So, you know, with anything, you can explain it away and say, no, fascism, you know, is only fascism if you know you have a group of paramilitaries in the street. Well, are people tweeting people’s private information in ways that makes it impossible for them to carry out their daily lives? Is that our own version of militias in the streets? Right. So, you know, it’s kind of like arguments about, you know, militia membership seems to be resurgent. 

I mean, there seems like that. I mean, this is C research coming out of various think tanks saying that actual militia memberships, though they’re not controlled by Donald Trump personally, is on the upside. Right. 

Right. And, you know, of course, we have the example of where Htay and Philippine’s, who does seem to have kind of this loose agglomeration of people who are willing to commit violence as they have. So it’s certainly possible. Right. I think that the most important question about whether to use words like fascism is, you know, that fancy philosophy, word heuristic, you know, what does it help us explain that not using it doesn’t help us explain. And I think that the tradition of thinking about fascism, which was very active in this country in the middle of the last century, helps us understand what happens when people feel alienated from sort of the cosmopolitan liberal bureaucratize values of modernity and what kind of acts, ideas, people they’re attracted to to try and feel secure and anchored in the world. And how do leaders, often leaders who are again narcissistically damage, how do they exploit those feelings in order to aggrandize their own power and achieve their own aims? So one of the things I wrote about, you know, very early about Trump is that you. This kind of symbiosis between man and mob, you see this kind of almost negotiation where he kind of like figures out how far he can go to kind of stoke a crowd by their reaction to what he said. And every politician does that. 

But I thought every variation blissett there, all these clips of him saying, hey, can we will we are you on board with this? Right. 

That’s very interesting. And other you know, I think the kind of the blood brain barrier with other Republican and conservative politicians who, of course, also exploit the alienation of people to aggrandize their own power. The difference, I think, between Trump and, say, Ronald Reagan or George Bush is that those earlier figures were very aware that they were playing with fire once they tapped into those sort of negative, dark emotions in the electorate. They were willing to do it, but they also saw part of their job as disciplining it. So I’ve given the example of George W. Bush showing up at a mosque after 9/11 or saying that Islam is a religion of peace. And he understands that if he goes full bore in this idea that we are at war with Islam, he is kind of you know, he’s basically pouring gasoline on a flame. Right. Donald Trump has known that kind of inhibition. He has none of that kind of maturity. 

He doesn’t even, you know, attract a lot from moment to moment when he last said and caring about consistency, let alone long term strategy. 

Yes. And again, the heuristic idea, the best people to explain why and how that works have been scholars of fascism. The best is Hannah Arendt, who in origins of talented totalitarianism, is absolutely brilliant in explaining the fascist leaders relationship to the truth, as instrumental that the fascists followers ability to kind of be completely utilitarian about the truth from moment to moment, the kind of pre enlightenment idea that you are basically trying to aggrandize and solidify the power of your tribe. Whether or not, you know, you do this using intellectual consistency doesn’t really matter. So she has, like, amazing examples and explanations of that. And I don’t see any kind of scholarship on kind of American conservatism as reprovingly previously understood it, that, you know, gets it this. 

It’s interesting with you know, I’m thinking back to the old definition of fascism that we learned in I.B. history about the idea of facial hair bundled with a strong leader allied with corporatism, and that the corporate leaders in the church and it seems like Trump is very much pursuing that mottainai old school kind of formulaic power right now. 

One of the things that kind of clarifies Visa V, say the church, as most is the most proximate example is how people are like, oh, the Christian right came about as this attempt to try and re moralize politics and to protect families from the depredations of the liberal state. And they believe in Jesus and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And they would always. Oh, so we see these people like Jerry Falwell saying, well, really well, here’s a really great example. Someone asked the leader of Baptist megachurch, don’t you want a president who follows the Sermon on the Mount? And I think he literally said, hell no. He said, you know, we have enemies. We’re at war. And that was not a governing philosophy. That was not advanced as a governing philosophy. So a lot of the Christian right people have been harkening back to the Old Testament and saying, oh, God shows the strongest vessel of flawed people like David. You know, who was, of course, an adulterer to be his messenger. So they’ve kind of thrown out all this kind of New Testament stuff, been willing to go back to the, you know, so strong, vengeful God of the Old Testament. Again, in this very utilitarian relationship to what they’ve said about political leaders in the past and have been completely willing and able and eager to sign on to a strong man in a way that can suddenly looks mix. You know, thinking as a historian, the history of the Christian right looks very different. I’ve been emphasizing how important the idea of hierarchy and authority has been in the Christian right. And, you know, in my writing, I’m doing now for my book on the year from 1976. In 1977, I found myself looking at the idea in the movement against the VRA how important it was the people who were telling these stories and building these movements that you had to have hierarchy within the family. Right. That that was God’s will. 

