Donald Trump has been president for all of two weeks, yet already he has proved himself the most brazenly Nixonian person to ever sit in the Oval Office—Richard Nixon included.
How much of a paranoid megalomaniac is our new commander-in-chief? Well, for starters, it took Nixon a full four-and-a-half years to dismiss his own attorney general for failing to carry out the president’s imperial agenda. Trump? He took care of that on Day 11.
There’s a classic saying, “History doesn’t repeat itself—but it rhymes.” Of course, historians love to draw parallels between the past and the present in any case, but the truth is that some connections are so blindingly obvious that we needn’t even bring experts to the table. We can do the rhyming ourselves, thank you very much.
At this absurdly premature juncture in the life of the new administration, it has become evident—to the shock of no one—that the Trump White House is destined to most resemble Nixon’s in both form and effect, and there may be no surer means of anticipating this West Wing’s machinations—good and bad, but mostly bad—than through a close study of the one that dissolved, oh-so-ignominiously, on August 9, 1974.
In light of recent events, we might as well begin with the Saturday Night Massacre.
In the fall of 1973, President Nixon was drowning in controversy about his role in the Watergate caper, thanks largely to the efforts of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Suddenly, on October 20, Nixon decided he had had enough and ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire Cox ASAP. Having promised to respect Cox’s independence, Richardson refused to comply and promptly resigned, as did his deputy shortly thereafter.
Once the dust settled and Cox was finally sacked by Solicitor General Robert Bork (yes, that Robert Bork), it became clear to every man, woman and child in America that the president of the United States was a crook and a scumbag—albeit a cartoonishly sloppy one—and so began the suddenly-inevitable march to impeachment that would end only with Nixon’s resignation in August of the following year.
What’s the lesson in all of this? For my money, it’s that if the president feels he cannot do his job without depriving America’s chief law enforcement officer of his, something extraordinarily shady is afoot, and it’s only a matter of time before the public—and Congress—demands some manner of accountability.
Cut to the present day, and the constitutional (and humanitarian) crisis that Donald Trump pointlessly unleashed by banning all Syrian refugees from entering the U.S.—along with immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries—and then firing Acting Attorney General Sally Yates when she proclaimed the order illegal and instructed the Justice Department to ignore it.
For all that differentiates the Saturday Night Massacre from the Muslim ban and its aftermath, both events present a commander-in-chief with an utter, self-defeating contempt for basic rule of law and all institutional checks on his authority. Just as Nixon believed he could sweep Watergate under the rug by canning its lead investigator, so does Trump think he can essentially wipe out an entire religion’s worth of immigrants from the United States by disappearing any Justice Department official who regards the First Amendment as constitutionally binding.
(Notice how Trump justified the firing of Yates by accusing her of “betrayal”—as if the attorney general’s loyalty to the president supersedes her loyalty to the law.)
Of course, the nice thing about the Constitution is that it exists whether or not the president believes in it (as Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t quite say). The trouble—as the nation learned so painfully with Nixon—is that justice can take an awfully long time to catch up to the president’s many dogged attempts to dodge it—especially if he has a gang of willing collaborators in Congress.
In the end, the reason Watergate exploded into a full-blown cataclysm was that Richard Nixon was a fundamentally rotten human being—a callous, cynical, friendless sociopath whose every move was calibrated for political gain and without even a passing consideration for the public good. For all that he spoke about standing up for the common man, when push came to shove the only person he really gave a damn about—the only person he ever lifted a finger to protect—was Richard Nixon.
Does any of this sound familiar? You bet your sweet bippy it does. In the frightfully short time he’s been president, Trump has shown a remarkable knack for mimicking every one of Nixon’s faults—his vindictiveness, he contempt for the press, his insecurity, his dishonesty, his propensity for surrounding himself with racists and anti-Semites—while somehow skirting any redeeming qualities that might make his presidency tolerable, despite all of the above.
Indeed, to the extent that Trump is not the absolute spitting image of America’s all-time champion of corruption, he is demonstrably worse. After all, Nixon was historically literate, intellectually curious and, from his experience as a congressman and vice president, highly knowledgeable about the nuts and bolts of Washington deal making. He was a scoundrel, but a reasonably competent one with several major accomplishments to his name.
Can we expect Trump to achieve any sort of greatness in the teeth of his many weaknesses? If these first two weeks are at all predictive of the next four years, I see no reason to think so. Whereas Nixon was a gifted strategic thinker with a deep sense of history and geopolitics, Trump has over and over again professed a proud and stubborn ignorance of any matter that does not directly involve himself, and seems to derive all his information about a given subject from the last person he spoke to about it.
The Greeks had it right: Character is destiny, and there’s just no coming back from a veritable avalanche of fatal flaws. We can pray all we want that the president will suddenly discover the value of temperance, deliberation and any hint of public virtue, but we’d only be denying a truth that has been staring us in the face from the moment Trump announced himself as a figure of national consequence. He is who he is, he will never get better, and our only hope is that this new national nightmare won’t last quite as long as the last one did.