by Akim Reinhardt
There is a minor American myth about shame and regret. It goes like this.
In the years following Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation amid scandal and disgrace, polls found that fewer Americans admitted to having voted for him than actually did. Apparently many former Nixon voters now realized the error of their ways and were embarrassed to admit ever having pulled the lever for him.
Everything about this story is false, and the truth of it is worse. Nixon’s loyal supporters stood by him the entire way, despite his crimes. His popularity did not retreat behind a wave of shame; it was merely muted by the national embarrassment of his resignation.
What does this tell us about today’s Trump supporters? Partisan divisions are much worse now than they were during the mid-1970s, so Trump voters’ fierce loyalty to this sexist, racist charlatan is unsurprising. But in explaining why, we tend to focus on the Cult of Trump, as if he has special qualities that give him some magical hold over his supporters. True, in many ways Trump is a unique politician in American history. Yet given our history, it seems likelier that his supporters’ undying devotion is less about the spells Trump casts, and more about the constancy of American political partisanship.
Indeed, the difference between Trump’s and Nixon’s loyal supporters might be more about decibel count than sentiment. And so by looking back at the steadfast support Richard Nixon maintained right through his resignation, we can better understand the misguided loyalty keeping Trump’s reelection campaign afloat.
On June 17, 1972, during a presidential campaign season, Nixon henchmen working for CREEP (Committee to RE-Elect the President) broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Like a scene from one of the era’s cloak and dagger spy films, they photographed confidential documents and tapped their opponents’ phone lines.
But this was not romantic international espionage. These were felonies committed by one U.S. presidential campaign against another, and thus a profound attack on American political democracy. And there are mountains of circumstantial evidence indicating that Nixon knew all about it in advance. Indeed, it was his team’s second burgling of the DNC office; part of their June 17 mission was repairing a phone tap they’d previously installed but which had since stopped working.
After the burglars were arrested at gunpoint by three plains clothes police officers, President Nixon was fully briefed on the affair. He ordered an illegal coverup, including hush money payments to those arrested.
The first news story about the break in was buried halfway back in The Washington Post. But it didn’t stay there for long. If these were just common burglars, as the Nixon administration insisted, then why did one of them have direct phone number to the White House in a little black book when he was arrested?
The story had legs, but coverage moved at a glacial pace compared to today’s 24 hour news cycle and constant digital media bombardments. Nixon easily defeated Democrat George McGovern that November. However, during 1973, as details of Nixon’s crimes began to emerge, Watergate became a daily front page story.
In May, the Senate began holding televised hearings. That same month, the Justice Department appointed Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox to lead an investigation. More and more insidious details came to light. A presidential campaign, and perhaps the president himself, were involved in activities designed to subvert the integrity of America’s democratic institutions by stealing an election. And when exposed, the president had ordered a coverup.
As is the case today, there was a chunk of fiercely loyal partisans on either side, each party claiming about a fifth of the population. But most of the remaining 60% were willing to give Nixon the benefit of the doubt. Even as the details of Nixon’s felonious role in Watergate mounted, most Americans were far too slow to recognize his profound and disqualifying criminality. A year into the story, only a about 20% of Americans favored impeachment while two-thirds opposed it.
The public opinion gap began slowly closing modestly that summer. Then came the infamous Saturday Night Massacre on October 20, 1973.
Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson, and then his Deputy Att. Gen. William Ruckelshaus, to fire Special Prosecutor Cox.
Just as Donald Trump’s presidency reveals the constitutional flaw of placing the Justice Department directly under the president, so too did Nixon’s presidency. If law enforcement answers to the president, then who enforces the laws when the president breaks them? It’s a naive system that relies on presidential morality and adherence to democratic norms. But not all presidents are willing to abide by them.
At first, this vulnerable system held. Both Richardson and Ruckelshaus refused to fire Cox, and each resigned in protest. We would see shades of this nearly half a century later when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Robert Mueller investigation.
However, in both cases, checks and balances buckled as the president rampaged forward, trampling norms, eschewing ethics, and placing political survival above all else.
Decades before Trump tabbed William Barr as his personal goon to wield the Justice Department as a presidential ax, Nixon chose Robert Bork to be his acting attorney general for the same general purpose. And Bork, the original William Barr, eagerly complied. He did the dirty deed, firing Cox for the sole purpose of quashing the Watergate investigation.
