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May 28, 2024

What the ‘New Nixon’ Could Teach Donald Trump

Can Trump transform himself into a “new Trump” and mean it, or just fake it?

Fifty-six years ago in August 1968, Richard Nixon achieved what The New York Times called “the greatest reversal of fortune in American political history.” Times columnist James Reston went further, calling it “the greatest comeback since Lazarus.” This from a newspaper, along with The Washington Post, that hated Nixon, as they now hate Donald Trump.

How did he do it and could presumptive Republican presidential nominee and former president Trump learn anything from Nixon’s seeming transformation?

First, the parallels between Nixon and Trump are striking. Nixon, like Trump, believed America was in bad shape. In 1968, crime, the war in Vietnam and the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had shocked and depressed the country. The Democratic National Convention would follow the GOP convention at the end of August. It featured riots in the streets that shocked voters watching on TV. Many argued those riots helped Nixon win the presidency. Some of those issues, especially crime and social unrest, prevail today. Nixon was a national figure longer than Donald Trump, but Nixon was seen as dour, uncomfortable around others, and possessing a personality that conveyed awkwardness and insincerity.

The “New Nixon” no longer scowled, his hair had grown longer (possibly a nod to the hippie era) and he smiled more than in that sweaty 1960 debate with John F. Kennedy.

In his Miami acceptance speech, Nixon alternated between what the Times called “genuine grace notes and darker rumblings … alternately bright and horrific.”

Trump is like that.

In the first scheduled debate with President Biden June 27, Trump should consider presenting a “New Trump.” Critics might say that’s like asking a leopard to change its spots and Trump is unable to overcome his narcissistic personality.

If he can, how might it work? Trump should stop referring to Biden as a “crook.” Stick to the issues people care about — the open border and what is happening as a result, inflation (he can compare prices when he was president and now), wars, school choice, defunding universities that tolerated antisemitic demonstrations on their campuses, revising the tax code to make it fairer and flatter so everyone has skin in the game, and how the $34 trillion national debt cannot be sustained.

On this last point, Trump is vulnerable because he added $8.4 trillion to the debt. Trump should promise to create a bipartisan commission that would recommend to Congress ways to reduce the debt. Yes, that would include reforming Social Security and Medicare to keep it from going broke, which every honest person knows must be done.

Biden has only a few policy achievements, so he will be left to engage in personal attacks about the “threat to democracy” posed by Trump. If Trump occasionally displays soft answers, he can duck Biden’s punches and confuse the often confused president. Recall Ronald Reagan’s line to President Jimmy Carter during their Oct. 28, 1980 debate: “There you go again.”

Trump had some good lines in his speech to residents of The Bronx last week. He spoke of reducing crime, cleaning up subways, lowering taxes, and creating more jobs, but without details about how some of those promises would be paid for, or fulfilled. If ever the phrase “we can’t go on like this” meant anything, it means everything today.

Absent a religious or other transformation, I’m not sure Trump can reinvent himself in time to make a difference, if at all. He seems comfortable as the “old Trump.” The political landscape changes quickly and might change even faster after the results of Trump’s current and upcoming trials are known. Like Reagan, Trump is experienced in television and that medium allows for new looks, even if they are not genuine. That’s the purpose of makeup.

The “New Nixon” turned out to be a cover for the old and real Nixon. Can Trump transform himself into a “new Trump” and mean it, or just fake it? Either way, he could upset the political dynamic and expectations between now, the debates and the election.

©2024 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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