Roger Stone and the Trump-Nixon Connection

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“Get Me Roger Stone,” a new Netflix documentary about the political provocateur and Donald Trump ally, contains a timely message about Richard Nixon’s lasting influence on Republican politics.“Get Me Roger Stone,” a new Netflix documentary about the political provocateur and Donald Trump ally, contains a timely message about Richard Nixon’s lasting influence on Republican politics. CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY BARBARA NITKE / NETFLIX

“I believe in winning,” Roger Stone, the notorious political provocateur, says near the beginning of the fascinating new Netflix documentary about his life. The film, called “Get Me Roger Stone,” takes us from his days as a teen-age dirty trickster in the Watergate era through his rise to prominence as a consultant for Ronald Reagan; his precipitous fall in a sex scandal, during Bob Dole’s 1996 Presidential campaign; his murky role in the Florida recount of 2000; and, finally, and most important, his long-time sponsorship of the Presidential ambitions of Donald Trump. (Netflix has posted a trailer for the documentary, which will be available for streaming on May 12th. I profiled Stone in 2008, and I’m interviewed in the film.) Stone sometimes appears to be in on the joke about his cartoonish cynicism, but there’s a serious message at the core of the film—and in Stone’s return to prominence with Trump. For more than a generation, Republican politicos have worshipped at the altar of Reagan and sought to emulate his optimistic vision for a growing nation. Stone worked for Reagan and offers dutiful praise for him, but it’s clear that Stone’s sentiments are really aligned with a different Republican President. In his heart, Stone is a Richard Nixon man. More to the point, so is Trump.

toobin-roger-stone-secondaryThe documentary premières on Netflix on May 12th. COURTESY NETFLIX

After resigning from the Presidency in disgrace, in 1974, Nixon remained, for the most part, off limits as a political hero. Stone and a small handful of others kept his memory alive by conveying their admiration for Nixon’s toughness and determination. (Stone, though, is the rare Nixon follower who has a tattoo of the great man on his back.) It was convenient for many Republicans to pretend that Reagan had excised Nixon from the Party’s DNA. But, as the rise of Trump shows, Nixon never really went away.

Reagan is remembered as the keeper of the conservative ideological creed, and Nixon never pretended to have the same kind of philosophical core, or a set of beliefs that was distinct from his opportunism. While Nixon made his name as a red-baiting ally of Senator Joseph McCarthy, as President he opened relations with Communist China. Nixon ran for President based on a Southern strategy of appealing to the white devotees of Jim Crow, but his Administration backed affirmative action. Nixon made his name as a conservative but presided over the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and expansions of the welfare state.

It’s Nixon’s affect and ferocity, more than any policies, that Stone admires and that Trump reflects. Like Nixon, Trump has held positions all over the spectrum; he’s been pro-choice, pro-Iraq War, pro-national health care, and now he holds opposing views on all those issues. But what has remained consistent over the years is Trump’s primal need to dominate and humiliate his adversaries. The first hundred days of his Presidency have demonstrated that he’s more interested in winning than in governing. Nixon, too, wanted to win more than he wanted to accomplish anything in particular, and his legacy reflects those oddly paired objectives.

Nixon made his name with anti-Communism, at a time when Communist influence was nearly nonexistent in the United States. Likewise, Trump made his name in politics by pushing the false claim that Barack Obama was not born in America—a conspiracy theory that was far more absurd than Nixon’s warnings about the Red Menace. But both Nixon and Trump tapped into ugly and real sides of the American character—fear of outsiders, anger at a changing world. When Trump finally ran for President (which Stone had urged him to do for years), he adopted more of Nixon’s tropes than Reagan’s. Nixon built his Presidential campaign around the slogan of law and order, and so did Trump. When confronted by protesters, Nixon talked about the “silent majority,” and so did Trump.

Nixon and Trump ran on fear; Reagan ran on hope. And the contrast is clearest on the issue of immigration. One of Reagan’s signature domestic achievements was immigration reform, and his sunny outlook included a generally welcoming attitude toward the newest Americans. Trump’s planned wall along the Mexican border is only partly a physical barrier against illegal border crossings; more profoundly, it’s an act of aggression against a diverse, modern world, a sentiment that Nixon would recognize and applaud.

It is in the business of campaigns (rather than on any issue) that Stone made his name, and how he remains in the news. During the 2016 Presidential race, he demonstrated extraordinary prescience about forthcoming disclosures from WikiLeaks, which has led to speculation about Stone’s connection with that group, with hacking, and about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Stone plainly relishes the controversy surrounding his role, and the Netflix documentary itself, because his enduring notoriety will keep him in “in the arena,” which also happened to be a favorite phrase of his mentor, President Nixon.