Trump as Tricky Dick? Steady On!
Last week my colleague Jerome Parent wrote a column called “Donald Trump as Tricky Dick Reincarnated” in which he argues that the two presidents share uncanny similarities. Parent predicts that Trump will “meet a similar fate” as the president brought down by the Watergate scandal.
On a positive note, I am encouraged that the Trump villain comparisons appear to be moving in a more positive direction. For a while, we’ve heard that Trump is Satan and Hitler. At least Parent has suggested a more down-to-earth, relatable scoundrel. That said, the similarities between Nixon and Trump are largely superficial. What’s more, with the exception of Nixon, dramatic turns of political fortune of the sort Parent forecasts are non-existent in the 228 years of U.S. presidential history. Moreover, the current political and media climates are vastly different than they were in 1972 through 1974. It’s far more likely that the Democrats, who have been wailing and gnashing their teeth since November 8, 2016, unable to accept the election results, will themselves become ensnared in the Russian web they are trying to weave to bring down Trump.
If some clear, concrete evidence doesn’t emerge soon that ties Trump directly to Russia, it will appear that Democrats are simply casting random stones, hoping one will hit its target. Anti-Trumpers are already beginning to resemble the rabbi and the mob in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, who are planning to stone the man to death for uttering the blasphemous word “Jehovah.” The rabbi and one of the accusers end up meeting the fate they pronounced on the accused because they themselves keep slipping up and saying the offending word. Amusingly, the film’s protagonist, Brian Cohen, is mistaken for the Messiah. Perhaps a Monty Python version of the Trump-Nixon saga could be called Life of Donald.
Over the weekend, a lot of left-of-center media outlets have suggested that Mike Flynn’s recent request for immunity is a signal that he will reveal something scandalous about Trump. This optimism seems premature. After all, he served as as Director of Intelligence under the Obama administration for two years. He might have more to reveal about that service than he does about the three weeks he worked as Trump’s NSA director. If the campaign taught us anything, it should be that reports of Trump’s political demise are often greatly exaggerated.
I will make a more modest prediction than my colleague about Trump vis à vis Russiagate: Hyper-partisanship will prevail, with the usual political and media pit bulls on both sides fighting to a bloody draw, without a change to the executive power structure. Meanwhile, public confidence in governmental institutions will continue to erode, a reality far more damaging to big-government progressives than conservatives who want the federal government’s role in our lives drastically reduced.
Without question, presidential comparisons are fun. I even pointed out similarities between Trump’s and Andrew Jackson’s combative natures in my “Cowards in the Shadows” column. My interest in presidential history dates to grade school, when I enjoyed learning about the coincidences between Kennedy’s and Lincoln’s assassinations. My favorite was that John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in a theater and fled to a warehouse, and Oswald shot Kennedy in a warehouse and fled to a theater. I also liked the one about Lincoln’s being gunned down in Ford’s Theater while Kennedy was assassinated in a Lincoln limousine manufactured by Ford.
Still, as a college history instructor, I also believe presidents are products of their own times and should be judged accordingly, not by the standards of a different age. Trump may have a prominent personality trait in common with Jackson, but they are two different men of two different eras. Likewise, Trump and Nixon may share a trait or two, but they are certainly not comparable in most respects because they were shaped by the political realities of their times.
Just about every president since Nixon has been likened to “Tricky Dick” at some point, as many administrations’ scandals have the word “gate” affixed to them. We’ve had Billygate (Carter); Iran-Contragate (Reagan); Travelgate, Monicagate, Troopergate, et al. (Clinton); Iraqgate (Bush 43); IRSgate and Benghazigate (Obama); and now Pussygate and Russiagate (Trump). Beyond politics, we’ve witnessed Deflategate in the NFL. Figure skating had Skategate—also starring the Russians! —at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
“Gate” scandals are not even limited U.S. soil. The UK famously experienced Camillagate, when tapes of Prince Charles’s racy conversations with Camilla Parker-Bowles went public. Not to be outdone, the late Princess Diana had her own marital infidelity brought to light when the infamous Squidgygate tapes emerged. (“Squidgy” was the nickname Shy Di’s paramour gave her.) In the modern era, almost any incident with a hint of scandal is compared to Watergate.
