As the United States wrestles with potential high crimes emanating from its highest office, the closest historical parallel we have for guidance is Watergate. All indications suggest that the Trump administration’s ties to Russia and efforts to bury them are quickly throttling toward another Watergate-style crisis—if not worse.
Which makes the continued presence of so many full-throated Trump administration defenders in our politics so puzzling. Forty-five years after Watergate, why would so many willingly place themselves on the wrong side of history?
In The Invisible Bridge, Rick Perlstein returns time and again to those who stuck it out in Nixon’s corner throughout the Watergate saga. For many, it was worth being on the wrong side of history for the sake of doing battle with those on the other side.
By June 1973, American politics was circling chaos. In March, after trial proceeding for the Watergate burglary, defendant James McCord had informed the judge that his testimony was perjured under pressure from high levels of government. In May, the Senate Watergate Committee began its hearings, aired on national TV. Independent prosecutor Archibald Cox had just been appointed to investigate President Nixon’s role in the break-in. And on June 3, recently fired White House Counsel John Dean told Watergate investigators that he had personally discussed the burglary cover-up with Nixon at least 35 times.
Washington power brokers were grasping for a way out of the crisis. Clark Clifford had served in three Democratic presidential administrations, including as Harry Truman’s White House Counsel and Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense. This eminent Washington establishmentarian took to the pages of the New York Times to propose a creative solution: First, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigns. Next, Congress would elevate three replacement candidates “of outstanding ability and the highest character” from both parties. Of these three, Congress would confirm one as the new vice president on the condition that he not run for president in 1976. Once the new vice president was confirmed, President Nixon would salvage some dignity and resign. The just-confirmed vice president would then assume the Oval Office.
This, Clifford thought, would spare the country from the traumatic course it was set upon: a “government of national unity” could “transform the next three and a half years from years of bitterness, divisiveness, and deterioration to years of healing, unity, and progress.”
Fat chance. True believers on the right had no interest in falling on their sword for the sake of national harmony. Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan accused the “President’s traditional adversaries [of] happily drawing up surrender terms,” alleging that Clifford and other media establishment forces were conspiring to force Nixon to “betray the mandate of 1972.” A former Republican congressman spun around Watergate cover-up allegations, calling it in fact a “cover-up for an unconscionable attempt by Nixon foes to seize the presidency.” Senator Jesse Helms argued that “Watergate became the lever to reverse the judgment of the people” by overriding the results of the 1972 election.
Grassroots conservatives shared this sense of grievance, too. Perlstein surveyed letters to the editor published in the spring and summer of 1973, and found that a third were from ardent Nixon defenders. A New York magazine reporter watched the Watergate hearings in a bar in working-class Astoria, Queens, where iron workers and truck drivers stuck by Nixon’s side and dismissed the hearings altogether.
The Senate Watergate Committee captivated the country by operating with a level of serious that matched the gravity of the offense. But even there, Nixon had at least one staunch defender: Republican Senator Edward Gurney from Florida, who dismissed Watergate as “one of those political wing-dings that happen every political year,” and bemoaned the investigation for sullying the institution of the presidency. During the hearings, Gurney interceded to protect Maurice Stans—Nixon’s former Secretary of Commerce and head of the finance committee for Nixon’s reelection campaign—from tough questioning by Committee chair Sam Ervin.
Ronald Reagan too never wavered from Nixon’s side. Of Watergate, he said, “We are witness to a lynching.” Even as late as June 1974, Reagan’s thoughts on Watergate amounted to: “I just think it’s too bad that it is taking people’s attention from what I think is the most brilliant accomplishment of any president of this century, and that is the steady progress towards peace and the easing of tensions” with the Soviet Union. Watergate was just a big distraction meant to undermine the president.
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History often forgets, but the American public and political system hardly mobilized in lockstep against Nixon’s offenses. That’s because Watergate came to be about choosing sides. In an insightful column in the New Republic, Jeet Heer traces forward the lessons of Watergate from Trump-era elected Republicans by comparing the career arcs of Reagan and Howard Baker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee: “Reagan became the biggest Republican icon since Lincoln, while Baker’s brand of moderate Republicanism has been diminishing since the late 1970s. Today, for ambitious Republicans who want remain relevant in their own party, the lessons Reagan taught are clear: If a Republican presidency is threatened by scandal, hold your nose until the smell goes away. The voters will reward you for your loyalty.”
We are seeing the tribalism of group loyalty hardening before our eyes in the Trump-Russia scandal. The vast majority of elected Republicans have tethered themselves close to Trump, largely because Republican voters overwhelmingly remain diehard Trump true believers. “The president is, as you know — you’ve seen his numbers among the Republican base — it’s very strong. It’s more than strong, it’s tribal in nature,” retiring Republican Senator Bob Corker recently said. “People who tell me, who are out on trail, say, look, people don’t ask about issues anymore. They don’t care about issues. They want to know if you’re with Trump or not.”
You’re with Trump, or you’re against him. Just like you were with Nixon, or you were against him. Reacting to presidential abuses of power becomes a matter of signaling values and tribe membership, not one of evaluating facts or deliberate inquiry.
From within the eye of Trump-Russia, it is tempting to run the Watergate tape forward and assume a similar outcome. In spite of the polarization of unyielding presidential loyalists, the truth won out. Reasoned, deliberative fact-finding will again carry the day, and a petty authoritarian will be forced from the White House in disgrace—a grand happy ending to a national morality tale.
But Watergate didn’t have to end that way. It could have been different—had Nixon not recorded his every Oval Office conversation; had Democrats not controlled the Senate; or had Republican senators been more committed to party over duty.
That alternative scenario is alarmingly proximate to what we’re facing today. A Republican Party beholden to Trump controls both chambers of Congress. And within it, the Louie Gohmerts (“I think Mueller should be fired,” he said this week) drown out the Bob Corkers. And even the Corkers are feeling the cross-pressure from a tribalized Republican base that’s all in on Trump, collusion be damned.
Trump has henchmen allies in Congress like Devin Nunes working hand-in-glove to discredit the Mueller investigation on his behalf. When Trump attacked Mueller on Twitter, most Senate Republicans—including their leadership—opted to shrug and offer the president a sort of autocratic mulligan, rather than standing up to warn the president off from interfering with an ongoing investigation. The Republican Party has internalized its own lessons from Watergate, and completed its long transformation into an anti-institutional brigade of kamikaze nihilists. It’s Edward Gurney’s party now, most definitely not Howard Baker’s.
It is inconceivable that Republicans in Congress will ever turn on Trump en masse. Whatever final recommendation the Mueller investigation makes will assuredly be met with a giant shrug from a Republican-controlled Congress. For Americans hoping to hold the Trump administration accountable for conspiratorial wrongdoing and abuse of power, electing Democrats in 2018 is simply the only plausible path forward.
Maybe Democrats reclaim the Senate, and justice will ultimately be served. But it could always be different. In a nation of deeply polarized loyalties, the rule of law increasingly rests on the happenstance of political power.