In an article written for the Atlantic, James Fallows compares the current Administration’s Russia scandal with Watergate, and provides reasons for his conclusion that this one is actually worse.
Worse for and about the president. Worse for the overall national interest. Worse in what it suggests about the American democratic system’s ability to defend itself.
Fallows begins by deconstructing the adage that the coverup is always worse than the crime; as he points out, what Nixon and his allies were trying to do falls under the category of “dirty tricks.” It was a bungled effort to find incriminating or embarrassing information about his political enemies, and the adage held: the crime really wasn’t as bad as the subsequent illegal efforts to cover it up.
And what is alleged this time? Nothing less than attacks by an authoritarian foreign government on the fundamentals of American democracy, by interfering with an election—and doing so as part of a larger strategy that included parallel interference in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and elsewhere. At worst, such efforts might actually have changed the election results. At least, they were meant to destroy trust in democracy. Not much of this is fully understood or proven, but the potential stakes are incomparably greater than what happened during Watergate, crime and cover-up alike.
Fallows enumerates other differences: As he points out, “even in his stonewalling, Nixon paid lip service to the concepts of due process and check and balances.” As I have previously posted, to the extent Trump even understands those concepts, he is contemptuous of them.
Nixon was “paranoid, resentful, bigoted, and a crook.” But as Fallows reminds us, he was also deeply knowledgeable, strategically adept and publicly disciplined. Trump…well, supply your own descriptors; Fallows is more reserved than I would be, settling for impulsive, ignorant and uncontrollable.
Most troubling, however, aren’t the differences between these two deeply flawed men. As Fallow’s notes, the social and political contexts within which they rose to power are dramatically different.
When Nixon ordered the firing of Archibald Cox,
Within the space of a few hours, three senior officials—Richardson, Ruckelshaus, and Cox—had all made a choice of principle over position, and resigned or been fired rather than comply with orders they considered illegitimate. Their example shines nearly half a century later because such a choice remains so rare….
The Republicans of the Watergate era stuck with Richard Nixon as long as they could, but they acted all along as if larger principles were at stake…
On the merits, this era’s Republican president has done far more to justify investigation than Richard Nixon did. Yet this era’s Republican senators and members of congress have, cravenly, done far less. A few have grumbled about “concerns” and so on, but they have stuck with Trump where it counts, in votes, and since Comey’s firing they have been stunning in their silence.
Charlie Sykes, who formerly hosted a conservative radio call-in show, recently summed up the reasons for that silence, and the differences between then and now.
If there was one principle that used to unite conservatives, it was respect for the rule of law. Not long ago, conservatives would have been horrified at wholesale violations of the norms and traditions of our political system, and would have been appalled by a president who showed overt contempt for the separation of powers.
Sykes gives a number of examples supporting his thesis that conservatism is being eclipsed by a visceral tribalism: Loathing those who loathe the president. Rabid anti-anti-Trumpism. Rooting for one’s “team,” not one’s principles. As he concludes,
As the right doubles down on anti-anti-Trumpism, it will find itself goaded into defending and rationalizing ever more outrageous conduct just as long as it annoys CNN and the left.
In many ways anti-anti-Trumpism mirrors Donald Trump himself, because at its core there are no fixed values, no respect for constitutional government or ideas of personal character, only a free-floating nihilism cloaked in insult, mockery and bombast.
Needless to say, this is not a form of conservatism that Edmund Burke, or even Barry Goldwater, would have recognized.
Conservative political philosophy has been replaced with racist and classist resentments. Donald Trump is President because he is very good at exploiting those resentments. In that sense, and that sense only, he has channelled–and perfected–Nixon.