The downfall of… Trump or Democracy?

The future of the United States as a democracy is at risk. That’s plenty scary. More scary is that many Americans know this, but don’t care. And even more astonishing is that this same thing happened 45 years ago.

I remember it clearly. January 30, just a couple weeks ago. On that day, we had the news that FBI deputy director McCabe — a frequent target of apparently-baseless Trump criticism — had been pushed out. The Trump administration refused to enforce the bipartisan set of additional sanctions on Russia. And the House Intelligence Committee voted on party lines to release what we all knew then, and since have seen confirmed, was a memo filled with errors designed to smear people investigating the president, but which nonetheless contained enough classified material to cause an almighty kerfuffle in Washington.

I told my wife that evening, “I think today will be remembered as a turning point. Either to the downfall of Trump, or the downfall of our democracy, but I don’t know which.”

I have not written much about this scandal, because so many quality words have already been written. But it is time to add something.

I was interested in Watergate years ago. Back in middle school, I read All the President’s Men. I wondered what it must have been like to live through those events — corruption at the highest level of government, dirty tricks, not knowing how it would play out. I wished I could have experienced it.

A couple of decades later, I have got my wish and I am not amused. After all:

“If these allegations prove to be true, what they were seeking to steal was not the jewels, money or other property of American citizens, but something much more valuable — their most precious heritage, the right to vote in a free election…

If the allegations… are substantiated, there has been a very serious subversion of the integrity of the electoral process, and the committee will be obliged to consider the manner in which such a subversion affects the continued existence of this nation as a representative democracy, and how, if we are to survive, such subversions may be prevented in the future.”

Sen. Sam Ervin Jr, May 17, 1973

That statement from 45 years ago captures accurately my contemporary fears. If foreign interference in our elections is not only tolerated but embraced, where does that leave us? Are we really a republic anymore?

I have been diving back into Watergate. In One Man Against The World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, written by Tim Weiner in 2015, he dives into the Nixon story in unprecedented detail, thanks to the release of many more files from that time. In his very first page, he writes:

[Nixon] made war in pursuit of peace. He committed crimes in the name of the law. He tore the country apart while trying to unite it. He sabotaged his presidency by violating the Constitution. He destroyed himself and damaged the nation through deliberate acts of folly…

He practiced geopolitics without subtlety; he preferred subterfuge and brutality. He dropped bombs and napalm without remorse; he believed they delivered a political message beyond flood and fire. Hr charted the course of the war without a strategy; he delivered victory to his adversaries.

His gravest decisions undermined his allies abroad. His grandest delusions armed his enemies at home…

The truth was not in him; secrecy and deception were his touchstones.

That these words describe another American president, one that I’m sure Weiner had not foreseen, is jarring. The parallels between Nixon and Trump in the pages of Weiner’s book are so strong that one sometimes wonders if Weiner has a more accurate story of Trump than Wolff got – and also if the pages of his book let us see what’s in store for us this year.

Today I started listening to the excellent podcast Slow Burn. If you have time for nothing else, listen to episode 5: True Believers. It discusses the politicization of the Senate Watergate committee, and more ominously, the efforts of reports to understand the people that still supported Nixon — despite all the damning testimony already out there.

Gail Sheehy went to a bar where Nixon supporters gathered, wanting to get their reaction to the Watergate hearings. The supporters didn’t want to watch. They thought the hearings were just an attempt by liberals to take down Nixon. Sheehy found the president’s people to be “angry, demoralized, and disconcertingly comfortable with the idea of a police state run by Richard Nixon.”

These guys felt they were nobodies… except Richard Nixon gave them an identity. He was a tough guy who was “going to get rid of all those anti-war people, anarchists, terrorists… the people that were tearing down our country!”

Art Buchwald’s tongue-in-cheek handy excuses for Nixon backers seems to be copied almost verbatim by Fox News (substitute Hillary’s emails for Chappaquiddick).

And what happened to the scum of Richard Nixon’s era? Yes, some went to jail, but not all.

  • Steve King, one of Nixon’s henchmen that kidnapped Martha Mitchell (wife of Attorney General and Nixon henchman John Mitchell) for a week to keep her from spilling the beans on Watergate, beat her up, and had her drugged — well he was appointed by Trump to be ambassador to the Czech Republic and confirmed by the Senate.
  • The man that said that the Watergate burglars were “not criminal at heart” because “their only aim was to re-elect the president” later got elected president himself, and pardoned one of the burglars. (Ronald Reagan)
  • The man that said “just let the president do his job!” was also elected president (George H. W. Bush)
  • The man that finally carried out Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox was nominated to the Supreme Court, but his nomination was blocked in the Senate. (Robert Bork) He was, however, on the United States Court of Appeals for 6 years.
  • And in an odd conspiracy-laden introduction to a reprint of a youth’s history book on Watergate, none other than Roger Stone, wrapped up in Trump’s shenanigans, was trying to defend Nixon. Oh, and he was a business partner with Paul Manafort and lobbyist for Ferdinand Marcos.

One comfort from all of this is the knowledge that we had been there before. We had lived through an era of great progress in civil rights, and right after that elected a dictatorial crook president. We survived the president’s fervent supporters refusing to believe overwhelming evidence of his crookedness. We survived.

And yet, that is no guarantee. After all, as John Dean put it, Nixon “might have survived if there’d been a Fox News.”

3 thoughts on “The downfall of… Trump or Democracy?

  1. There was a comment left on this post just now which I have reason to believe was made by a troll or other misrepresenting actor. Nevertheless, it raised the point of US interfering in foreign elections.

    This is a bit of whataboutism, to be sure, but it is also a fair point. The New York Times has an excellent review of this, including points about when it’s been shady and when it’s been morally justified (ie, helping democratic movements get rid of authoritarians)

  2. For all the problems with President Trump, he is almost certainly too feckless to damage your democracy permanently. The underlying problem of increasingly hostile partisanship is disturbing, but not worse than in the start of the 19th century, or in the years before the Civil War. I suppose that’s not very reassuring…

    Do we have a definitive answer now as to whether Nixon knew about the Watergate burglary before it occurred? Of course he bears some responsibility for actions of his subordinates in any case.

    1. From the best of my recollection, there hasn’t been proof that Nixon directly ordered the Watergate burglary, though he did order others. He did, however, participate in setting up the dirty tricks organization that made it happen, so he was broadly aware that he had facilitated illegal things, even if he didn’t know about this particular one. He was involved with the cover-up within days.

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