What would seem to be an innocent decision to cancel a trip to the Milwaukee headquarters of Harley-Davidson amid protests and instead have executives over for lunch Thursday at the White House has raised questions about whether President Donald Trump is developing a fortress mentality akin to the Nixon White House.
Presidential scholars already are drawing comparisons between Trump and former President Richard Nixon for his authoritarian-like proclivities and public battles with journalists. Nixon faced large protests across major cities after he was inaugurated, as well – albeit those were anti-war demonstrations during the height of the Vietnam War.
Nixon’s White House would later become known as a bunker where the president and loyal staffers holed up, away from scrutinizing cameras. If he did travel, Nixon took precautions.
“Richard Nixon would like to land at military bases, and they would turn out some military who would applaud him,” said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “He’d work the fence line a little bit, as opposed to going to places where there would be lots of problems.”
Several historians could not recall a similar trip cancellation by a president of the United States in modern history. But Trump would not be the first president struggling in the polls who tried to avoid situations where the news media could show lots of people opposing him.
The White House downplayed the significance of the cancellation. Press Secretary Sean Spicer said no final plans had been made for the trip and emphasized that the decision had nothing to do with planned protests. He said it was just easier for the executives to come to the White House, “considering the week, and all of the activity that’s been going on.”
Trump met the group on the South Lawn as they rolled up on five motorcycles. The president, in a suit and overcoat, stood out as he shook hands with the leather-wearing riders, who would have fit in better with a biker rally than lunch in the White House’s Roosevelt Room.
“Made in America,” Trump said as he admired the motorcycles. He declined an offer of a ride.
Richard Nixon would like to land at military bases and they would turn out some military who would applaud him.
George Edwards, Texas A&M University
Still, there was no way to avoid linking the cancellation, in just the second week of Trump’s tenure, to the strong current of opposition that has besieged the new White House. Since his inauguration on Jan. 20, Trump has faced demonstrations over his election and his executive orders calling for tougher enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws and a temporary ban on migrants from seven Muslim-majority nations.
When hundreds of thousands of women showed up to march in the capital the day after Trump’s inauguration, the event immediately drew comparisons to the protests that followed Nixon’s inauguration in 1969, when anti-war protesters threw burning miniature flags and stones at police. It also reminded pundits of Nixon’s 1973 inauguration, when an estimated 100,000 protesters gathered at the Washington Monument to protest the Vietnam War, which Nixon had promised to end.
Trump also is facing strong resistance from his own government. Leaks continue to flow out of the White House, revealing his hostile conversations with foreign leaders. Trump fired his acting attorney general after she refused to defend his 90-day travel ban. Hundreds of foreign service officers and diplomats at the State Department signed an official dissent warning that the order could damage relations overseas.
His own party, which controls the Senate, is perilously close to not supporting his nomination of Betsy DeVos for education secretary. The defections likely will set up a potential 50-50 vote in the Senate that Vice President Mike Pence will need to break, the first time a vice president has been the deciding vote on a nomination.
Trump already is known to keep to himself. He rarely left Trump Tower in New York before his inauguration, often limiting his travels to the elevator connecting his three-story penthouse directly to his 26th-floor office. In Washington, he’s kept a similar schedule, with a squad of friends and loyal advisers nearby. His foray to the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning required that he pass demonstrators protesting his Muslim-majority travel ban.
In the case of the canceled visit to Wisconsin, Harley-Davidson reportedly had grown concerned that a coalition of more than a dozen groups in Milwaukee had organized a demonstration outside the motorcycle company’s headquarters. The coalition launched a phone drive against the company this week, and more than 4,600 expressed interest in joining the planned demonstration, according to the Facebook page of the Milwaukee Coalition Against Trump.
Maricela Aguilar, 25, one of the coalition’s leaders, said in an interview that Trump had galvanized the largely segregated Milwaukee community, where minority leaders don’t often get along. The coalition includes several unions as well as black, immigrant and Muslim rights activists from Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Wisconsin, Jewish Voice for Peace, Milwaukee Immigrants in Action and Showing Up for Racial Justice.
“Coalition work of this kind is pretty difficult,” Aguilar said. “In recent history, I don’t remember having something this broad-based and active. We’re really excited these groups are working together. We’ve really been able to mobilize together and turn people out.”
Trump has struggled in the polls since taking office. No president has reached majority disapproval so early in his presidency since Gallup began tracking job approval. As of Jan. 28, about 51 percent of Americans polled disapproved of Trump, according to a Gallup poll.
There are other similarities between Trump and Nixon, whose second term was cut short when he resigned after the House of Representatives voted to impeach him. Running for president in 1968, Nixon had adopted a “law and order” mantra, a familiar refrain in Trump’s campaign as well. In at least one campaign ad, Nixon used unflattering images of protesters to try to win votes from his base in middle America. Trump has seemed to take a similar approach via Twitter.
During the Women’s March on Washington following his inauguration, Trump seemed miffed: “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly.”
The opposition party.
President Donald Trump on the news media
Like Nixon, Trump has had a combative relationship with the news media and prefers keeping journalists at a healthy distance. Trump has given only one formal news conference, with British Prime Minister Theresa May, since he became president.
In 1962, after losing the California gubernatorial race, Nixon famously told reporters “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
Trump calls reporters “the opposition party.”
Anita Kumar contributed to this article.