Otherwise, it was revolt and chaos that women could suddenly leave their marriages, get jobs, justify their husbands. 

So it’s incredibly powerful. Very interesting. Again, this idea that these reactionary ideologies take shape to kind of gird people internally against the chaos of the modern world. One of the most brilliant organizing ideas of the movement against Yaara was almost Marxist. It was that the feminists want to throw you to the wolves out there in the job market. But we want to kind of protect you and put you on a pedestal. And it was very interesting that the feminist you know, there’s a study, a sociological study that showed a lot of the feminist leaders were very well educated. They had independent incomes. They were lawyers. They were foundation executives. And that the activists who fought against the NRA, if they went into the job market, these were people possibly without high school degrees, they would be at the bottom of the barrel and have crap jobs. So, you know, these people are not stupid. 

Is there any historical precedent for a president coming in with such a public record of essentially self-proclaimed sexual violence like Trump has? 

I mean, we’ve got him on tape bragging about fabulous somewhere with quite a break, I hear. 

I don’t know. You know, I mean, I don’t think so. Public record now. And certainly, again, going back to the what does thinking about Trump using different categories I’m not familiar with. What does it mean that people voted for him? Possibly not, despite these accusations about because of them. You remember Tom Arnold, right? Yeah. He was married to Roseanne Barr. He said, oh, I’ve heard these tapes of Donald Trump using the N-word and making fun of his son is mentally retarded. And someone said, well, don’t didn’t you have the responsibility to release this or publicize it before the election? And he said, well, I don’t know. I think a lot of his voters will probably be more likely to stick with Trump if they heard about this stuff. And that gets in this fascinating issue of political correctness. I think a lot of Trump voters love the idea that he kind of licenses their ID. You know, they’re sick of, you know, being forced to kind of clamp down on a lot of this connects to the economic stuff. The fact that part of the Trump appeal is that he allows people to express their rage at the professional classes that tell them what to do, tell them what to think, control their lives. And, you know, that kind of brings the indictment to the Democratic Party, which has, you know, so sort of yoked itself to the kind of professional managerial class and the people who, you know, tell people what to do, you know, instead of kind of the more populist tradition of saying we are going to protect you against your boss. You know, we seem like the party of the bosses because the bosses now are the lawyers. You know, the social workers, the they’re the you know, someone said that Hillary Clinton too much resembles, like, your most annoying human relations officer. You’re at your job. People are sick of being told what to do. And even though a lot of the people around Trump really want to tell people what to do. 

It was interesting how the cult of anxious masculinity goes both ways, that there’s both sort of the idea of men putting women in their place in terms of sexual politics, but then also men feeling insecure because of economic displacement, where men don’t command the kind of earnings, not just family. 

You know, it’s like it’s almost like we have to go back to the Greek, right. What’s the what’s the what’s the pronunciation for this? Like animals or whatever the academy means household. Right. And, you know, like the conservative cloth rabid bird told about talking about, you know, how societies form these little platoons. And the idea that if you are being screwed at work, at least you could be in control your family. Right. That was kind of, you know, like like, you know, like there was a hidden wage of whiteness that allowed every white person to be above every black person, even a black person at APHC. And the white person didn’t have any great education in the same way you might be pushed around that job that at least you could, you know, kind of control your family. And the trauma that feminism creates for a lot of people who, you know, wanted this cancelation of being controlled, the family is that it takes away the sense of control. So, again, all these feelings of loss of control and the willingness of a person who is kind of star for affirmation and domination to exploit that. It’s, again, hard to explain without fascism as a character. Right? Well, what was it? What was the German thing? Candar Kitchen knows, like Odran family home. 

Hearth race. Right. Home and hearth. Right. At least you know where the boss you know, you heart. Robin is a really wonderful writer and he’s written a lot about how to react. Your mind is great. Yeah. The reaction I mean, how much of of kind of conservative philosophy comes down to the power of the patriarch to be in command in these kind of micro environments? It gets kind of projected into the macro environment of power. 

So what did Democrats do? What’s what’s the counterargument to sort of derail this train of thinking? What can Democrats say or offer to convince people that they can get agency in other ways? 

