History never really repeats itself very precisely. Historical events consist of change, so no two sets of circumstances are identical.
Many people have remarked the similarities between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump as presidents. Both are paranoid lunatics who were only too happy to use and abuse the powers of the presidency to pursue more personal than public agendas.
But there are more important differences between them. Nixon was far smarter than the Donald is. He had served two terms as vice president, to the last responsible Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, and understood the norms of government, even if he usually honored them in the breach. The Donald has zero clue. He’s not just a lunatic. He’s dumb as a post and woefully ill informed.
But it turns out that they are having similar effects in the larger political arena. A recent story states that the number of Republicans resigning from Congress is at a forty-four year high. Huh. 2018 – 44 = 1974. Did anything interesting happen in 1974? Ponder that for a moment.
Human life is full of paradoxes. On the one hand, as self help gurus and your parents will likely tell you, perhaps ad nauseam, in order to achieve any goal, you have to focus on that goal. The paradox is that, if you focus too intently on any single goal, you run substantial risk of having everything else fly apart, causing you to fail to achieve your original goal, or anything else besides.
So, since Nixon, Republicans have sedulously sought to hold as much political power as possible in the United States. Good “conservatives” are copycats. They are devoid of originality. And one can kind of see the appeal. But they watched Franklin Roosevelt win election near the beginning of the Great Depression, in a reasonable, wholesale repudiation of the Republican policies of the 1920s that had helped create the Depression, ushering in a nearly forty year span in which the Democrats mostly dominated the federal government and managed to enact nearly their entire policy program, from federal subsidies for farmers to public old age pensions to civil rights for African Americans.
Nixon seized the opportunity of the backlash that always follows any major gain for African Americans and figured out how to appeal to all the good white people who had their doubts about all this civil rights stuff but did not want to appear too overtly racist. He claimed to run for the “silent majority,” that is, the middling sorts who were sitting at home watching television instead of in the streets protesting against racial segregation or the Vietnam War or anything else. Republicans learned the lesson well and used it to elect three subsequent presidents.
The problem with this approach was that it worked too well. It allowed Republicans to win elections by playing on the deeply racist, deeply erroneous perception that those silly Democrats wanted to give lazy black people federal benefits at the expense of hard working white people, then pursue policies that actually harmed the hard working white people, most of whom never noticed the trick the Republicans played on them.
What the Donald intuited is that the racist impulse is insatiable, and it matters little whom the exact target is. Overt racism directed at African Americans is still unacceptable among civilized people, but Trump could safely call most Mexicans rapists and murderers because of the perception that undocumented immigrants impose economic costs on our society, which is false, and propose to prohibit all Muslims from entering the country because the good Christian impulse to pick on people of different religions never dies.
Happening along at a time when the Republicans had managed, by cheating in various ways – gerrymandering, imposing irrational, unnecessary restrictions on voting, ignoring campaign finance laws – to gain control of both Houses of Congress, Trump grabbed them by the short hairs. Even as some of their number were willing to state publicly that the Donald would make a lousy president, no one with any clout in the Party would dare say so for fear of alienating the racist base of the Party, without which, the game was up.
But it turns out that the Republicans have no positive policy agenda. They have not a single idea for specific laws that might benefit the entire republic. All they can come up with is tax cuts, tax cuts, and more tax cuts, which benefits people who are already rich, and an ever tinier slice even of that small minority of the population. That, and rescind regulations that benefit everyone.
Okay, the Donald has thrown into that mix the idea of trying to keep people out, whether with his ridiculous wall at the Mexican border or his equally ridiculous Muslim ban. But literally no one benefits from that, except the Donald himself, because he was able to ride that swaybacked, old, tired mare all the way to the White House.
So Nixon ushered in the era of Republicans playing on residual racism to win elections, and now the Donald may well be about to exhaust the utility of that noxious impulse.
To return to our original question – the number of Republicans resigning from Congress is at a forty four year high. 2018 – 44 = 1974. What interesting political event occurred in 1974? Hmmm. I know! Nixon resigned from the presidency after the House Judiciary Committee voted out articles of impeachment and three Republican members of Congress visited Nixon to tell him that he would not survive an impeachment trial.
Of course, the Democrats already controlled Congress when Nixon was president. The exact effects of having large numbers of Republicans resigning remains to be seen, but it’s hard to see how they can be good for the Republicans. It’s rather like the enormous problem of desertion the Confederate Army suffered as the Civil War was coming to an end. Too many soldiers no longer felt any particular loyalty to whatever it was they were supposed to be fighting for. Whether these resigning Republicans have had an accession of conscience and feel some chagrin at fighting for a policy agenda that does more harm than good, or are more like poor white men who finally saw the futility of fighting to defend slavery, is anyone’s guess.
The hopeful perspective is that, in the long run, we will see Nixon and Trump as bookends to an, um, deplorable (!) period of relative Republican dominance in U.S. politics.