The dream of impeaching and removing Donald Trump looks tantalizingly close, with Robert Mueller and other investigators prying into multiple aspects of his business and presidency. Democrats are hoping for an end to the Trump era similar to that of Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace on August 9, 1974. By that point in the Watergate scandal, Nixon was facing probable impeachment by the House, followed by a conviction by the Senate. The writing was on the wall, and seeing that it was over, Nixon chose to go down the path of least resistance.
"By taking this action," Nixon said in his resignation speech, "I hope that I will have hastened the start of that process of healing which is so desperately needed in America."
Nixon's resignation has been the comparison on which many hopeful liberals hang their dreams of a Trump-free White House. But times have changed since the 37th president left office. The United States hasn’t healed since the Nixon era; it’s become even more fissured. Rather than ushering in an era of decency and upstanding moral character, the Nixon years begat a Republican Party controlled by its most extreme right-wing elements. And as its policy instincts have drifted to the right, it has also become less inclined to police the worst behavior of its leaders—a classic authoritarian outcome.
Comparisons between Nixon and Trump are apt. Both men assumed office through political dirty tricks, whether the Watergate break-in in Nixon's case or the still murky details of the Russia scandal in Trump's. Both administrations have seen indictments of people close to the White House. But where Nixon's malfeasance ultimately became too much for his party to bear, it doesn't look like Trump is going to face the same kind of revolt from the modern GOP—even if he's proven in the end to have personally broken the law.
Even by the standards of Trump-era politics, it was a shock to see sitting US senators dismiss the ever-more-likely possibility that the president was involved in criminal activity. Republicans John Thune, Bill Cassidy, and Susan Collins all wriggled out of directly addressing the charges that Trump was implicated in felonies stemming from the Michael Cohen conviction. Orrin Hatch, the retiring Republican Senator from Utah, was more direct.
"I don't care," Hatch told CNN. "All I can say is he's doing a good job as president."
Hatch walked back his remark later, calling it “irresponsible,” but the episode reflects broader attitudes in the GOP. The more evidence of misbehavior that piles up against Trump the more it seems clear the party will stay behind him. Loyalty to the president is an article of faith for the Republican Party; Trump regularly enjoys intra-party approval ratings in the 80s and 90s, even as his total approval rating has remained underwater for his entire presidency. On the rare occasions when Republican officials criticize Trump, they usually do so when they’re headed out of office, as Jeff Flake did last year when he announced his retirement from the Senate. The nearly five decades that have passed since Nixon stepped down have only made the GOP more cohesive and less incline to hold its standard-bearers accountable for their actions.
That doesn't bode well for the aftermath of a possible House impeachment in the next session, when Democrats will control the chamber. In order to remove Trump from office, the Senate will have to bring him to trial and convict him. Doing so takes two-thirds of the chamber, and with the Senate under narrow, but solid, GOP control, it's unlikely that with today's party there will even be a bare majority in favor of conviction.
The modern right wing sees politics as a moral struggle between good and evil, an uncompromising view of power that has infected all levels of the political discourse. The GOP arguably began down this path under Nixon, who assembled a winning coalition by whipping up racist opposition to the Civil Rights movement and mobilizing voters based in part on white, Christian identity.
The GOP of the 1970s was far more ideologically diverse than today. There were more Republicans wedded to the idea of a civil discourse, establishment ideals being important, and the promise of institutions. The party also included Northeastern "Rockefeller" Republicans, pro-business heirs to the tradition of abolitionism that started the party in the antebellum era, when the GOP was born from anti-slavery sentiment.
Those Republicans were gone by the time of the Reagan administration, which was rocked by several scandals, most notably the Iran-Contra affair, which saw Ronald Reagan giving this mind-bending admission of falsehood: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions tell me that's true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.” Investigations into administration officials would continue for years, ending only when George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president and successor, pardoned six people.
In the 1990s, the Newt Gingrich-led Republican Revolution swept a group of conservatives into power who were even more reactionary and angry than their predecessors. Angered at the existence of the Bill Clinton presidency and determined to do whatever it took to turn him out of office, the new members of Congress spent much of the decade pursuing charges against the president, finally impeaching him for perjury related to his affair with Monica Lewinsky. One can trace the Whitewater investigation to the Nixon impeachment; taking down Clinton was payback.
"I can’t say it wasn’t [payback]," said Republican Congressman Henry Hyde of Clinton's impeachment in 2005, "but I also thought that the Republican party should stand for something, and if we walked away from this, no matter how difficult, we could be accused of shirking our duty, our responsibility."
Today's Republican Party stands for the Republican Party. The GOP has spiraled into ideological rigidity, moving evermore to the right. The Northeastern Republicans of the Nixon era—then already an endangered species—are almost completely extinct today. There's only one one Republican in the entire New England delegation as of the midterm election.
To be sure, the fetishization of a politics of civility has its own problems. It's inarguable, however, that established norms keep institutions humming along without major disasters. Nixon’s resignation was an example of the system working.
Today's Republican Party has no pretense of concern for those institutions. On the one hand, that's refreshing because they're not pretending to be motivated by anything beyond self-interest. But it also signals a worrying future for the country. When the party's last five-decade history has involved going further to the right at every junction, what's the logical next step when you abandon all pretense of adhering to democratic norms?
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