Right. Well, I think a lot of the way that this kind of discussion kind of goes off the rails within sort of the Democratic coalition is it’s always like, what can we do now? Anything that we do that involves as profound a shift as creating a sense of Democrats as, you know, people’s protectors of their deep seated anxieties. That’s a very long term project. And Democrats are not very good at long term projects. We think about the next election. So I think it certainly starts with becoming more credible protectors of people’s interests on the job. That’s a very difficult thing to do when you have so many. Well, financing the party are the people who do things like run hedge funds or, you know, our Silicon Valley disruptors. I mean, think about that concept. 

We want to eliminate driving jobs. 

Well, I drive. We just think about, you know, Harry Reid, who is one of the toughest fighters against the depredations of Republicans. But, you know, he was asked, you know what? What would his most important, best message to voters be as he left his job as Senate minority leader? And he said, well, if a guy from whatever pinpoint Utah, you know, could make it like I did, you know, you can, too. That’s basically a way of saying, well, if you’re just some schmo who’s struggling along in a high school educated working class job and you’re not making it on your own pulling but pulling yourself by your own bootstraps, well, screw you. But I mean, like language like that does have to be stricken. You know, there hasn’t. My friend Tom Gagan, who’s really great about thinking about this stuff, he’s a labor lawyer and a wonderful memories and political thinker. 

He said he said to me, You’re almost one of my favorite books of all time. 


He says one of the most important things the Democrats could do is make a high school degree means something which is so cuts against, you know, the logic of basically every Democratic president going back to Lyndon Johnson, who one of his aides said he he he talked as if education could cure anything from ingrown toenail to chilblains. Right. It’s like, what if you created, you know, sort of a sense of secure identity for people who are not going to get education? 

I hate to be back to the short term thinking, but what do you think the Democrats could do to increase their chances in the next round of midterm elections? 

I think that a message that Donald Trump is stealing from you, which was the message that Hillary Clinton kind of really missed a chance on, you know, it’s like Donald Trump going to Michigan saying literally at a campaign rally, these car factories, if they left the state and then sort of, you know, use that as leverage to get lower wages in Michigan, you know, that could have been shown up in a TV commercial all the time. And I think we’re going to have plenty of examples like that. 

Donald Trump’s a weird man who is stealing from you. He had had no sort of did hammer on Trump’s character and his exploitation of people at Trump University, is that right? 

A professional class kind of message. Right. It’s like we members of the professional class where we’re kind of trained up from the cradle to think of other people’s feelings and be polite, which is great. I would not abandon that as a value, but the inability to understand that for a lot of people that kind of a test means giving up your competitive advantage in a dangerous world really speaks to the narrowness of the Democratic mind. You know, it’s just two in this professionals. 

You feel like Hillary Clinton was too polite in her critiques of Trump? 

No, I don’t think she was too polite. Right. But her argument was that Trump was not polite and she thought that that was enough. Right. The idea that children are going to watch Donald Trump saying rude things. Right. That was the commercial, right? Yeah. And that voters can say, oh, my God, she’s a horrible example for my children. Well, I’m sure a lot of people said, well, he’s probably a good example of my children because it’s rough out there. And you got it. Will it be suicide? Right. And you got to be willing to speak your mind. That was a certain kind of message that would resonate with certain kinds of people. But the idea that, you know, Donald Trump is someone who stiffs his working class contractors might have been a better message for other kinds of people like you. No, it doesn’t. Other thing, in addition to thinking in short terms, a lot of Democrats forget that, like. Elections are won by coalitions and that, you know, Donald Trump won among racists and he probably won the run among even anti-racist who won votes among anti-racist, who thought he would help them economically, anyone among plutocratic bankers. And he won among people who hated bankers because different parts of his message resonate. And part of the craft of politics is to tell stories that kind of resonate like a diamond. They’ve kind of shined differently, depending on which angle you reflect the light from. 

And it seems like there’s a lot of opportunity around narratives around Russia to resonate for different and all kinds of different people. 

You know, I think you’d have to do research. What do people think about Russia? I think in the same way, I think the idea that, you know, America partnering against, you know, with this guy who people see a tough I hypothesize I have no idea whether it’s true. People might think that’s kind of cool. 

But actually, there is some research. A friend of mine just sent me a study that said that Republican voters are now thinking more positively about Russia than they ever have before. They are right. 