It was an outrageous act, a clear obstruction of justice. Yet even then, a narrow majority of Americans still opposed impeaching Nixon, and only about a third favored it. Those numbers held steady through most of the winter.
In February, 1974, the House of Representatives empowered its Judiciary Committee with subpoena power. Nixon could stop his own Justice Department from investigating him, but not Congress or the courts. Witnesses at the Congressional hearings publicly testified about the details of the break-in, the role of Nixon and his inner circle, and Nixon’s direct order to cover it all up.
The tide finally began turning.
By late March, nearly two years after the break-in, Americans were about evenly split on the issue of impeachment, much as Americans were split over impeaching Donald Trump at the time of his trial. In July, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment. As was the case with Trump, all of the Democratic committee members all voted to recommend impeachment. However, unlike recent times, about half of the Republican committee members joining them in recommending impeachment.
Is this because some of that era’s GOP politicians were better men (they were all men) than today’s Republicans, willing to put party above country? It’s tempting to think so, but we’ll never really know. Perhaps they, like their modern successors, might have united behind their Republican president if there were a viable end game for that strategy. But there wasn’t.
Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress; Republicans could not employ strict partisan loyalty to prevent the president’s impeachment or removal. Regardless of any Republican’s moral character or faith in the Constitution, the writing was on the wall: Nixon was a felon and the Democrats were not going to let him off the hook. As a formal impeachment vote awaited the full House of Representatives, a leaky Republican minority began abandoning its president.
Impeachment, followed by a trial in the Senate, and eventual removal, seemed assured. Rather than face this ignominy, Richard Nixon became the first and only president to ever resign from office on August 8, 1974.
Yet even at that moment, when his felonious attacks on America’s constitutional processes were revealed and on full display, and Nixon’s presidency was officially over, even then only a small majority of Americans (fewer than 60%) thought he should be removed from office. And about a quarter still thought he was doing a bang up job.
True, in a little more than a year, the share of Americans who thought Nixon needed to go had climbed steadily from a fifth to over a half. But that narrow majority was the absolute peak. Despite everything, nearly half the country would have been fine with him staying in office.
After Nixon stepped down, the next pressing question, and one that Americans will again have to face whenever Trump is finally out of office, was whether he should face criminal charges.
A month after he was gone, only a small majority (58%) thought Nixon should be tried for his crimes. Meanwhile, Nixon’s hardcore supporters believed President Gerald Ford should pardon him if he ever were convicted. What percentage of Americans held this extremist view that nothing Nixon did should warrant legal censure of any kind?
It was 38%. A number shockingly similar to Trump’s current approval rating.
They need not have worried. On October 17, 1974 President Ford went on national television and preemptively issued “a full, free, and absolute pardon . . . for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in.” [Watch Ford’s televised pardon here.]
Nixon had appointed Ford vice president only eight months earlier. To many it smelled like a corrupt bargain; was the pardon promised ahead of time in exchange for becoming Nixon’s successor? Such speculation likely cost Ford the 1976 election, a very tight race against Democrat Jimmy Carter. He lost the popular vote 48 – 50% and the electoral vote 240 – 297.
Historians now largely agree that, contrary to contemporary accusations, Ford pardoned Nixon because he earnestly believed it was in the nation’s best interest to put the whole sordid affair behind and move on.
I agree with them on Ford’s motives. But I also believe Ford’s actions were naive.
The failure to try or officially punish Richard Nixon for his crimes, lies, intransigence, and multi-faceted attack on U.S. constitutional systems and norms, set a precedent for presidential criminality, including Trump’s various crimes and corrosive attacks on the U.S. republic.
That such criminality has since been far more common in Republican presidential administrations than in Democratic presidencies is perhaps a coincidence. Or not. Either way, just as Nixon’s core supporters did not abandon him during the Watergate scandal, or even after he resigned in disgrace, Trump supporters have likewise dug in, furiously batting away incriminating facts the way hikers swat at mosquitoes.
And contrary to an urban myth that took root in the 1980s, no poll exists showing that former Nixon voters, full of shame and regret, eventually came around to the truth of it and later denied having ever voted for him. Despite everything, his loyal supporters remained loyal until Nixon eventually faded away and became irrelevant. So don’t hold your breath that loyal Trumpers will ever come around. Years from now, that shitty Thanksgiving dinner argument with Uncle Fred will be there waiting for you anytime you want it.
