Baker and Trump Actually Share One Attribute:  ‘Nixonian Habits’

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In his marvelously insightful book, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr., Alvin S. Felzenberg recalls the 1960 presidential contest when the National Review founder saw then-candidate Richard Nixon as “less the leader of the GOP than as the ‘amalgamator’ of all the forces that composed it.” Over a half century later, a sensible survey of the Republican party reveals that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and President Donald Trump are, likewise, “amalgamators.” They share similar Nixonian propensities.

Despite the dichotomy in their respective personalities and philosophies, Baker and Trump understand 2017 politics:  recalcitrant Republicans — particularly conservatives — can be circumvented in the political process, and more importantly, in the creation of public policy. Baker and Trump exhibit a marked disdain for conservatives. As did Nixon.

Writing for National Review in 2013, commemorating Nixon’s 100th birthday, John Fund reasoned that the president “governed more as a liberal than anything else.” Nixon, he wrote, “didn’t really like or trust conservatives, even if he hired a bunch of them.” Furthermore, “he used them and freely abandoned their principles when convenient.”

Fund cited Nixon’s numerous liberal domestic initiatives like creating the Environmental Protection Agency and calling for universal healthcare. These initiatives also included sweeping regulations on the economy (wage controls), affirmative action (employment quotas), and massive increases in welfare (Food Stamps). And international initiatives (opening China). Such actions reflected Nixon’s own background and association with what Nixon himself called the “progressive” wing of the party.

Fund concluded that “at best, it’s the record of a progressive Republican who, in the end, didn’t view conservatism as a valid governing philosophy — even though it was the basis of the republic created by the Founding Fathers.”

Today, amalgamator is understood as one who feels compelled to forge bi-partisan coalitions with the hope that it produces suitable progress for those believing that government — at all levels — is dysfunctional. The urgency for bi-partisanship is especially acute for Baker and Trump who hold no core political philosophy, other than a kind of modulating progressivism, which floats from one issue to the next. They must know — especially Baker — that while this may be a glamourous way of governing, it is a hazardous way for securing their future. For Baker, this is strategic; for Trump, it is more tactical. But the message is clear:  Amalgamate Republicans, incinerate conservatives.

Last year, Robin Price Pierre, writing in The Atlantic, believed that Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign bore a “striking resemblance to the 2016 presidential race:  Both have highlighted primal American fears.” The 1968 election, Pierre suggested, offered insight into why Trump’s supporters identified themselves as the “Silent Majority,” a term Nixon employed to describe the electorate “whose fears and insecurities he successfully rode into the White House.” Both elections ultimately signaled that “America, its values, and its power structure were under threat by a violent, liberal agenda.” Like Nixon in 1968, Trump in 2016 came into office after eight years of progressive governing. And those respective elections heralded shifts in political power and rhetorical discourse.

This past March, conservative commentator Mark Levin on Facebook asked, “Is Trump channeling Nixon?” On his syndicated radio show he said that there is a “Nixonian aspect to this administration.” Massive spending proposals on infrastructure and family leave entitlements, coupled with talk of new tariffs and severe protectionism have fed Levin’s frenzy. He bemoaned the lack of any constitutional conservatives in Trump’s most senior policy and political circles. Those closest to the president include nationalist populists and progressive liberals, he noted. But no conservatives.

In the wake of Trump’s September 6th agreement with Democrats — not Republicans — on spending (the continuing resolution), the debt ceiling, and Hurricane Harvey aid, Levin again spoke of the president’s “Nixonian habits.” Trump’s recent actions were “lurching left,” raising fears he would continue in that direction. Levin warned that “radical progressives” — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, with whom Trump has suddenly and surprisingly become friendly — “have absolutely no intention of supporting bi-partisan government.”

At the White House, on September 13th, with Trump speaking to a “bi-partisan group” and working in a “bi-partisan fashion” (his phrasings), the real news wasn’t a purported deal he sought on DACA, over dinner with Pelosi and Schumer. The real news was Trump declaring, in response to a reporter’s question about skeptical conservatives: “Well, I’m a conservative,” and “if we can do things in a bi-partisan manner that will be great.”