In addition, the tendency to refer to politicians’ controversial behavior as “Nixonian” is pretty boilerplate as well. Whether such comparisons are accurate or merely an easy way for partisans to criticize politicians they dislike is a valid question for debate.
Indeed, while some similarities exist between Trump and Nixon, there are also striking dissimilarities as well. For instance, in his early political career, Nixon made a name for himself on the House Un-American Activities Committee, taking the lead in prosecuting the Alger Hiss case. Hiss, a former State Department official accused of spying for the Soviet Union, was ultimately convicted of perjury, not spying, because the statute of limitations had expired on the actual espionage case. Nixon was an avid commie hunter and Cold Warrior. In contrast, Trump and his campaign stand accused of colluding with the Russians to sway the outcome of the presidential election. Trump has even been criticized for being too complimentary of Vladimir Putin. In this case, the Democrats, not Trump, are following in Nixon’s spy-busting footsteps and accusing another American of espionage and treason.
Parent appears to agree with their position when he asserts, “The evidence that Trump and his campaign have closer ties to Russia than is appropriate or legal is mounting.” However, he offers no examples to prove this. In fact, at the end of the same paragraph, he writes, “The twenty or so percent of the country that supports “The Donald” will never abandon him no matter what evidence there is that he broke the law (assuming that he did break the law and that the evidence will surface).” How can there be “mounting evidence” when Parent concedes he is only “assuming” Trump broke the law and “that the evidence will surface”? He mentions Comey’s investigation of Trump, but it’s important to note that even this “shocking” revelation does not merely cast suspicion on Trump. That the FBI, an agency under the Department of Justice of the last administration, was investigating the rival party’s presidential candidate during the waning months of the campaign, reminds me that Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, managed a side fund to investigate Democrats. Scandal often cuts both ways these days.
While most historians focus on the sections of the Watergate tapes that prove Nixon ordered a cover-up of the DNC break-in, other segments of the tapes provide additional information about Nixon’s frame of mind. In a segment from 1971, a year before the actual DNC break-in took place, Nixon reflects on his approach to the Alger Hiss case: “We won the Hiss case in the papers. We did. I had to leak stuff all over the place. Because the Justice Department would not prosecute it. Hoover didn’t even cooperate. It was won in the papers.” The record shows that Nixon resorted to press leaks to move his own agenda forward. Sound familiar? Evelyn Farkas, Deputy Sec/Def under President Obama, has caused a fracas with her early March MSNBC interview revealing that she was urging Obama loyalists to compile intelligence on Trump and leak information to the press. She has since denied that what she said is what she meant and also blamed Republicans, fake news, the Russians, etc., for misquoting her. However, in light of the topic of this article, I should point out that at least one right-leaning publication is now referring to her as “the John Dean of the Obama surveillance scandal.”
Nixon famously lost the election of 1960 in part because of his poor performance in the first-ever televised presidential debate. His sweaty countenance and awkward persona were inferior to the more polished, telegenic John F. Kennedy. In contrast, the celebrity Trump loves appearing on camera even if he no longer possesses the dashing good looks of a JFK. His style may be combative and inelegant, but he thrives in the television spotlight. Nixon almost always looked uncomfortable on camera.
Incidentally, in 1960, many people said that Kennedy and Nixon had a great deal in common since Kennedy was a conservative Democrat and Nixon was a liberal Republican. Their differences on policy were minor. Both were Cold Warriors. Many historians argue that the extra points for style allowed Kennedy to squeak out a win. This just goes to show that presidents pre-and post-Watergate have been compared to Nixon.
