Thoughtful pragmatist or unhinged bigot? Why experts are rethinking Nixon's psychopathology

The author of "On Nixon's Madness" on how mental illness fuels racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 18, 2023 10:00AM (EDT)

President Richard Nixon posing for a photo after addressing the nation on Watergate (Bettmann/Getty Images)
President Richard Nixon posing for a photo after addressing the nation on Watergate (Bettmann/Getty Images)

When Richard Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, he correctly suspected that he had been robbed. In Texas, Kennedy's vice presidential running mate Lyndon Johnson used a network of rural bosses to stuff ballot boxes; 1,000 miles to the north, mob bosses and crooked pols in Chicago were similarly rigging the results. Yet despite his valid complaints, Nixon ultimately decided not to publicly challenge the results, later writing that "the mark of the good loser is that he takes his anger out on himself and not on his victorious opponents or on his teammates."

"To understand Nixon is to appreciate that his self-aggrandizement was key... to the way he told his life story to himself, an attempt to cast himself as the noble victim not only publicly but privately."

Nixon's actions are a stark contrast to those of Donald Trump after he lost to Joe Biden sixty years later — and, one might glean from reading the new book "On Nixon's Madness: An Emotional History," this speaks to each man's different mental pathologies. Whereas Nixon had a legitimate case for election fraud, Trump did not; while Nixon reacted to his loss by urging public calm and striking a noble pose, Trump reacted with narcissistic rage and by spreading a Big Lie.

Yet it would be misleading to characterize Nixon as somehow inherently superior to Trump simply because, on this one occasion, he showed respect for the American government and Trump did not. As "On Nixon's Madness" author Dr. Zachary Jonathan Jacobson explained to Salon, both Nixon and Trump were men whose mental illnesses reflected and refracted the pervasive political impulses of their time. In his book, Jacobson details the extensive psychological profiles performed on Nixon, who served as president from 1969 to 1974 before resigning in disgrace. Nixon's paranoia, prejudices, and abnormally reserved disposition have been zealously analyzed by scholars hoping to therein discover the genesis of the Watergate scandal. By contrast, Jacobson observes, Nixon admirers point to his impressive achievements in opening up relations with China, ending the Vietnam War, saving Israel from annihilation and passing landmark domestic legislation on issues like the environment and economy. They argue that perhaps Nixon's ability to feign madness, or seem like the wily and unstable "Tricky Dick," empowered him to accomplish these things.

Jacobson's provocative thesis is that, in effect, everyone is right about Nixon. He was one of America's most Janus-faced leaders, a protean figure who could sincerely shift from the pragmatic reformer to the vengeful autocrat without any apparent qualms. It explains how he could strike a statesman's pose after losing a controversial election, and also indulge in explosive, obsessive levels of paranoia about imaginary enemies. In Jacobson's own words: "In [Nixon's book] 'Six Crises,' he paints this resignation as a noble act to not cause the level of tumult that Trump has now incited. Many historians will dismiss that idea of nobility as self-serving and undeniably so. But to understand Nixon is to appreciate that his self-aggrandizement was key not only to boosting his public appeal but the way he told his life story to himself, an attempt to cast himself as the noble victim not only publicly but privately."

Yet even there Nixon's madness was hard to pin down. Despite fearing and hating Jews so much that he targeted many Jews for baseless audits, Nixon also surrounded himself with some of the top Jewish minds of his day, including lawyer Leonard Garment, foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger (later his Secretary of State) and speechwriter William Safire.

"In terms of hiring Kissinger, Safire et al. I look at that through the lens of what the psychologist Lawrence Schiff called the 'obedient rebel,'" Jacobson wrote to Salon. "That is, even as Nixon sought to blaze a path for himself with his own cronies, his own press and his own 'Silent Majority,' he pursued throughout his career an orthodox path to the presidency. He was drawn to rebel against the 'deep state'/'deep culture' even as he wished for the ultimate insider rewards. Just so, he was drawn to the likes of Kissinger and Safire — those he deemed intellectual/elite/Jewish — even as he rejected an association with virulent anti-Semitic talk. His anti-Semitism was quite clear: he had deeply ingrained beliefs about Jews. Yet the qualities he associated with them were not only cheating and greed but acumen and deft thinking."

Salon spoke in-depth with Jacobson about his new book. The following transcript had been edited for clarity and context.

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I'd like to start with what we discussed over email about the 1960 election versus the 2020 election. I do not wish to digress about Trump too much, but I just think the juxtaposition of how those two candidates responded is so striking that I think it's illustrative, and I'm curious for your thoughts on that.

