Donald Trump stole Richard Nixon's playbook: Why the "silent majority" and media bashing always works

If you want to get the roots of Trump's appeal, just look back to the first campaigns Richard Nixon ever ran

Published November 7, 2015 2:30PM (EST)

Donald Trump, Richard Nixon (AP/Reuters/Rick Wilking/Photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump, Richard Nixon (AP/Reuters/Rick Wilking/Photo montage by Salon)

The eruption of anger at the media during and following the CNBC Republican debate was a classic lowest-common-denominator phenomenon, a point of unity for all the candidates and all their supporters, a life-raft in the midst of a hurricane tearing everything apart.

After decades of recurrent GOP hostility to the media, we simply take it for granted, not questioning where it comes from, why it persists, why Democrats don't feel the same way, even when—as with Benghazi and then Hillary Clinton's emails—the media whips up an hysterical frenzy with no "there there" at the center of it all. But it's well worth considering the origins of such an asymmetric response by Republicans to a media that routinely prides itself on upsetting both sides.

Historically, we can look back to 1964, at the GOP convention that nominated Barry Goldwater, when an NBC correspondent, John Chancellor, was not just ejected from the floor while broadcasting live, he was actually arrested. But the hostility didn't start there, by any means. A better flashpoint, arguably, occurred two years earlier, just after Richard Nixon lost his bid to become governor of California, when a resentful Nixon famously told a press conference that he was leaving politics, and "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

What few people realize is that Nixon's anger and bitterness were partially fueled by having once benefited enormously from extremely favorable press treatment, a key part of the story told by author/journalist/blogger Greg Mitchell in his 1998 book, "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas, 1950." Particularly important was GOP kingmaker Kyle Palmer, the top political writer and editor at the Los Angeles Times. “Without the journalist's promise of support, Nixon may have never run for Congress in '46 or for the Senate in '50,” Mitchell wrote. “They had an almost father-son relationship.”

Nixon's opponent, former Hollywood actress Helen Gahagan Douglas, was a progressive firebrand so impressive on the national stage that, Mitchell wrote, “A boomlet for Douglas for vice president at the 1948 Democratic National Convention 'heralded what may happen sooner than we think, even possibly in 1952,' The Washington Post had observed, and Nixon was clearly a hot prospect on the other side.” Thus, it was an unusually consequential race, even aside from the issue of gender. It would be another 42 years before California finally elected its first female senator—two of them, actually: Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein in the post-Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill “Year of the Woman.” That's just how far ahead of her time Douglas was.

Describing how Nixon's senate race got off the ground, Mitchell wrote, “Besides attracting political pros and major funders Nixon also gained the crucial early support of Kyle Palmer of the Los Angeles Times. Over lunch at the Biltmore Hotel, Palmer warned that he was 'a damn fool' to run against Downey [the incumbent Democrat whom Douglas successful challenged], but if he did, California's newspaper 'axis' would support him. Indeed, the Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune quickly endorsed Nixon, propelling most of his GOP rivals right out of the race.”

For all his “little-guy-against-the-elites” posturing throughout his career, Nixon's political career was entirely dependent such high-powered elite support.

“The LA Times was long the kingmaker in Republican politics there [in California],” Mitchell told Salon. “Of course, there were many more papers there, the Hearst papers, which were all over, were very important. But, the LA Times—because Southern California basically controlled the state in terms of elections—the LA Times was especially important. Kyle Palmer became their political editor and columnist, and really was the kingmaker, going back to the 1930s, even before the Upton Sinclair race which I wrote about ["The Campaign of the Century"],” Mitchell explained. “By the late 1940s, Palmer was already backing Nixon in his congressional races, and then for the senate, and he was both the political editor and the political columnist, and he covered the campaigns. So he wore many hats, and was able to get his views in the paper and reflected the paper. Palmer was an arch Republican and a bare-knuckle kind of writer, classic newspaper guy.”

In the book, Mitchell describes Palmer as unique among political editors, enjoying an unusually free hand after publisher Harry Chandler's son Norman took over, and more:

Other political editors also lacked Palmer's experience, his forum (he wrote articles, columns, and editorials) , and most important, his inclination to play the part of power broker--to nakedly, even proudly drop the guise of objective reporter. Palmer's idea of balanced coverage was reflected in his public explanation that even though his newspaper opposed Helen Douglas "from time to time, as space allows, news accounts of what she has to say and what she is doing will be published."

More specifically, Mitchell wrote:

Asked how far a political editor should go in assisting a candidate, he said, "Try and get him to make speeches and statements that will help him." For Richard Nixon in 1950, as for many others, he went even further, advising the candidate on many matters and writing some of his speeches and radio talks.

Palmer was so intimately involved with Nixon's campaign, he was even privy to much of the internal information flow:

For his part, [Nixon's campaign manager Murray] Chotiner wrote very exacting, never chatty memos to Nixon and other campaign officials, often with instructions to his secretary to "cc" Kyle Palmer at the Los Angeles Times.

Looking back, Mitchell added, “That's where the privilege comes in [for Nixon]. 'Well this guy's in the tank for me, and the paper's in the tank for me, so if they give me any bad coverage, I'm going to be pretty upset. On the other hand, I know that no matter what I say, or wild charges I make, they'll probably be reported and have a big impact.'”

Which is pretty much how it worked, according to Mitchell. “Basically, the friendly press carried some of his wild accusations, if they thought they were palatable, and would have good effect, but they didn't report some of the off-color things, or anti-semitic, or whatever.... They didn't report those, because they felt they might have a negative effect,” he said. “So they, in a way, covered up for him. But they carried his water. They certainly were happy to report every charge about her [Douglas] being pro-communist, or backing socialist policies, or being partly to blame for Korea or whatever. They would report all those things, but not some of the super-personal attacks.”