I mean, it’s like leadership matters. And Russia, in a sense, this kind of is a little too deep in the weeds for the ordinary voter. But he is Putin is a guy who is creating this white republic. This white, patriarchal, hetero normative republic unleashing forces of chaos in countries all over the world, including our own. 

And it’s on that agenda, you know, on his own behalf. 

Right. And then there might be even a little fear. You know, it’s like he’s a bully, right? Putin is a bully. So we better get on his side so he doesn’t beat on us. You know, this is this is dangerous territory psychically. But certainly it would be that same kind of almost like intellectual narcissism ism among Democrats to said, since we see how dangerous and horrifying Russia is with since Americans have this tradition of fearing and despising Russia, that this is kind of like the go to ideology for us. 

I think that which happens right here. There are actually cracks in the elected GOP coalition, too, that we could exploit around Russia. I mean, you’ve got people like John McCain and Lindsey Graham that are not giving up on this. And then there’s a snag. 

And that’s you know, that’s another lesson we can learn from conservative strategy, wedge politics that really, really important. So you know what? You know what? You know, the classic wedge politics is Richard Nixon realizing that if you back affirmative action in the construction industry, he will create a possibility where unions whose memberships are white suddenly see their interests in opposition to black people. So we have to take those places where people have to choose. That’s the wedge which side of the wedge or you’re gonna fall and you’re going to be for Russia against Russia and create this sort of ability where Republican politicians cannot trust one another. They cannot go forward together because they don’t know who’s on which side that would be. You know, that doubt that I would get behind a thousand percent, create sort of inflection points within the political debate where a Republican voter or politician has to choose whether they’re with John McCain or Michael Flynn, because there’s no you know, there’s no way the twain shall meet when it comes to that confrontation over. 

What do you see as some opportunities to create those inflection points, maybe. Other than Russia? 

Well, I think over how Trump appointees, staffers, Cabinet members are going to be backing policies that are harmful to the working class. Right. That, you know, sort of. So are you for a tax policy that lowers your taxes or when it raises your taxes right now. But then, you know, there will be a lot of disinformation. That’s what the tricky Bhanot stuff comes. And people forget that Steve Bannon is a human being who is a vocation in life is you know, Andrew Breitbart called in the Lenny Reisen style of the Tea Party. You know Lenny. Right. Stop being the Nazi filmmaker who created propaganda for Hitler with less esthetics. 

What’s that? 

But less esthetic than Lenny? Well, yes, totally. I mean, with no taste. 

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Here, her photographs of African tribes are absolutely gorgeous and brilliant. But you know what? When it comes to this game, it’s it’s effectiveness. It’s, you know, important, not whether it’s pretty or not. 

One last thing I really want to ask you about is impeachment. I mean, nobody’s more closely tied in the public imagination to impeachment than Richard Nixon. Do you think any of these efforts to impeach Trump are going to have legs? 

Well, I think the idea that Robert Kuttner has put forward that you sort of have to establish a record right now, you know, basically create a file for impeachment, even, you know, kind of a rolling project of writing articles of impeachment is a great idea. You know, get it on the table. And again, that comes to a question of wedging the Republican Party, because the important thing to understand about Watergate was it was a very bipartisan thing. First of all, the most important Senate figure in Watergate with Sam Ervin, who was the Democrat who voted for Richard Nixon most frequently, and other Republicans who were very prominent in pursuing Watergate were Howard Baker, who was a Nixon ally. But he was very, very tough in the Watergate hearings at questioning the witnesses. So you did have people who were with him to the end. Conservatives and Republicans. But you also had Republicans who considered him, you know, bad for the country and bad for the Republican Party and willing to were willing to be patriotic that way. 

But now there are a lot of unresolved feelings in the Republican legislative branch right now. People who, you know, papered it over to put on a good front for the election but are still really mad. 

Yeah. But they seem to be kind of more and more sort of lining up with Trump, and that seems to be an effective intimidation. Right. There’s this article in Politico about how people are terrified of Donald Trump tweeting against them. So they’re kind of going along with it. So that’s where the that’s where that’s where the real shrewd strategizing has to come from. You have to find these wedges, exacerbate them and break people off from Trump. And, you know, I’m perfectly willing in a way I wasn’t, you know, two years ago to work with Republicans, you know, in a anti Trump united front. 

That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for coming on the show. 

My pleasure. 

Can’t wait to hear at Jerry’s point of inquiries a production at the Center for Inquiry. Become a member and support the advancement of science and reason by going to center for inquiry dot org slash membership. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.