President Trump has been comparing himself to Richard Nixon, tweeting “LAW & ORDER,” and claiming he learned a lot from Nixon. Others have been comparing Mr. Trump’s handling of civil disorder to Nixon’s. No one will ever tag me a Nixon apologist, but in Nixon’s defense these claims are hooey.
I worked for our last authoritarian president, Richard Nixon — a man who experienced violent protests and demonstrations throughout his political career. In 1968, he ran as the “law and order” candidate, for it was a time of tumult: assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. Riots ripped Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Memphis, Washington and other major cities. Civil rights and antiwar protests closed down campuses large and small. There were nightly news reports of endless death from the killing fields of Vietnam, including the Tet offensive and the My Lai massacre.
Nixon was running on credentials established long before the 1968 presidential contest. As vice president, Nixon and his wife traveled though South America, where they frequently were confronted by protesters. Nixon used those protest situations to brandish his I-am-fearless image by walking among the protesters to make clear that he was not intimidated, nor would they influence American policy.
On becoming president in 1969, Nixon inherited a global anti-Vietnam War protest movement that had contributed to the decision of his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, not to seek re-election.
From his first day in office, Nixon faced huge demonstrations, which he instructed his White House counsel to monitor closely. When I was appointed to that post 18 months into his presidency, I discovered that all of the key intelligence agencies reported domestic and related foreign intelligence about disruptive protests, demonstrations and civil unrest occurring throughout the country to the counsel’s office, where we digested and shared it with the president and senior staff.
For some thousand days I had an exceptional overview of what was being done by Nixon and his aides to deal with often violent unrest, particularly that provoked by those strongly opposed to the war in Vietnam. Nixon’s behavior was vastly different from Mr. Trump’s.
Never once did I hear anyone in the Nixon White House or Justice Department suggest using United States military forces, or any federal officers outside the military, to quell civil unrest or disorder. Nor have I found any evidence of such activity after the fact, when digging through the historical record.
It is well known that on unique occasions presidents had used federal forces for limited purposes before Nixon, as in 1877 when President Rutherford B. Hayes used federal troops to end the railroad strike; and in 1894 when President Grover Cleveland dispatched troops to end the Pullman railroad strike.
Presidents have also sent federal forces to uphold court orders, as in 1957 when President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock, Ark., and in 1962 when President Kennedy sent federal forces to Oxford, Miss., in both cases to enforce court orders to desegregate schools.
Mr. Trump, assisted by Attorney General Bill Barr, has assembled a mongrel federal law enforcement operation from the F.B.I., the Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals, and other federal agencies to proceed to cities throughout the country: Portland, Ore.; Chicago; Memphis; Oakland, Calif.
Neither governors nor mayors have requested these attack weapon-wielding federal soldiers, a few hundred men with minimal identification dressed up in battlefield camouflage. This unprecedented action is way beyond Nixon’s authoritarianism. And it raises serious questions.
Most conspicuously, for Donald Trump it creates optics he believes he can exploit in his re-election campaign. Indeed, Nixon successfully used images of disorder in 1968, and falsely charged demonstrators in 1972 as working for his opponent when he was running for re-election. But Mr. Trump is provoking disorder by using federal forces, which is quite different.
The reason Attorney General Barr is backing this action is that he believes the president should, in fact, be able to do most anything he wishes, whenever he wants. Mr. Barr is using 200 federal officers here and there today, so tomorrow he can dispatch 2,000 or 20,000. He is making the unprecedented precedented.
Richard Nixon closeted his authoritarianism behind closed doors, and only because he taped himself do we have a good understanding of it. Donald Trump, however, has paraded his authoritarianism in the Rose Garden and at rallies. He wants to be seen as a demagogue.
Nixon did not have an authoritarian Republican Party to support his imperial presidency and was forced to prematurely resign. Mr. Trump has a G.O.P. that seeks to expand his authoritarian presidency. Militarizing federal forces to perform state and local police functions is merely another norm-shattering example.
Mr. Trump’s latest threat is that he will not leave the presidency if he loses. He is making Nixon’s authoritarian behavior look tame.
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John W. Dean was White House counsel under President Nixon, and author of the forthcoming book “Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers.”