It wasn't surprising Nixon gained such strong support, Mitchell explained. “People have to wrap their heads around that Nixon was once a promising young, dynamic, very smart, great debater,” he said. “People probably think of him as an evil, jowly guy who wasn't too bright, or something like that. But he was a godsend [for the GOP].

“And he was, of course, willing to fight dirty. So he had every quality they could want. And he'd come out of the military service. Here's this dream guy. California was coming into its golden age and they were thinking young. He wasn't an old hack like they'd had for so long.... Nixon was really the young up-and-comer. And I think Palmer recognized all the potential he had.”

Palmer didn't just lead the charge for Nixon, he also marshaled attacks on Douglas, both red-baiting her and using carefully coded gender-based attacks—coded so as not to trigger a backlash. “Treating Douglas as a radical could be done in a fairly harsh fashion; but the female question had to be handled more delicately,” Mitchell wrote. “Nixon had so far done a fair job of keeping any sexist opinions to himself (or sharing them only with close friends). Now Kyle Palmer helped out in an L.A. Times column that earned wide attention.

“Without even mentioning Douglas's gender, Palmer described her behavior in hard-to-miss stereotypes. She was 'an emotional artist,' a 'good actress' and a 'gifted mimic' who had been 'emotionally attracted' to the left-wing doctrine of her day. 'Her emotional reactions took her far afield. . . . Mrs. Douglas was influenced by a state of mind-by an emotional concept.' There were 'many instances of her emotional powers—and reactions.' The column continued in a similar vein, eventually turning to contrast with Nixon. “There was, Palmer concluded, 'nothing superficial about [Nixon's] make-up and no emotional instability whatsoever.'"

No, of course not!

Having first come to power with such fawning coverage, and such venom for his opponents, is it any wonder Nixon felt betrayed by anything less—especially in his own backyard? Mitchell noted both how quickly Nixon had advanced, and how assured he was. “He was much liked out there, especially in Southern California, so by the time he ran for president, and then when he ran for governor in '62 he had a long history out there, and he probably figured he would be able to win that race in '62, but of course he was up against Pat Brown who by then had a pretty good history himself.” Indeed Brown is remembered today as the father of modern California, with higher education and water infrastructure leading the way, most of which had already begun by the time he was running for re-election. Modernization was impacting the media as well.

“Hearst was gone, and the the LA Times was changing a little bit. As we know, it slowly evolved to get a little less Neanderthal,” Mitchell said. “Harry Chandler was the worst and then he died, and each successive generation was a little more moderate, let's say. So by '62—and I'm not an expert on the '62 race—but I believe it was much more balanced.”

Indeed, Otis Chandler's takeover in 1960 was cited as a decisive turning point by Dennis McDougal, in "Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the L.A. Times Dynasty." His determination to compete for national status with the New York Times shook up the old ways of doing things like nothing before. Given how accustomed Nixon was to Kyle Palmer's full-throated backing, no wonder he regarded the move toward higher professionalism and more balance as tantamount to a stab in the back.

But that wasn't the end of it, Mitchell pointed out. He brought up one more incident, “At the very end of my book, which I'm finishing today.” That book, "The Tunnels: JFK vs. CBS & NBC, "some background here, “chronicles the story of how the American news networks helped young West Germans attempting to get loved ones out of Communist-ruled East Berlin.”  In a passage that Mitchell provided Salon, he wrote about another media special at the time, following Nixon's taunt that the media wouldn't have him to kick around anymore:

ABC did some more kicking in this Howard K. Smith special. They even included a rare interview with Alger Hiss—the alleged (but not proven) Soviet spy who had been a prime target of Congressman Nixon more than a decade earlier. The Hiss case remained a hot topic, with many believing he was innocent of passing secrets to the Soviets, since the only legal charge that stuck was perjury.

As Mitchell described it, “Some might say they wanted to get back at him, because he attacked the media at the end, but if anything it was in his mind, 'I lost and they're still going after me?'" Nixon probably did think something like that. But his melodramatic exit had certainly invited something of the sort. Even more telling, however, was the furious backlash, which Nixon, still pretending he was through with politics, nonetheless helped to fan, once again playing the victim:

Nixon was fair game but some found that inviting Hiss to kick dirt on his political grave went too far. Walter Annenberg, a Nixon friend and president of Triangle Publications, ordered his ABC affiliates in Philadelphia and New Haven not to carry the program.... ABC received hundreds of telegrams and telephone calls in protest; pickets appeared outside its Manhattan headquarters....  Kemper Insurance, which was not a sponsor of the Nixon program, vowed to drop its commercials on Smith's regular evening news show. The Schick Safety Razor Company tried to cancel its million dollar advertising deal with ABC.

Other advertisers weighed canceling their ABC deals...Nixon himself criticized ABC's decision on Hiss, hailing the outpouring of protest cables and calls "from patriotic Americans."

Naturally—given that it's Nixon—this was all wildly overblown:

Howard K. Smith called the Hiss interview "harmless" (the convicted perjurer had simply labeled Nixon a political opportunist, not exactly a shock) and said that, if anything, the program was "overbalanced" in Nixon's favor.

But for a man who entered politics fawned over by the likes of Kyle Palmer, and the newspaper axis that followed his lead, it was not nearly enough to have Gerald Ford defending him after Hiss called him an opportunist. It may have seemed “harmless” to Smith, but the fact that Hiss was allowed to speak at all was a terrible affront. Folk devils should be seen—luridly—but not heard.

That was was the standard that Nixon's supporters rallied around, and it's one that endures to this day. Just ask Donald Trump, with his talk of Mexican immigrants as “rapists and murderers,” and his invocation of Nixon's “silent majority.” As Faulkner wrote, “The past isn't dead. It isn't even the past.”

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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