Ironically, the 1960 election was so close that a number of Republicans and Nixon press allies urged him to contest the results. Nixon did not because he claimed he wanted to avoid a constitutional crisis. Skeptics of Nixon’s story of personal political sacrifice for the greater good believe it was actually outgoing President Eisenhower who shut down any prospect of Nixon’s contesting the election. Furthermore, as David Greenberg in Slate magazine reports, the Republican party leadership mounted vigorous recount efforts in eleven states, which ultimately served only to affirm Kennedy’s victory. Hawaii was the only state that reversed, going from Nixon’s column to Kennedy’s. According to Greenberg, while Nixon appeared gracious and above it all publicly, he was eager for surrogates to press the issue. Greenberg writes, “Even if they ultimately failed, party leaders figured, they could taint Kennedy’s victory, claim he had no mandate for his agenda, galvanize the rank and file, and have a winning issue for upcoming elections.” Shades of leftists’ behavior after the election of 2016, perhaps?
Trump is not the one who is using Nixon’s old playbook. Leftist politicians like Jill Stein challenged the election results in battleground states while Hillary took the high road. (Of course she could do nothing else since she went on record to declare that such challenges are “a threat to our democracy” when Trump refused to say whether he would accept the election results.) Progressive efforts to de-legitimize Trump’s election have been ongoing since November 8, because that’s a way to keep the base fired up and donations flowing in to liberal PACs and the DNC.
When Parent expresses his belief that Trump will “share a similar fate” as Nixon, he makes several imprecise statements. He writes, “Since Ryan and McConnell hate Trump, as do many Republicans, they will impeach Trump with great glee.” Only Ryan, not McConnell, would be able to participate in any Trump impeachment. Impeachment, which is the equivalent of a Grand Jury indictment, not actual removal from office, would occur in the House of Representatives, where Ryan is a member. Yet Ryan has his own future to be concerned about after he lacked the political clout to get the American Health Care Act through the House. Politically, Ryan, already unpopular with many rank-and-file conservatives, is damaged goods. Right now, it’s doubtful he could get the 237 Republican House members to agree on what varieties of pizza should be delivered to the capitol, even if he gave them 237 choices.
If Trump were impeached, he would then be tried in the Senate, where McConnell would help determine Trump’s political fate. Yet impeachment itself has never—I repeat, never—led to a president’s removal from office. Andrew Johnson, the first impeached president, was saved in his senate trial by a single vote. Likewise, Bill Clinton was impeached in the House, but the full senate failed to convict. Nixon himself resigned before he faced the prospect of an indictment, trial, and potential criminal prosecution. Parent makes it sound as if removing a president from office is a simple matter when history shows this is not the case.
Besides, the country is much more politically divided now than it was during the Watergate era, and both liberals and conservatives rely on their own media sources to interpret political events. For every “I have Donald Trump’s taxes!” exposé Rachel Maddow broadcasts on MSNBC, Sean Hannity counters with ridicule and a story about John Podesta’s ties to Russian banks and Hunter Biden’s service on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. In the Nixon era, the press, though much more objective, still mostly leaned left of center and spoke with a unified voice. Now, not so much. In fact, if Nixon were president in 2017 and it was revealed he ordered a cover-up of a DNC headquarters break-in, his presidency would probably survive. The Democrats deserve a lot of blame for this. No matter what scandal emerged in the Obama administration, they united, stonewalled, and refused to concede any impropriety on the part of their partisans. Every single time, they accused conservatives of playing politics. They should not expect conservatives to concede any ground now that they are in power.
In fact, it’s more probable that if the Democrats and their own media hacks don’t stop whining about the Russians, they could be compared with the Republican congress that tried to take out Bill Clinton. Anyone remember Republican Representative Bob Livingston’s weepy confession about an extramarital affair during the Clinton impeachment proceedings? The Republicans were exposed as complete hypocrites, and Clinton survived. Whatever political capital the Republicans in Congress gained after the 1994 mid-terms and the Contract with America, they squandered in their ridiculous zeal to bring down President Clinton in the late 1990s. As I’ve mentioned earlier, many Democrats have their own questionable ties to Russian oligarchs, so they remain on shaky ground over Russiagate.
Putin and the rest of the Kremlin must be pleased that we are nearly as divided as we were right before the Civil War. Instead of comparing presidents, perhaps Parent and I should debate the similarities of Generals William Sherman and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. War Politics is hell.
You can follow Dana Zimbleman’s blog at The Academic Redneck.