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Richard Nixon would've loved the Donald Trump campaign. He said so himself.

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Donald Trump and Richard Nixon both gives thumbs-up.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images and Gene Forte/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

This letter from former President Richard Nixon to Donald Trump — revealed this past fall by Trump biographer Michael D'Antonio — is eerily prescient:

You can actually watch the episode of Phil Donahue's talk show that so impressed Pat Nixon and her husband on YouTube:

At the time, Trump was only 41 but was already a New York media darling. The Art of the Deal had just come out, which would make him a national figure. Most of the interview isn't about politics, but the parts that are are very Nixon-friendly. Trump defends Nixon and his father against allegations that they discriminated against black tenants, and talks admiringly of Roy Cohn, the right-wing lawyer most famous for prosecuting the Rosenbergs and serving as Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel in the Senate.

Cohn (who spent his whole life closeted and died of AIDS the year before the interview) was a friend of Nixon's and reportedly helped him win reelection in 1972 by leaking Democratic VP candidate Thomas Eagleton's psychiatric history.

"The one thing I'll say about Roy is that he was an extremely loyal guy," Trump says. "Loyalty is a great trait."

The prospect of Trump running for office comes up again and again:

Donahue: You tell us also in your book that you left Queens and you left Brooklyn for Manhattan to get away from rent control! You're honest to tell us in this book.

Trump: I'm honest. Hey, I'm not running for anything, Phil, I'm not running for office. I don't have to lie in a book. I want to tell the facts, okay? Do you want me to say little fibs and little this and little that, and how much we all love rent control and what a great thing it's been for New York? It's been a disaster for New York, it's badly hurt New York, it's crippled New York.

Trump follows that up by engaging in the kind of political rhetoric that he's perfected over the past year: populist while simultaneously drawing upon his own power as an elite. He condemns rent control for primarily helping the politically well-connected, bragging in the process that he has those connections ("it's the people with the connections — somebody knows Trump, somebody knows somebody else, they call up and say, 'Do me a favor,' that's what it's all about").

Donahue condemns Trump for calling then-New York Mayor Ed Koch a moron, and Trump doesn't back down, attacking him in similar terms to those he's used in criticizing the Obama administration and his primary rivals: "Ed Koch has been a disaster for New York. People that live in New York understand it. Taxes have gone through the roof."

Donahue insists it's an issue of tone — "I don't think you have to be passionately committed to city hall or anybody to conclude this kind of language from someone of your power and influence is not good style" — but Trump holds firm: "Phil, from my standpoint, it doesn't really matter. Again, I'm not running for office. If the point is made better by saying that, let the point be made. He's done a lousy job as mayor; anyone from New York understands it and knows it. It's gone down and it's going down as — hey, Phil, this is the most corrupt administration in the history of the city."

Compare that with Trump in 2016 on Obama and Hillary Clinton, and the rhetorical parallels are pretty clear:

Donahue pulls up another quote: "If people screw me, I screw back in spades." The audience claps. Trump: "Is there something wrong with that? Tell me." He proceeds to launch into a rant against Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait that wouldn't feel out of place in 2016 either:

Trump: We have countries out there that are our so-called allies, and I use the word "so-called" because they're a disaster for this country. Japan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait. They're making billions and trillions of dollars while this country is going out and borrowing money from Japan to defend Japan. They don't spend for defense, we defend Japan.

Compare that with Trump just last month:

But right now we’re protecting, we’re basically protecting Japan, and we are, every time North Korea raises its head, you know, we get calls from Japan and we get calls from everybody else, and "Do something." And there’ll be a point at which we’re just not going to be able to do it anymore.

When it's time for questions from the audience, Trump gets asked again and again about his political plans, and he keeps coming back to the same familiar points:

Audience member 1: You keep saying you're not running for office, but why don't you?

Trump: I wouldn't want to run for mayor of New York. I'd like to see somebody talented do that, and there's a tremendous potential in New York. New York is a great city, it's one of the great places of the world, but I really have no intention of running for mayor, thank you.

Audience member 2: But you definitely are a political person whether you run for office — everything you say and do points in that direction.

Trump: You know what it is? I don't like being taken advantage of. When I see a Japan ripping off this country — and I'm not saying that negative to Japan, I'm saying it from my standpoint. I'm a businessman, I know how to deal, and some of you folks do too. When I see a total rip-off of this country by Japan, where they literally have no defense budget, where we have to borrow money from them in order to get them oil and defend the Persian Gulf where most of the oil goes to Japan, not us … Bottom line, Phil, I don't like being ripped off, and when I see something, I let people know.

So Pat and Richard Nixon weren't just praising 1987-vintage Trump. They were praising Trump engaging in exactly the same kind of rhetoric and politicking that has made him the GOP frontrunner in 2016.

What Nixon and Trump have in common

Richard Nixon didn't live to see Trump the politician, as much as he wanted to, but he likely would've been pleased with what he found. Referring to Trump's recent encouragement of and tolerance for violence against demonstrators, Elizabeth Drew, a veteran journalist and author of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon's Downfall, told me, "There's an absolute parallel, an eerie parallel, between what Trump is doing and what Nixon did."

"The similarity is that they seem to not have any qualms, any sense of shame at using power to get back at people that they feel were unkind or unfair to them," NYU professor and former Nixon Library director Tim Naftali added.

Nixon rabble-roused against demonstrators, like Trump. After New York construction worker union members violently attacked Vietnam protesters, Nixon supported them, even accepting a symbolic hard hat from their leader. In 1969, then-Deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst mused to Drew, on the record, about opening "detention camps" for antiwar protesters. In 1970 Nixon personally approved a plan for burglary and illegal surveillance targeting protesters.

All these things seem of a piece with the kind of vengeful targeting of protesters that Trump seems to relish.

Nixon might have loved Trump but conservatives hate him

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