Nixonian: what does it mean and why are people using it?
The scandal-naming suffix -gate is the most well-known contribution of Richard Nixon’s presidency to the vocabulary of English, but a glance through the US political Twittersphere in recent days makes it clear that it is not the only one. The unexpected firing of FBI Director James Comey was instantly dubbed “the Tuesday Night Massacre”, in allusion to the “Saturday Night Massacre”, the name given to Nixon’s dismissal in 1973 of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, which led to the resignations of the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General. This is the second time the term has been repurposed so far during the Trump presidency: the firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates on 30 January was referred to as the “Monday Night Massacre”. A more mundane word related to the 37th president has also been surging in use (and lookups in our dictionary) since the Comey firing—the adjective Nixonian.
Pundits have reached for the word Nixonian to describe Trump before, but in the wake of the Comey firing it became ubiquitous overnight. In Brigham Young University’s News on the Web corpus, the word Nixonian appears more times in the first 10 days of May (39) than in the entire first four months of 2017 (35); in relative terms, as shown by the graph, the spike in usage is even starker.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines Nixonian blandly as ‘of, relating to, or characteristic of Richard Nixon or his policies’; what precisely a person means when they call something Nixonian depends on the context. The earliest recorded use of the word Nixonian in the OED is from 1952, 16 years before Nixon was elected president, when he was a California senator and Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate on the Republican ticket. Nixon was under fire for alleged financial improprieties, and a journalist traveling on Eisenhower’s campaign train reported that the other members of the press corps were composing “Nixonian witticisms”:
1952 Anderson (Indiana) Herald 25 Sept., p.4
That usage simply means “witticisms relating to Nixon”, but since Nixon’s presidency Nixonian has been colored by more specific and often pejorative connotations, alluding to the Watergate scandal which led to his resignation and his enduring negative image in the popular imagination. One way to approach the question of connotation is to examine the nouns Nixonian tends to modify. To spread the net wide, I looked at four different corpora (the Oxford New Monitor Corpus, Oxford English Corpus, BYU NOW corpus, and Google Ngram viewer).
Top nouns modified by Nixonian in various corpora
Some of the words associated with Nixonian are neutral in tone, such as policies and diplomacy, but the most consistent noun modified by Nixonian across all four corpora is the word paranoia. Along with the terms obsession and secrecy, this suggests an embattled, cornered Nixon lashing out against his perceived enemies. Espionage, cover-up and abuses also evoke the Watergate scandal, which is such a strong part of posterity’s image of the 37th president that it overshadows other aspects of his career (the rare positive resonance of the Nixon-goes-to-China metaphor is the exception that proves the rule).
When Trump’s critics declared “this is Nixonian” after Tuesday’s events, the scandal-ridden Nixon desperately clinging to power was the Nixon they had in mind; it serves as the ultimate condemnation of a sitting president. There may also be an element of wishful thinking in these accusations of Nixonianism—after all, Nixon was eventually forced to resign. In any case, Trump himself has not taken great pains to distance himself from the 37th president—the day after firing Comey he was photographed in the Oval Office with Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.