While both Nixon and Trump were ruthless politicians, there are actually more differences between them than similarities. Nixon was a self-made man and a Navy veteran who honed his political chops by famously winning—and losing—elections in the 1950s and ’60s en route to becoming a skillful political operator. Trump, by contrast, didn’t serve in the military and built on family success to become a television personality who only later wandered into politics. What Nixon and Trump share in demeanor, they lack in nearly every other aspect of their lives.
Opinion | Donald Trump Isn’t Richard Nixon. He’s Jimmy Carter.
But there’s a better comparison to a prior president; if Trump resembles any 1970s politician, it isn’t Nixon—it’s Jimmy Carter.
At first glance, it may seem even stranger to compare the Manhattan real estate developer to a mild-mannered Georgia peanut farmer instead, and a president with serial marriages and allegations of sexual improprieties with a monogamous, Sunday school-teaching Southern Baptist.
But politically, Trump and Carter have more in common than one might think, and the comparison goes well beyond Trump’s recent attempt to broker peace between Israel and the United Arab Emirates as Carter did with Israel and Egypt. Indeed, if recent polls hold, their ultimate political fates will be more alike than different, forever united in history as one-term presidents who were largely unable to rise to the challenges of their day.
When Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976, his victory was hailed as a triumph of the outsider. No governor had been elected president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, and with the exception of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the White House had generally been occupied by senators and former vice presidents who might best be described as “Washington insiders.”
No wonder, in a nation reeling from Watergate and Nixon’s subsequent pardon, voters looked for leadership without the stench of the swamp. Carter’s close-fought victory in the Electoral College reflected his ability to attract Southern Democrats, who now leaned Republican in presidential elections, to his side and produced an electoral map that hadn’t been seen since 1960—and hasn’t been seen since his victory. (Clinton, the next Democratic president after Carter, managed to win a few states in the Deep South, but the shift to Carter in 1976 was largely temporary.) The region voted for Reagan and Bush—and more recently against Obama—as it became reliably Republican at the presidential level. And in the lead-up to Donald Trump in 2016, the electoral map remained largely consistent.
In short, Carter was the right person at the right time to draw enough of those voters back into the Democratic tent to win election.
Flash back to 2016, and we see Trump also realigning the American electoral map, making inroads into working-class Midwestern states like Michigan and Wisconsin that hadn’t voted for a Republican in a presidential election since the 1980s. As with Carter, Americans elected Donald Trump as an “anti-establishment outsider” who promised to “drain the swamp” and change the way conventional Washington does business—messaging that his campaign is still using as an incumbent in 2020. Trump’s 304-227 victory in the Electoral College was similarly narrow to Carter’s 297-240, and whether he will be able to replicate this map in 2020 remains to be seen.
As we’re seeing in real time, Trump’s presidency will be singularly characterized by his ability (or inability) to rise to the challenges that now threaten his time in office—in much the same way that Carter’s electoral success ultimately depended on his handling of the Iran hostage crisis and the economic difficulties of his day.
Like Carter, Trump is running for reelection with an economy in recession. One of the most critical difficulties faced by Carter in the 1980 campaign was Reagan’s question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Rather few can answer “yes” to that today—and the same was true for Carter.
At first, Carter’s response to the recession received high marks from voters. His now infamous “malaise speech” in July 1979, criticized in years since, was viewed overwhelmingly positively at the time. Carter’s poll numbers rebounded such that by the start of 1980, he led presumptive Republican nominee Ronald Reagan by more than 30 percentage points in some polls.
Much of the Trump presidency tells a similar story. Trump never had the same high approval ratings, but for perhaps even longer than Carter, he seemed to be well-positioned for reelection.
And despite a “blue wave” in the 2018 midterms, Trump’s record on the economy pointed toward victory in 2020. He oversaw a bullish stock market, record low unemployment, and the strongest economic expansion since at least the mid-1990s—all traditional indicators of strength.
But Trump’s fortunes changed dramatically this past spring, first with the rise of the novel coronavirus, and then with the development of civil and racial unrest in America’s cities. In both cases, his actions—or with respect to coronavirus, his inaction—only exacerbated these problems and threatened his chances of a victory in November. Teargassing peaceful protesters to secure a photo op for evangelicals, then sending heavily armed federal law enforcement officers to Portland, Ore., echoes Carter’s failed attempt at rescuing the hostages—only to have things blow up in his face.
Both presidents had the opportunity to turn things around and rescue their popularity based on Americans’ desire to “do something” in times of crisis.
The problem comes when that “something” doesn’t work, often because it runs up against factors that cannot be changed—whether foreign hostage-takers or a rampant virus. The Trump administration is likely to keep spending madly, but all the deficits in the world cannot bend the laws of viral spread.
Carter and Trump’s inability to respond effectively to their respective crises also stems from an unwillingness to engage with Congress and develop the relationships necessary to sway the legislature their way. While both had big plans for changing Washington—for Carter, it was energy and welfare reform; for Trump, a smattering of new trade deals, building the Wall and repealing Obamacare—neither mastered the levers of Congress and how to pull them to their advantage. Ultimately, they were stymied when crises struck and all the wheels of government needed to turn together.
The seeds of these late-term failures were sown early in their terms. Trump and Carter both had a few, early successes. Both were able to deregulate massive swaths of American industry, and both signed tax cuts in the second year of their administration. Carter—much more of a fiscal hawk than the current President—aimed for a balanced budget but, like Trump, also faced a breakdown within his own party over health care.
More often, though, Carter struggled to advance his domestic legislative priorities. He began his term with his party in control of both houses of the legislature, but Congress rejected his welfare reform plans and Democratic leaders famously scuttled his plans to wind down a collection of what he saw as pork-barrel water projects in their districts. Later, they would even override his veto of a bill that repealed oil import fees, the first time they had done so for a majority party president in 28 years.
Likewise, when Donald Trump took office with Republican control of the House and Senate, he began hitting walls right away. Despite years of promises, the party was not able to take action on rolling back Obamacare, the signature achievement of Trump’s predecessor. Trump was not able to sell the issue to the public or members of Congress, and the majority-led bill famously went down in the Senate when John McCain cast the deciding vote against it. Trump’s much-vaunted border wall also failed to gain traction despite unified party rule, and he even tried to shift funds from the military budget to get his way. Unlike Carter, Trump quickly gave up working with Congress. In discussions over the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, and later with Covid relief, Trump had Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin take over the role of chief negotiator with Congress, relegating the president to the sidelines.
But no matter the amount of effort they put in, both presidents ended up acting largely alone until they hit existential threats—whether hostage-takers or a virus—that required seamless coordination among power centers. The failures that followed were almost predictable, whether an unsuccessful rescue attempt or an uncontrolled pandemic.
Nonetheless, just weeks before Election Day, some polls showed Carter ahead, and Trump was still seen as a favorite as recently as June. It is still possible that events will change in the late days of the race, catapulting Trump to victory. as Ronald Reagan was in 1980. But Trump is now the incumbent, which puts him in a very different position from Nixon and Reagan before him. And if historical trends hold, those of us on the center right should be very concerned indeed.
The country’s tilt against Trump may have come later in the campaign than it did against Carter, but the end result looks likely to be the same. And if that is the case, then the legacy of the 2020 election might have implications far beyond our current times.
If Trump is our generation’s Carter, then 2020 just might look more like 1980 and make 78-year-old Joe Biden the Ronald Reagan of our times—a broadly popular figure rising out of the malaise and establishing a legacy for his party for the next generation. A strange turn of events, no doubt. After all, although history rarely repeats, it may yet again rhyme.