'Trump May Have Already Done More Damage Than Nixon'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader has a strong addition to our discussion about the dangerous game that Donald Trump is playing with all of “rigged” rhetoric:

I appreciate Fallows’ invocation of Richard Nixon’s resignation when discussing the American norm of a peaceful transition of power. However, there’s another decision by Nixon that seems even more relevant in light of Trump’s allegations about a rigged election.

Earlier this year I read Edward B. Foley’s excellent history of disputed elections in America, Ballot Battles. The book is fascinating on many levels and alarming in its descriptions of the weaknesses in America’s electoral institutions. But I want to focus on one particular election featured in the book: the 1960 presidential contest between Nixon and Kennedy.

Oxford University Press

It’s now generally accepted that Chicago Democrats manipulated the vote totals in the 1960 election in an attempt to help Kennedy carry Illinois. There is also substantial evidence that Lyndon B. Johnson’s political machine in Texas manipulated the vote total in Kennedy’s favor. If Nixon was, in fact, cheated out of those two states and their electoral votes, then he was cheated out of the presidency in 1960.

Political partisans had their suspicions even at the time. After Nixon’s initial concession to Kennedy, his supporters urged him to seek recounts in both Illinois and Texas. But Nixon was convinced that there was no way for him to get a truly fair recount from Texas state officials. And at the time, the Supreme Court's policy was to avoid federal intervention in this type of dispute.

So let’s take a step back and consider this situation. Here we have a politician who is just out of reach of the White House. He has a reasonable belief that the vote totals in two key states were rigged against him, and that the recount process in one of those states would also be rigged against him. On top of everything else, this politician is Richard Nixon, a man whose name has become a shorthand for political dirty tricks. So what does he do?

Incredibly, Nixon did nothing.

He did not seek a recount in Texas. He did not denounce the vote counting process and recount process in Texas as “rigged.” He didn’t even seek a recount in Illinois, since Illinois by itself could not provide him the additional electoral votes needed to win.

Nixon later explained his reasoning for this inaction in his 1962 book, Six Crises. He worried that, “The bitterness that would be engendered by such a [recount] maneuver . . . would, in my opinion, have done incalculable and lasting damage throughout the country.” He also wrote that, “It is difficult enough to get defeated candidates in some of the newly independent countries to abide by the verdict of the electorate. If we could not continue to set a good example in this respect in the United States, I could see that there would be open-season for shooting at the validity of free elections throughout the world.”

The problems with the 1960 election and recount process are so manifest that Edward Foley concludes that “the 1960 presidential election must be viewed as a failure of American government to operate a well-functioning democracy.” The fact that this view is not widely shared should be attributed to the selfless act of a man who is otherwise (and not without cause!) pilloried for his subversion of American democratic ideals.

And that brings us back to Trump. Whereas Nixon had actual grounds to suspect vote-rigging, Trump has none. Whereas Nixon declined to challenge the election results after his supporters raised legitimate concerns, Trump is now spreading disinformation before the votes have even been counted. And whereas Nixon would not press his legitimate grievances for fear of dividing the country, Trump is using his lies to lay the groundwork for possible violence.

Nixon did more damage to the presidency and the popular image of American government than any other politician in the 20th Century. Trump hasn’t even been elected president, and yet he may have already done more damage than Nixon.

It’s worth noting one of the strongest ties between Nixon and Trump: Roger Stone. Stone is a Nixon acolyte—complete with a large tattoo of the president on his back—known for his “dirty tricks” on behalf of Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972. In his 2014 book Nixon’s Secrets, Stone forcefully argues that Kennedy stole the 1960 election:

During this primary season, Stone was one of Trump’s close advisors and henchmen (you probably remember him as the guy who threatened to send Trump supporters to the hotel rooms of RNC delegates) and he reportedly remains in close contact with Trump’s team. It would be no surprise if Stone’s deep resentment over the 1960 election is fueling the “rigged” rhetoric coming out of the Trump campaign right now.