They're very different characters. Nixon is an inside man. This is someone who built his career playing inside baseball and within the institutions and believing that although he could skate and cut corners, he was doing it as a conventional politician. I think that with Nixon what you see is that he saw the kind of Kennedy chicanery as baked in.

You brought up the idea of "Six Crises," and I think first of all, it's marked that Nixon titles and structures his first autobiography around crises, that he sees his life as moving from one crisis to the next. In each episode, what ends up happening is that he has these great victories, whether that's with the Checkers speech [which Nixon delivered as a vice presidential candidate during the 1952 election after being accused of financial impropriety] or with Khrushchev in Moscow [during the famous "kitchen debate" of 1959], but he always sees himself as being cheated. So the idea that he's being cheated in 1960 isn't news for him. When he got accused in 1952 of having a secret political fund for $14,000, and it ends up turning out that [Democratic presidential nominee] Adlai Stevenson had a $120,000 fund, he felt that he was being smeared by the intellectuals and the Communists in ways that he felt were not fair. It was a system he was fighting up against. While Trump and Nixon had this kind of grievance politics, I think they're coming from very different perspectives and different means of how they fight the system. 

I want to go into another thing we discussed, which is Nixon's anti-Semitism. I want to distinguish between the ideology of anti-Semitism and actual mental illness. One can be an anti-Semite without being mentally ill. Yet, as your book points out, the manifestations of Nixon's anti-Semitism were clearly pathological. And I'm curious if you could unpack that a little, about how Nixon's mind is an example of how a prejudice when mixed with a mental illness can be really ugly. 

"The attractions towards authoritarianism and towards populism, and the insecurities of breaking downs of conservative values, overlap with the breaking downs of gender roles."

You said his anti-Semitism was worked through with pathology. I would flip that and say his pathology then became hinged onto anti-Semitism. Nixon had this conspiracist mindset that he continued to harbor for his whole life. He has these great ambitions, but he continues to see that there's a small cabal of elites who are determined to undermine him, and that he has to fight them at all times. Who his enemies are shift over time. And at some points, those are Jews. And what's interesting is, he always kind of makes lists. He's always like, "Jews and homosexuals and Communists and marijuana smokers and Jews and blacks and bra burners and the counter-culture."

He was always freely associating between these kind of things. The symbols themselves shift, even though the structure of the semiotics is always the same...

The parallel I would draw to today is to Charlottesville [where there were white supremacist riots in 2017]. You have this white supremacy, and you have this anti-black fervor, which is this long past of racism that is central to American history and our difficulties. But the protesters are dressed in these brown shirts and what the are they doing? Why are they "concerned" like mid-20th century fascists? Why are they dressed in these brown shirts? Why do they talk about how "the Jews are out to get us" and "they're out to replace us"? Why does that become the meme? I think that you have these kind of tropes that are recycled, that become sticky, and for Nixon — just like for these white supremacists — the symbols shift, but the structure of the semiotics is constant.

There was one moment in your book that made me laugh out loud as a Jewish person. It probably was dark of me to laugh at this, but it was when Nixon said, "It's a funny thing. Every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob?"

[Jacobson laughs] Yes!

Now I assure you, as a Jew, I've never smoked pot...

Yeah right! [Jacobson laughs] As a Jew, I've never smoked pot!

Right? We're both definitely telling the truth and not confirming any of Nixon's stereotypes about Jews and marijuana with this little exchange. But in all seriousness, I also find it funny because it's such a bizarre thing to say. It's not a conspiracy theory or an anti-Semitic stereotype with which I was previously familiar.

It's very creative. 

Yet as you pointed out, Nixon also wanted to surround himself with Jews because he admired certain stereotypical Jewish qualities. It's similar more broadly to Nixon's obsession with big, strong, virile, authoritarian men.

The story I find interesting, which you didn't delve into in your book, is about Nixon's vice president, [Maryland governor] Spiro Agnew. Nixon famously said about Agnew, "You look a man in the eye and you know he's got it—brains. This guy has got it. If he doesn't, Nixon has made a bum choice." And then Agnew turned out to be a buffoon. And even though Nixon publicly defended him, privately he was frustrated, so he really became obsessed with replacing Agnew as Vice President with John Connally, the former Democratic governor of Texas, who later switched to being a Republican in part because Nixon kept courting him. Jules Witcover wrote a great book called "Very Strange Bedfellows" that dives into this relationship including through Nixon's secret White House recordings. And what I find interesting is it wasn't just that Nixon was understandably exasperated with Agnew. He seemed to have what I will generously call a "man-crush" on Connally.