Would official punishment for his crimes have sufficiently chastened Richard Nixon and his enablers? Would more serious repercussions served as a warning to future presidents who went on to abuse their office? Would it have trained Americans to not go down with the captain of their sinking political ship? Or would it have just raised the stakes and hardened resistance?
The moment is long past and we shall never know.
What we do know is that Richard Nixon went on to earn millions of dollars from a 1977 paid TV interview with David Frost, and from the advance on his self-serving memoir. And even the loathsome, toadying Robert Bork prospered, nearly becoming a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Ronald Reagan blithely nominated Bork for that lofty position in 1987, despite warnings from Senate Democrats that they would not ratify him. Opposition to Bork’s nomination centered more on his attitudes about civil rights and women’s rights than on his prior efforts to undermine the republic, although it was not entirely ignored. Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy thundered that Reagan, himself then mired in the Iran-Contra scandal, should not: “be able to reach out from the muck of Irangate, reach into the muck of Watergate, and impose his reactionary vision of the Constitution on the Supreme Court.”
The Senate eventually rebuffed Bork’s nomination by a count of 58 – 42, with two Blue Dog Democrats voting for Bork and six moderate Republicans opposing him. You know. Back when there were still moderate Republicans.
If there is a moral to this long and sordid tale, it is the exact opposite of the myth. The sad truth is that seemingly no political deed is so foul as to alienate one’s base of supporters. No sin, no matter how sharp, can slice through America’s tangled political partisanship.
We should keep this in mind as we approach the possible electoral end of Donald Joseph Trump, whose current disapproval rating is still over 50%, and whose electoral map is tenuous. Despite all the other comparison’s to Nixon, at least in this one respect, Trump is very different; his poll numbers do not track well with Nixon’s. Tricky Dick was in fact once quite popular, whereas Trump has never had even so much as a 50% approval rating. He has always been underwater.
But then again, Trump’s approval rating has never slipped much below 40% despite his profound incompetence, his overt racism and sexism, his rank corruption, his constant erosion of ethical and constitutional norms that are absolutely vital to healthy representative government, and his endless litany of childish and easily disproven lies, many of them so utterly ludicrous that supporters must sheepishly claim he was being satirical or ironic (as if Trump were even capable of such nuance) or that he was joking, which is a hair more plausible only because no one doubts that Trump recites only the crudest and simplest of jokes.
The lowest approval rating he has ever suffered, in August of 2017 after calling Nazis and Klansmen “very nice people,” was well over a third at about 37%. Even then, his approval rating among Republicans was still near 80%. And it’s been near or above 90% among GOP voters ever since.
The takeaway? We Americans are not actually special, or, in our peculiar parlance, “exceptional.”
As a group, we are no more immune to petty partisanship, ideological rigidity, political balkanization, or even blundering charlatanism than any other nation of people. We are just as capable of electing a paranoid war monger and political criminal like Richard Nixon, as we are a nasty, mentally deficient huckster like Donald Trump. And these wretched politicians, it seems, will always command the blind loyalty of their ardent supporters, no matter how heinous their administration, overt their crimes, or disgraceful their final exit from the grand stage.
I am a historian. Do not believe what you hear about my ilk. For I am not here to issue ominous warnings about the dire consequences of not learning from our past mistakes. I am here to tell you that we don’t.
One major lesson of the past is that we do not often enough learn the lessons of the past. And since we do not know our history, we live almost entirely in the present.
Lurching through our forever-now, without lessons of the past to inform us, we must depend upon our values to light the way. What we hold dear and what we dismiss or ignore. What renders us uncomfortable and angry, and what we tacitly accept. What makes us proud and confident. What shames and embarrasses us.
None of us is perfect. None of us sees ourself, our fellow people, or the world around us exactly as we should. We are all flawed. We can all be slow to admit our past mistakes, much less learn from them.
But now you look around you. Who is too stubborn? Who is too proud? Who is too sure? Who is too mean, too willfully ignorant, too selfish? Who will too eagerly do bad so that they may feel good? Who revels in cruelty, or at least dismisses the genuine and unjust suffering of others?
You notice them in ways you did not before. There are more of them than you realized. Far more. They are seemingly everywhere. Are you one of them? Am I?