Like Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency, Trump is a cryptoconservative:  virtual, speculative, and fleeting. A novelty. But Trump is intent on using cryptographic techniques to strike any deal; whether or not a good deal, whether or not with Republicans, is irrelevant. Trump’s megalomania, paranoia, and schizophrenia obliterate his ability to understand this fact:  Only Republican executives are asked if they will work with Democrats in the legislative branch while Democrat executives are never asked if they will work with Republicans in the legislative branch. As Charlie Baker knows well.

Baker suffers no such grandiose illusions. But he also tears a big page out of the Nixon playbook. Only more emphatically.

His first attempt at purging the party of conservatives began during the 2014 primary season, at the Massachusetts Republican Party nominating convention, in a nasty fight with Tea Party member Mark Fisher. The party ultimately settled a lawsuit in early 2015 with Fisher, for which he was paid $240,000.

In the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic, Molly Ball described Baker as a “technocrat” who, during the 2014 gubernatorial election, “aggressively promoted his liberal stances on hot-button issues.” Boston liberals, Ball wrote, “seem grateful to Baker for being a Republican they can get behind.” Shortly after Baker’s victory, he assembled a bi-partisan cabinet “that included several Democrats and independents.” No mention of conservatives. (A Boston area blogger observing the transition said Baker’s team took “a non-partisan approach to state government and its problems.”)

Ball wondered if Baker’s election augurs a return to liberal Republicanism reminiscent of Nelson Rockefeller. But the governor did not see himself as a model for others. He is not a model. Rather, he is an anomaly:  A progressive masquerading as a Republican, who enjoys a 71 percent approval rating (higher than Senator Elizabeth Warren’s) in a progressive state with a legislature dominated (over 80 percent) by Democrats.

Baker has described his governing style as “relentless incrementalism,” which may have inspired National Review in August 2016 to conclude Baker “resembles an older variety of conservative.


That characterization now needs a thorough reassessment. Today, Baker resembles a Nixonian conservative, which is to say progressive Republican. Which is to say not a conservative.

In retrospect, Baker is about as affectionate to conservatives as sharks are to seals; his lurch left over the last twelve months has been remarkable. He appointed a progressive, Rosalin Acosta, as labor secretary. He angered conservatives for vowing to replace Planned Parenthood funding with state dollars if Washington pulls its support for the program. And incrementalism will not fix the troubled MBTA transit system or the state’s towering indebtedness and unfunded pension obligations. These problems were indeed created by partisan progressives over decades, who certainly did not consider bi-partisanship while committing such grand malfeasance. These problems desperately need definitive conservative solutions. What happened to fiscal conservatism?

There are worrisome challenges looming on Baker’s horizon.

Just last month, Joe Battenfeld in the Boston Herald alarmingly reported that some leading conservatives simply won’t vote for Baker in next year’s gubernatorial race. And last June, Jim O’Sullivan, in The Boston Globe, wrote that the governor “recently told his fund-raisers that he wants nearly a third of Democrats and almost three in five independent voters to support him.” Baker, O’Sullivan admitted, “holds greater appeal among moderates and less among the GOP base.” He won in 2014 by a margin of only 40,000 votes, or less than 2 percent. His political calculus may discount Republicans and conservatives in 2017 but Baker will need every one of the state’s 479,237 registered Republicans, who still account for nearly 11 percent of all registered voters, in 2018 to win reelection.

With perverse irony, it is possible that Baker and Trump might, at their peril, galvanize conservatives. Classical conservatives, furious at being sidelined, could coalesce with libertarian progressives to forge a new political partnership, a disruptive third party. There is still time in Massachusetts to do this as a form of protest, to punish Baker’s leftward drift. He surely loses with substantial vote splitting.  

Conservatives could simply stay home, too. As Felzenberg summarizes Bill Buckley’s thinking during the 1960 presidential election between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon:  “‘We actually increase our leverage,’ Buckley told a friend, ‘by refusing to join the parade’.”      

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and former columnist with
 The Cape Cod Times. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal, and