The Inner Nixon

The Nixon tapes are still in the news! My God, they’re still spewing bile, still making America’s eyeballs roll.

They’re as relevant as ever.

Donald Trump, it turns out, is merely the inner Richard Nixon, live and uncensored. He’s also the inner Ronald Reagan — the inner voice, suddenly made public, of every white male racist who has ever occupied the Oval Office (which is probably most of the occupants).

In an article that just came out in The Atlantic, Tim Naftali, history professor and first director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, shared a fragment of a telephone conversation between Nixon and Reagan from October 1971, in response to a vote the previous day in the United Nations that recognized the People’s Republic of China as, well . . . China.

Reagan, then governor of California, was in a stew of fury over the vote, as was Nixon. And both of them ascribed particular blame to the African nations, spurred by the fact that Tanzanian delegates actually started dancing in the General Assembly after the vote.

“Last night, I tell you,” Reagan said, “to watch that thing on television as I did.”

“Yeah,” said Nixon.

Reagan continued: “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries — damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes.”

Nixon began laughing.

God bless America. What’s on display is the spiritual laziness of incredibly powerful men. Is it even shocking? Not really. The relevance of this minute or so of American history, suddenly in the public spotlight after almost four decades, isn’t that it allows us to single out the two former presidents as racists, shake our fingers at them and move on. Rather, it forces us to pause and examine the nature of racism itself in the post-civil-rights era and ask: How does it still manifest as public policy?

What has become obvious in the age of Trump is that this country has not transcended racism and moved on. America remains as much a paradox-in-progress as it was in 1776, when slave-owner Thomas Jefferson penned the phrase “all men are created equal.” The national soul still regards itself as white; the nation is still wedded to a racially based sense of moral superiority. This was once overt and unquestioned.

For instance, a dozen U.S. presidents have owned slaves, eight of them while they were in office. Many if not all of them possessed an absolute certainty that slavery was morally legitimate. Andrew Jackson, who owned about 150 slaves, once, many years before he became president, advertised that he would pay $50 for the return of a runaway slave and $10 extra “for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of 300,” as Russell Contreras notes in a recent AP story. Jackson, of course, was the president who signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 and got the Trail of Tears underway, throwing tens of thousands of Native Americans off their homeland and, of course, costing many thousands their lives.

After the days of slavery, American racism had to take different forms. Contreras writes, for instance: “The Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson worked to keep blacks out of Princeton University while serving as that school’s president. When he became president of the U.S., the Democrat refused to reverse the segregation of civil service, though he had won the White House with the support of some African American men.”

The civil rights movement created another serious consciousness and policy shift, with racism slowly taking a moral nosedive, to the despair and anger of its many true believers. By 1971, you could say, the U.S. had learned how to pretend that racism was now history, but that was hardly the case.

The Republican “Southern Strategy,” which began with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, was initially a disaster. Goldwater, who ran proudly on his vote against the Civil Rights Act that year, may have won 87 percent of the Mississippi vote, but he was clobbered nationally, as Angie Maxwell pointed out recently in the Washington Post.

“Four years later,” she wrote, “understanding the risks of such an overt campaign against civil rights, Nixon’s team instead coded their racial appeals.” Nixon campaigned on such racial “dog whistles” as the restoration of law and order and a war on drugs and “adopted a stance of ‘benign neglect’ on civil rights enforcement, a message that his advocates, such as Democrat-turned-Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, bluntly conveyed to Southern whites on his behalf. As Thurmond put it, ‘If Nixon becomes president, he has promised that he won’t enforce either the Civil Rights or the Voting Rights Acts. Stick with him.’”

Maxwell also noted that, a dozen years later, “Reagan expanded Nixon’s racial code to ‘colorblind’ appeals for economic justice. He encouraged Americans to move past race, but also invoked the image of the ‘welfare queen’” — portraying African-Americans as “takers,” manipulators of a public welfare system that perpetuated laziness and siphoned the incomes of white people.

In the Trump era, the racist code language is slipping away. Tearing immigrant families apart at the border is now dismissed with a shrug as necessary and justified, and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings’ congressional district in Baltimore is a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”

Any questions?

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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