“The tapes are the real man — mean, vindictive, panicky, striking first in anticipation of being struck, trying to lift his own friable self-esteem by shoving others down,” Gary Wills wrote of Richard Nixon in the 2017 preface to his book, “Nixon Agonistes.” Wills added, perhaps unfairly, that “Nixon’s real tragedy is that he never had the stature to be a tragic hero. He is the stuff of sad (almost heartbreaking) comedy.”
The passage comes to mind as we close out Donald Trump’s annus horribilis, during which he supplanted Nixon as the saddest figure in post-presidential politics. The Jan. 6 committee, despite its flaws, succeeded in establishing a damning official record (largely told by his own aides) of his attempt to steal the presidency. A special prosecutor is on his case(s). His tax returns are out for all to see.
A week after a disastrous midterm election for his party and his power, he announced he’s running for president again. The party and public shrugged.
Then, he teased a “major announcement” which turned out to be a line of digital trading cards, some of which appear to be little more than Photoshopped images from Google searches with his face pasted on. What Trump described as “amazing ART of my Life & Career!” show him as, among other things, an astronaut, a sheriff and a superhero with laser beams shooting out of his eyes (causing even Russian state TV to snicker).
I can report that Trump was neither an astronaut nor sheriff. If he had heat vision, Mike Pence would now be a pile of ash.
The contrast with Nixon’s post-presidency is poignant. Nixon in exile wrote 10 books, all quite serious, including his memoirs. He clawed back a reputation as a wise man who dispensed advice to presidents.
But that’s not the poignant part. Nixon was surrounded with a loving family, lifelong friends and loyal aides who gave him the sort of succor that politics couldn’t. His first — and only — wife was the love of his life. Long after Nixon’s death, they cherished his memory. Nixon in exile still enjoyed the respect not just of his friends but of his enemies.
The famously friendless Trump has admitted that he never had much use for real friends. Trump prefers to be surrounded by people who will tell him what he wants to hear, and what he wants to hear is: You’re awesome. Reportedly, this is why he hit it off so well with a neo-Nazi toady who heaped praise on him at that now notorious dinner with the artist formerly known as Kanye West.
This is what makes Trump such a pathetic figure. Wills titled his book “Nixon Agonistes” — a reference to the Milton poem “Samson Agonistes” — because Nixon was a man of struggle, both internal and external, hungry for respect.
Trump isn’t merely hungry for respect; he’s, as the kids say, “thirsty” for respect — respect for his strength, his “very stable genius,” his masculinity and, of course, his money. When Trump read a 2015 column of mine in the New York Post mocking his potential run, he turned to his aide Sam Nunberg and muttered, “Why don’t they respect me, Sam?”
Of course, there are people who respect Trump, but most of them aren’t friends, they’re fans, the sorts of people who don’t get the joke of his trading cards. In 2016, he told a New Hampshire audience: “I have no friends, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “You know who my friends are? You’re my friends.”
Fans are generally the last people to tell you hard truths. Worse for Trump: His definition of fans are people who think he can do no wrong.
The key difference is that Nixon’s hunger for respect was tempered by a reciprocal respect, admittedly flawed, for the presidency, his party, the country and for those closest to him. Nixon spared them all the ordeal of impeachment; Trump was impeached twice, then ran again, lost, and then tried to steal the presidency. He recently called for the suspension of the Constitution to reinstall him, because no impediment to his self-glorification deserves respect.
Nixon’s struggle was complicated because he was complicated. Trump’s struggle is simple because he is simple: All he is is appetite — for fame, power, sex, admiration — shorn of any interior life and unencumbered by exterior attachments.
Wills may have been right that the secret tapes displayed the “real” Nixon. We don’t need secret tapes to know Trump, because the real Trump is always on display for those with eyes to see him. And, finally, the sight is becoming wearying, even for his fans.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.