William B. Turner
The comparison between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump has been too blindingly obvious for anyone to ignore or resist, pretty much since Trump became so called president. Paranoid, megalomaniacal, racist, Republican. Check, check, check, check. As we have noted previously, Nixon set up the political dynamic in 1968 that enabled the Donald in 2016 by running on behalf of the “silent majority” of people who were not out protesting anything, whether racism or the Vietnam War or anything else. No bra burners, no hippies, just ordinary, upstanding Americans.
But it is important to keep in mind the details of Nixon’s demise, if only for the sheer joy of keeping track of the similarities and differences between him and Trump. This week, Trump entered Nixonland in a big way.
Nixon was nothing if not crafty, which is one big difference between him and the Donald. He wanted to drive a wedge into the Democratic electoral coalition, so he instituted an affirmative action program in the skilled building trades in Philadelphia, which benefited African Americans who needed jobs, but seemingly at the expense of working class white people.
Getting working white people to choose their racial identity at the expense of their class identity is a tried and true tactic of good “conservatives” in the U.S. since the end of the Civil War. Working white people have more in common economically with working black people than they do with rich white people, but if the rich white people can get the working white people to notice skin color first, the working white people will support policies that harm them to the benefit of rich white people just to sustain their sense of superiority over the black people. It’s sick, but it works.
Combined with Nixon’s reduction of every issue to pure politics and concern only to keep power for its own sake, this became the standard governing technique of the Republican Party. Trump doesn’t fit the model very well. He’s a rich, racist, white guy, but he is utterly lacking in Nixon’s subtlety. He’s more like George Wallace in his overt racism. The advantage of the “silent majority” claim was that it attracted all those nice, white people who had their doubts about all this civil rights stuff, but did not want to look overtly racist.
The Donald, who said most Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers, and proposed to ban all Muslims from entering the country as the key components of his election campaign, has no compunctions about looking overtly racist. The problem he presented to the Republicans is that, because they had built what political success they had enjoyed since 1968 on racism, however subtle, when an overt racist started to appeal to a wide swath of their voters, they had no way to stop him. Anything the Party leadership might have done to stop the Donald – and they could have taken steps to do so had they possessed the nerve – would have alienated their base. And since Republicans care only about winning elections for its own sake, that was the one thing they dare not do.
Nixon, again, was a paranoid megalomaniac. Following his lead, his reelection campaign attracted some criminal types in 1972, when Nixon would likely have won easily even running a squeaky clean campaign. But such was not Nixon’s character. Men from his campaign broke into the Democratic campaign headquarters at the Watergate hotel and got arrested. Two years later, the rest of the country would learn that he discussed with his chief of staff getting the CIA to tell the FBI to back off of its investigation of the crime by claiming that the incident had national security implications.
What really got comparisons between Nixon and Trump going was how similar that crime was to the one Trump seems to have committed when he met with James Comey in his capacity as director of the FBI to get him to drop the investigation into Mike Flynn. Both constitute obstruction of justice, and in ways only the president can do.
What matters for present purposes is how the rest of the country found out what Nixon had done.
Suspicions about Nixon’s culpability in some unlawful deed involving the Watergate break in arose soon after, but in bits and pieces. In February 1973, less than a month after Nixon began his second term, the Senate – under Democratic control – established a Special Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities to investigate the matter. It began to hold televised hearings in May. One week later, the Department of Justice appointed a special prosecutor.
The plot thickens. On July 16, 1973, Alexander Butterfield, a secretary to Nixon, told the Senate committee, in response to a direct question, that the president had a tape recording system in the Oval Office (!). One week later, both the Senate committee and the special prosecutor issued subpoenas to Nixon for tapes of the Oval Office conversations. Nixon refused to comply, setting up a pas de trois among the Senate committee, the special prosecutor, and the president that would go on for almost exactly a year and end when Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974.
That year would include the notorious Saturday Night Massacre, in which Nixon prompted two officials to resign from the Department of Justice before finding that good “conservative” Christian, Robert Bork, to fire the special prosecutor, producing an overwhelming public backlash that caused Nixon immediately to appoint another special prosecutor. The reason Nixon fired the first one was that he refused to abandon his demand for the White House tapes.
On February 6, 1974, the House of Representatives – also under Democratic control – authorized its Judiciary Committee to begin examining if grounds existed to impeach Nixon. In April 1974, the new special prosecutor again subpoenaed the president to get the tapes of his Oval Office conversations. At the end of the month, Nixon finally handed over transcripts of the tapes.
From July 27 through 30, the House Judiciary Committee voted out three articles of impeachment against the president, with evidence from the transcripts playing a critical role in convincing members of the Committee to vote in favor of impeachment, which a majority of Republicans still opposed.
So, this week, the FBI raided three locations under the control of Trump’s long time personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. This is huge news all by itself.
But what makes it far more intriguing in terms of the Nixon-Trump comparison is the news that Cohen sometimes recorded conversations. We do not yet know if the FBI may have picked up copies of any recorded conversations between Cohen and Trump and what they might consist of. At least we don’t have to endure a fight between the president and the special prosecutor to get the recordings. Law enforcement may have damning evidence of illegal conduct by the Donald from conversations about that conduct with his personal lawyer.
One other important difference is that the raid on Cohen’s places has a special, Trumpian twist to it: the reason for the raids on Cohen was that they were looking for evidence of efforts by the Trump campaign to cover up the Donald’s alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels.
So Trump is sort of Nixon meets Clinton. Oh, except Monica wasn’t a porn star.