NIXONLAND is a huge, sprawling populist history of eight years of American history, that even with its generous 900 page length, feels like it has so much crammed into it.
If I had the time, it’s a book I’d want to study. Not just for the glorious and entertaining detail of the book, but for how it applies to now.
For starters, it’s a book to make Donald Trump look like a vainglorious incompetent. Okay, Donald Trump frequently makes himself look like a vainglorious incompetent, but NIXONLAND really hammers home how far out of his depth he is. As much as Richard Nixon ordered various acts of skulduggery and did terrible things, he was a career politician who knew how to draw a veil over his worst impulses. Those impulses were frequently acted upon, but he understood how to keep them distant from himself. Of course, it all eventually came back to bite him, but it’s a book to suggest that Trump’s fall may come even quicker than his Republican predecessor. Nixon tried his hardest to hide all the ammo that could be used against him, Trump just seems to be advertising it.
There are parallels closer to home as well. 1972 saw a US election between a distant, aloof President who barely campaigned (and had the country embroiled in a deeply unpopular war, to boot) against a more woolly-minded populist, labelled with a new politics tag that appealed to the young and left-leaning. Fast forward to 2017 and relocate the drama across the Atlantic and that could be Teresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. Except whereas Nixon thrashed McGovern, May lost her majority. The reason could be that the Conservative party – despite their nasty party reputation – didn’t go down the road of illegal dirty tricks that Nixon did. It could also, of course, be that this time a sense of change is in the air.
This is a long book, but without a doubt it’s a page-turner of a read. Nixon as always is a truly fascinating character. To rise so far and still have such a chip on his shoulder, to see plots and people looking to do him down at every turn is quite amazing. You’d surely expect him to relax slightly, to acknowledge even just to himself and those around them him that he had turned himself into one of life’s winners. Not at all, even after he wins the Presidency in 1972, he’s still moaning to the press about how he hasn’t got his dues.
Yet, for all he was a miserable man who had a tunnel vision for the worst things in life, he did tap into something primal in the psyche of his country. Small c conservatives perhaps, who were happy for the country to change, but slowly and not any way like the radicals wanted to change it. He coined the phrase “the silent majority” to describe them, and coincidently I saw the Telegraph columnist, Tim Stanley use that phrase in a headline yesterday. Nixon may have left power forty-three years ago, but we are still in Nixonland.