[Jacobson laughs] I think there are two aspects of it. I think that you're brilliant to point to these authoritarian figures because it's not only people who we would associate it with, like a Connally or an Agnew, but he is drawn to Charles DeGaulle, he is drawn to Winston Churchill, he admires Mao Zedong. He has this authoritarian streak in which he really believes that the strong leader can step outside of history and make big things happen. Now he's doing this obviously, with Agnew or Connally, with down and dirty politics. I think with Connally, what's great is you're talking about his infatuation with the authoritarian side of him. But he also has this man crush because Connally is attractive, because he is politically adept. And Nixon likes to surround himself with men like that. He balances it. He likes a Henry Kissinger. He likes a Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He likes this idea of these colorful figures that he can somehow bring under his wing and look a little better because of that.

I want to go a little bit into how you describe Richard Nixon's obsessive fear of homosexuals. He obviously was virulently homophobic, and I think it's pretty clear that at least part of this was because homosexuality was an affront to his preference for heteronormative masculinity. It is interesting because he is particularly fond of saying, as your book points out, that homosexuals recruit people, homosexuals are grooming people. This is a situation where I think the parallel to the present situation should be explored. And I was hoping you could unpack those parallels as you observe them.

"For a guy in Nixon's generation who is worried about Communism and worried about the state of the world, and seeing the collapse of the political system in his view being threatened, it overlaps with the collapse of the nuclear family."

It's very, it's very, very interesting. There's a historian, David K. Johnson, who wrote of the Lavender Scare, and it went pretty much hand in hand with the Red Scare. [The government was] outing people as Communists in the State Department, and they were also outing people as homosexuals, and they fire more than 5,000 people [for homosexuality]. For a guy in Nixon's generation who is worried about Communism and worried about the state of the world, and seeing the collapse of the political system in his view being threatened, it overlaps with the collapse of the nuclear family. And so the counterculture and the left, who are talking about sexual liberation and are talking about the problems with capitalism and the problems with the West, get conflated with the sexual revolution. 

And these two things become intertwined. Like linkage in genetics, it was this idea that you have two kinds of traits, and they happen to be on the same chromosome, and they happened because of that to be constantly seen in the same light over and over and over again in the same individual. So the two traits become linked [in the public mind], and I think with anti-homosexuality and anti-Communism, they became linked, they became overlapping, and they became intermingled in that way. In terms of today, I think you see just a new iteration of this. You see the attractions towards authoritarianism and towards populism, and the insecurities of the breaking down of conservative values overlap with the breaking down of gender roles [in the pubic mind].

These very difficult and threatening ways of progressing can undermine what some people feel is already being undermined, their very core beings. Then you have political opportunists. Someone like Nixon or Joe McCarthy, were they for real? Were they really first and foremost anti-Communists? I think that they hooked into it to advance their careers. Like Tucker Carlson, I don't think that someone like McCarthy was first and foremost concerned about communism. He was concerned about becoming McCarthy. 

Now going to move on to a different subject from your book, Nixon's racism toward African Americans. What is intriguing about this is that he seemed more opportunistic in terms of his public face. Privately he was a racist... but when he thought that being pro-civil rights would win him the support of the Republican Party base, he was pro-civil rights. And then when the Republican base officially switched sides on the civil rights issue during the 1964 election, Nixon followed their path. To what extent do you think Nixon's mind and the way his psychology contributed to his racism was a product of his time, and to what extent do you think it was unusual to him?

I think the ambivalence is really endemic to his time. I think the fact that he can promote affirmative action and then support Southern Supreme Court judges who are going to slow walk desegregation is really the kind of mixed signals that were in the air... I think he was really conflicted. I think that he went back and forth and had this kind of cognitive dissonance, which he had over so many issues.

I want to conclude by asking about these weird instances of physical courage in Nixon's life. First, when he was confronted by angry mobs in Latin America, he went body-forward and confronted them even when they started throwing stones. Second, when he was president during the Vietnam Moratorium, in the middle of the night he went to the Lincoln Memorial and spoke with some of the protestors. Clearly he was willing to put himself in potential physical or real physical danger in order to have conversations with those he considered to be his opponents.

I think he was a really brave dude. I think that that's a core part of the book, which is that he was a gambling man and in these campaigns, where he was the underdog over and over again, where he loses to Kennedy and loses two years later trying to get elected governor of California... I think of him in his retirement. I mean, he is as low as you can get, and yet he puts a suit on every day. He does his work. This is a guy who, you can say that what he did was problematic, but this is a guy where you really have to respect his bravery, his ambition, his hard work, his ingenuity. I would expand your view to say that this is a pattern that he displayed his entire life.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Anti-semitism Donald Trump Homophobia Interview Mental Health Mental Illness Par:anoia Racism Richard Nixon