If Donald Trump dropped dead tomorrow, his presidency would go down as a bizarre, disgraceful failure—albeit a unique, memorable and morbidly entertaining one. Eight weeks in, the Trump administration has earned every ounce of skepticism that a majority of the public has nursed since Day 1, swerving wildly between quasi-authoritarian histrionics and clueless, bumbling ineptitude—“malevolence tempered by incompetence,” as one journalist put it.
In fact, Trump will not be checking out anytime soon, as doing so would violate Lewis Black’s first general rule of health: “The good die young, but pricks live forever.”
Sorry, folks: Not only is this roller coaster of shame real, but it has barely left the goddamned gate. To ask—as one does—whether this president’s noxious mixture of cruelty, duplicity and cynicism can be sustained at its current velocity for another four years is to miss the main point. Of course this horror show will continue exactly as it has begun: Trump has neither the inclination nor the ability to behave as anything other than what he is. His appeal, his “brand”—his very identity—hinges on his being a vindictive, ignorant jerk 24 hours a day, and he is not about to elevate the interests of the republic above his crippling need for unending praise and attention.
I bear this bad news having just re-watched Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic Nixon—a film that, at this moment, I would recommend to every man, woman and child in America—or at least to anyone who requires some historical perspective on the seemingly unprecedented political quagmire we find ourselves in today. As past presidents go, Richard Nixon is and will forever be the Rosetta Stone for understanding the machinations of Donald Trump, and Stone’s exuberant dramatization of Nixon’s life is an invaluable visual document of modern American history at its worst.
The first thing to recall about Nixon, our 37th president, is that he was an unconscionable scumbag. A vile, ugly, selfish, paranoid, shameless, cynical, racist crook. An opportunist and a con man. A liar and a cheat. A hollow shell of a human being who exerted bottomless energy toward political score-settling and practically none at all toward making America a better place to live.
The second thing to recall about Tricky Dick—and boy did that nickname say it all—is that, in his five-and-a-half years in office, he got a hell of a lot of things done, many of which unambiguously pushed our country forward in lasting, meaningful ways. Apart from opening China to the West and fostering friendlier relations with the Soviet Union, Nixon became a partner in the environmental protection movement—signing the Clean Air Act and establishing the EPA—and was the first president to propose a universal government healthcare system that, nearly four decades later, would provide the basic framework for the Affordable Care Act—the 2010 bill that, as the aforementioned Lewis Black quipped, could’ve easily been called “Nixonicare.”
Nixon accomplished all of those commendable things and more, and we can’t pretend that he didn’t. He was a ruthless, cold-hearted bastard, but by God, did he deliver.
The strategy of Oliver Stone’s movie—as embodied by its titanic lead performance by Anthony Hopkins—is to portray Nixon’s presidency as a grand Shakespearean tragedy, with its title character as a man who had the potential for everlasting greatness but was ultimately felled by his own flaws—in particular, his pathological habit of getting in his own way through bouts of self-pity and self-righteousness—weaknesses present in all national leaders, but rarely in such outrageously lethal doses.
Watching Nixon today, it becomes glaringly evident—if it weren’t already—how profoundly the worst instincts of Nixon mirror the worst instincts of Trump—not least the two men’s shared contempt for “elites” and any notion of a free press—with the latter president possessing even less self-control and self-awareness than the former, not to mention less intelligence and less expertise in anything even remotely to do with government.
If Nixon had a secret sauce—an X factor that enabled him to ascend great heights despite his deadly failings—it was the amoral political instincts that allowed him to personally profit from—and often stoke—divisions among different groups of people. Domestically, this included the late-1960s racial tensions that helped him scare white people into voting for him in the first place. Globally, this same habit was manifested in the rivalry between China and Russia, which Nixon was able to parlay into a set of mutually beneficial deals that America still enjoys to this day.
In other words, even Nixon’s finest moments were borne of his basest impulses. The Machiavellian tactics that proved so effective in Beijing and Moscow originated from the same dark corner of the president’s brain that led him to brazenly interfere with the Watergate investigation and to use government money to cover it all up. He was a crafty dealmaker and a common criminal, and you couldn’t have one without the other.
Which brings us to the most important—and most dangerous—lesson from the Nixon era: Americans do not care if their president is corrupt, so long as his corruption redounds to the benefit of the public at large. As a rule, if the economy is humming along and civil unrest is kept to a minimum, few citizens will bother to look very closely at any shenanigans that might be occurring in the executive branch. As any pyramid scheme victim will tell you, why ask questions when everything is going so well?
Indeed, given the facts of history, it’s worth arguing that Nixon’s eventual (and richly deserved) downfall was as much a product of a depressed economy as of a sudden interest in rule of law by American voters. While correlation does not necessarily prove causation, one can’t help but notice that, from early 1973 onward, Nixon’s free-falling approval rating tracked almost perfectly with the Dow Jones Industrial Average, suggesting that had the Watergate scandal not coincided with a general economic downturn—and, with it, a growing public disgust with Washington, D.C.—Nixon may well have rode out whatever allegations Congress and The Washington Post hurled at him throughout 1973 and 1974. After all, he did win 49 states in the election of 1972.
Does this mean Donald Trump could commit a slew of impeachable offenses, yet remain in office for his entire term, provided the stock market doesn’t crash and the country doesn’t devolve into complete anarchy?
Yes, dear reader. That’s exactly what it means.
If Nixon teaches us anything, it’s that the American presidency is just about the most secure job on planet Earth. Despite all the malfeasance that has been committed over the last 228 years by most of the 44 men in that office, Nixon is still the only one to have departed prematurely without dying—and bear in mind that the “smoking gun” in Watergate only came to light as the result of an audio recording that Nixon himself made. If those famous White House tapes didn’t exist—or were never publicly released—Nixon may well have stuck around until January 20, 1977, leading us to wonder if there’s anything the president of the United States cannot get away with, if he gives it the old college try.
With Donald Trump, that’s what we will continuously be finding out for the next 46 months, if not longer. Having demonstrated, ad nauseam, that he cares about nothing but himself and is prepared to violate every political norm in the book in order to get what he wants, Trump is practically daring us to use the Constitution to yank him offstage, and if it turns out the American public doesn’t have the fortitude to pressure Congress into doing so, it is Trump who will have the last laugh, and we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.