Why Nixon’s the One for Today’s Conservatives

Why Nixon’s the One for Today’s Conservatives

A new wave of revisionism paints Nixon’s enemies as the true criminals—and Trump as his heir.

Is it once again time for a new Nixon? A nascent Nixon revival is taking place on the political right, as Ian Ward reports in Politico. For a bevy of young conservatives, led by entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, Richard M. Nixon serves as a lodestar. Their contention: far from being a corrupt president, Nixon was the forebear of Donald J. Trump—a great man brought low by a nefarious deep state intent on sabotaging and destroying his presidency. “In the topsy-turvy historical tableau of 2023,” wrote Ward, “to defend Nixon is to back Trump—and to rescue the former from historical ignominy is, according to the thinking of some young conservatives, to save the latter from the same fate.”

These young conservatives include Curt Mills (a former reporter at the National Interest), who recently wrote in the American Conservative that “something about the man, our Shakespearean president, is fitting for this moment, as the country careens toward its most chaotic presidential election since 1860…” In this telling, Nixon represented law and order, hostility to pampered liberal elites, and a restrained foreign policy—just like Trump.

This is the very message that the conservative activist Christopher Rufo, who has produced a new film called “Nixon Forever,” seeks to disseminate. It was Nixon, Rufo argues, who laid the blueprint for a counter-revolution against the liberal establishment. Rather than shun him, the right should return to his timeless wisdom.

Then there is the Richard Nixon Foundation itself in Yorba Linda. The foundation, long a sleepy backwater, has been jolted into action by its new chairman and former Trump national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien. In October, it held a conference on foreign policy at Washington’s St. Regis Hotel. While attending this convivial affair, which featured both members of the Nixon administration and younger fans of the president, I was struck by the frequent allusions to Nixonian foreign policy made by Trump national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Pompeo is co-chairman of the Nixon Seminar on Conservative Realism and National Security.) Nixon was held up as a lodestar—a realist president who could bridge the divide between isolationism and neoconservatism. Nixon’s muscular brand of realism, we were told, provided the right prescription to remedy the ailments afflicting American foreign policy under a hapless President Joe Biden.

It’s no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that Ramaswamy touts Nixon as his personal hero. Speaking at the Richard Nixon Foundation in August, Ramaswamy made his ardor for the former president plain: “I think he is by far, by and away, the most underappreciated president of our modern history in this country, probably in all of American history.” Ramaswamy went on to laud Nixon’s stern adherence to realist principles rather than crusading liberalism abroad. “Richard Nixon, like I aspire to be, was a George Washington, America-first conservative,” he said. “He was a realist who believed that the job of the U.S. president above all was, who would’ve ever thought, to advance the interests of Americans who live in the United States of America.”

There have been periodic attempts by historians and pundits to defend Nixon, but nothing resembling the current boomlet depicting his enemies as the true tricksters. Whether Nixon (who founded the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom in 1994, which later became the Center for the National Interest) can become a role model for Republicans remains an open question. But the current wave of historical revisionism suggests that more than a few on the contemporary right are wondering whether Nixon’s the one.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He has written on both foreign and domestic issues for numerous publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street JournalFinancial TimesForeign AffairsReutersWashington Monthly, and The Weekly Standard. He has also written for German publications such as Cicero, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Der Tagesspiegel. In 2008, his book They Knew They Were Right: the Rise of the Neocons was published by Doubleday. It was named one of the one hundred notable books of the year by The New York Times. He is the author of America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators, coming in 2024.