Look to Agnew for insight to Trump

Op-ed: Was Spiro T. Agnew the original Donald Trump?

We have been researching a book on Richard Nixon's all but forgotten running mate Spiro Agnew, the one-time Maryland governor and Baltimore County executive, who slunk off to obscurity after pleading "no contest" to tax evasion and resigned the vice presidency in 1973. Donald Trump's victory suddenly changed a portion of our thesis. The 2016 election is not the end of Agnew's story — it may instead be its apotheosis. And as Mr. Trump organizes his administration, continues to dress down the media, angrily tweets at Broadway and eschews intellectuals, the lessons of Agnew's own experience a heartbeat away from the presidency loom large.

Agnew, like Mr. Trump, opportunistically traversed political ideologies before becoming the voice of the silent majority. As a returning GI, Agnew was a registered Democrat, just like his immigrant Greek father. By the late '50s, he switched over and was the moderate Republican alternative to George Mahoney, a segregationist Democratic nominee, in his successful 1966 campaign to be Maryland's governor. Even Chevy Chase resident Dean Acheson, a pillar of the Democratic establishment and a former secretary of state, endorsed him.

Nixon saw in Agnew, just eight years removed from the Baltimore County zoning board, the magic glue that would knit disparate white America together. With a Nixon-Agnew ticket, small business owners bonded with a growing, suburban middle class. The new coalition allowed the country clubbers to find common ground with the religious traditionalists and the betrayed white Southerners looking for a new home after LBJ's decision to back civil rights in 1964. Mr. Trump and Mike Pence bottled the same lightning successfully again this year.

Just like Mr. Trump, Agnew had little patience for the niceties of the establishment and the "political correctness" of identity politics. He especially struck a chord by mocking and attacking the media. Much to his supporters' delight, Agnew defended Nixon from what he described as a "small band of network commentators and self-appointed analysts" who had already voiced "their hostility" to the president. To match Mr. Trump's complaints of his media coverage as "sad" and "unfair," Agnew drew his followers' attention to the "little group of men who not only enjoy a right of instant rebuttal," they also "wield a free hand in selecting, presenting, and interpreting the great issues of our nation." And it endeared him to his base supporters. On the campaign trail, he called a Japanese-American reporter from The Sun a "fat Jap," referred to Poles as "Polacks" and explained, "If you've seen one slum, you've seen them all."

One also wonders if, just as in Agnew's time, liberals, intellectuals and the media in 2016 took the bait. Agnew was categorically mocked as unfit for office. A fake book entitled, "The Wit and Wisdom of Spiro Agnew" was filled with blank pages. A Humphrey-Muskie ad featured a man laughing hysterically with the caption, "Spiro Agnew for Vice President" and closed with the words, "This would be funny if it weren't so serious." Agnew was such a joke that even Bob Hope cracked that Mickey Mouse wore a Spiro Agnew watch. But it was Agnew who nearly had the last laugh.

Agnew found his groove in the same areas that Mr. Trump has already shown his own strength. Much like Mr. Trump, Agnew went over the media's head to become Middle America's darling, speaking at chicken dinners in fly-over country, tearing into the news media, university professors and the anti-Vietnam War movement with alliterative phrases that remain part of political history the way "Make America Great Again" will for the next half-century.

With Pat Buchanan now at his side writing speeches, Agnew became the GOP's top fundraiser and a firebrand during the midterm elections in 1970, taking on Democrats and liberals within his own party. He traveled the globe on goodwill tours and attended state funerals. He showed up for symbolic speeches with astronauts and ribbon cuttings. Gallup even ranked him the third most respected man in America behind Nixon and Billy Graham. He was the odds-on favorite to capture the 1976 GOP nomination before the U.S. attorneys in Baltimore and the Department of Justice caught up to him for taking kickbacks on state contracts during his Maryland days.

Look for Mr. Trump to be his own version of Agnew. President Trump is unlikely to be in the middle of the details around immigration policy or what do in Syria. Mr. Trump's strength, like Agnew's half a century ago, will never be his policy knowledge or his ability to work the bureaucracy, but rather as a powerful political symbol who can speak directly to those who have been dismissed as unimportant and unfit by, as Agnew famously said, an "effete corps of impudent snobs."

Charles J. Holden (cjholden@smcm.edu) is a professor of history at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Zach Messitte (messittez@ripon.edu) is president of Ripon College and Jerald Podair (jerald.podair@lawrence.edu) is a professor of history at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. They are writing a book with the University of Virginia Press on the political impact of former Vice President Spiro Agnew on the modern Republican Party.

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