Richard Nixon’s best speech came at his worst moment. Having resigned the presidency to avoid impeachment in the aftermath of Watergate, he delivered a farewell address to his White House staff that served as a reflection on duty and humility.
“Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty,” he said before embarking on Marine One for the last time. “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
They were words that came from hard-won knowledge. Nixon, although prone to bouts of self-pity, understood and was able to acknowledge that he had destroyed himself, or at least his career and his place in history.
President Trump, who reportedly bristles at being compared to Nixon, struck a much different note before his final flight on Air Force One, on his way to Mar-a-Lago Wednesday. Having decided to leave office in the most graceless way possible — without meeting his successor at the White House or even walking back his baseless claim that the election was “stolen” from him — Trump turned his farewell at Joint Base Andrews into one last little rally.
There was no reflection or acknowledgment of any mistakes. Instead there was bragging about his tax cuts and a preemptive attempt to take credit for an anticipated economic boom under President Biden. “Remember us when you see these things happening,” he told the smattering of supporters his team was able to corral for the event.
“What we’ve done has been amazing by any standard,” he told them before walking off the podium to the Village People’s “YMCA.” He added, in what could be seen as a veiled threat to the Republican senators set to consider his impeachment at the upcoming trial, that he would “be back in some form.”
This, needless to say, is not the way we expect presidents to leave.
Much has been said over the last four years about Trump’s disdain for “norms,” a piece of Washington jargon that refers to unwritten rules, standards of civility, historical precedents and the way things just ought to be done. His first campaign for the presidency was so vulgar, so hopelessly base, that seemingly everyone who studied politics for a living thought he could never win the GOP nomination, let alone the presidency.
But the norm breaking proved to have a real and lasting appeal. He won some 75 million votes this past November, and in the process attracted a formidable, and surprisingly diverse, coalition of supporters. “The joke is that the GOP is really assembling the multiracial working-class coalition that the left has always dreamed of,” the progressive data analyst David Shor told Politico after the election.
Many rank-and-file Trump supporters talk about him with a sense of regret. If only he hadn’t tweeted so much. If only he’d been a little less wild.
But for others, the ones who stormed the Capitol at his behest or at least sympathized with those who did, Trump’s bad behavior was thrilling. It was yet more proof of his authenticity, and another way he was sticking it to prissy liberals and conservative turncoats. And they didn’t really care for it when he tried acting a little more staid — when he got around to condemning the riot at the Capitol a week after it had happened, QAnon cultists convinced themselves he was delivering them a different message via Morse code.
For some number of his supporters, in other words, norm breaking wasn’t incidental to his presidency — it was central to his appeal. And on Wednesday he told us once again that these are the supporters he values most, the die-hards and true believers who will follow him to a new party or TV network.
Nixon, in time, would restore some of his reputation. While always something of a pariah following his resignation, he would join the informal club of ex-presidents and become an elder statesman. All five of his successors would attend his funeral in 1994, and in his eulogy, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole predicted that the last half of the 20th century “will be known as the Age of Nixon.”
Nixon had delivered his farewell address with an eye to history. In leaving the stage, perhaps not for the last time, Trump remained focused on his immediate future — his personal fortune, a possible 2024 run. In a video from the White House on his last night as president, Trump insisted that “the movement we started is only just beginning.” What he means by that will become clear only some months or years from now.
If he does seek the presidency again in four years, what polls we have show that he would be the runaway favorite for the GOP nomination. Unpopular as he is with the broader public, the Republican Party that he transformed remains hostage to his appetites.
What we do know is that he will never take on that elder statesman role. After watching him in office over the last four years, and now his departure, we can say with certainty that he will not grow or change, or even pretend to do so.
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