The Nixon Files

By Benjamin Burns

And so the summer of 2019 reaches its peak: another humid, overbearing ordeal in Tokyo, and one which I could quite easily do without.

Truth be told, I have always disliked summer, and sitting in a poorly air-conditioned café, somewhere amongst the concrete mess of Shibuya, does little to change that opinion.

Nevertheless, I am not immune to some of the charm that this season brings. It is, after all, a time when things become obvious. The skies grow clearer, the grass greener, wildlife more abundant; even people are free to expose more of themselves, though this does present something of a ‘mixed bag’.

In case you hadn’t caught it, this is also intended as an analogy more generally speaking, for just as the pondlife rises to the surface, for all to see, so to must other things. This week it is history.

For once again, from the swamp, comes a sordid artefact of the Nixon years, in the form of a taped phone conversation, this time between the man himself (Nixon) and darling of the neoliberal right, Ronald Reagan (then Gov. of California).

The precise content of this ugly little exchange scarcely needs repeating here—though for those who have not yet listened to it, you are advised to do so—suffice to say that concerns the 1971 recognition of the Peoples Republic of China as the official Chinese state, replacing the Republic of China (Taiwan) at the UN.

The United States, which had thrown its diplomatic weight behind Taiwan, for nearly three decades, was (to say the least) invested in that particular status quo, and not at all pleased about having its strategic ally unseated—least of all in favour of its communist antithesis.

To add insult to injury, the vote on Chinas recognition was perceived to have been carried by ‘the Third World’: newly independent, developing nations; largely African and largely sympathetic towards the political struggle of the PRC.

In hindsight, that this was considered a slight to both the vanity and competence of Richard Nixon, his administration, as well as US realpolitik generally speaking, perhaps goes without saying. And, knowing what we know about these two men, so too does their subsequent reaction to it.

Richard Nixon’s grotesque anti-Semitism and bigotry have been common knowledge for decades now, his very name becoming synonymous with political corruption. In fact, when measured against the vulgarity of his pre-existing recorded legacy, this conversation pales in comparison.

Likewise that Ronald Reagan, patron of white racism in southern Africa, scourge of Latin American democracy, might have harboured disdain towards the self-determination of newly independent African states, seems a revelation equally uninteresting.

So what is it that we are really surprised about here? What is it that we think these tapes reveal that is so shocking to us? Surely it is not that two men, both with a fairly well-documented history of such attitudes, had such a conversation, some 50 years ago.

No. Rather it is what we think this recording tells us about the present times, or, more specifically, the president: Donald Trump.

This angle has been fairly clear throughout reporting, though usually oblique, and rarely substantial, to the degree that I am often left wondering precisely who Donald Trump is being compared to, Nixon or Reagan—surely he cannot encapsulate both simultaneously.

Naftil, writing in the Atlantic, makes the connection somewhat clearer for us, suggesting that the relevance of these tapes to Donald Trump, is as a reminder that previous American Presidents have been racist—and more generally to race as a prevailing issue in American politics.

Well, if it took the haunting cackle of Richard Nixon, from beyond the grave, to remind you of either of those things, you may not be competent as a voice of reason on the issue; nor well equipped for the eventuality that the president may, in fact, be an ideological racist.

Of course, the true value is only ever implicitly stated, though well understood by those with an ear for it: if Reagan spoke like this on the phone, imagine what Trump says in private. The wider implications of this reasoning should, I hope, be equally understood.

I do not particularly like Donald Trump. I find him boorish, often ill-informed, his positions on international relations antiquated – as well as those on many other things. It strikes me that there are many reasons to dislike the man, and his presidency, without slavishly grasping at straws in a kind of historical kangaroo court.

Trump may be a racist; I do not know. He may be a racist, a sexual predator, a wife abuser, or any other variety of miscreant. He may be all of these things at once, even, yet it would remain beyond the relevance or indictment of a conversation between two separate individuals, recorded half a century earlier.

To assume otherwise is to say that all bad things are essentially alike, in so far as they sound and look alike to me, which in itself produces a kind of tyranny. A tyranny which is both pervasive and seductive in its simplicity.

There is certainly something attractive in doing this. If you simply lump all the people you don’t like together, as a sort of homogenous, albeit multi-headed, creature, you can make a number of broad assumptions, predictions and strategies.

This is, above all, a symptom of lazy thinking: the type which has seen the decay of the intellectual left in the western hemisphere. Yet it is also a precursor to something much more sinister if left unchecked, or even encouraged, as it has been.

Trump is not Nixon, nor is he Reagan, and the political environment he inhabits is a world apart from that of either. The sooner people start understanding Trump as an entity in himself, they may start to understand the reasons why he was elected in the first place, and contest him from that position—rather than assuming some common strain of evil.

Finally, If this tape is to remind us of anything, it is first and foremost the odious legacy Nixonism and its continued stain on the American political psyche; secondly, to contextualise the barbarous campaigns waged by Reagan and Nixon both against the developing world in the name of American self-interest.