"If there be no accountability, another president will feel free to do as he chooses but the next time there may be no watchman in the night." These are the words, in 1974, of James Mann, a member of the committee of the US House of Representatives that was considering the impeachment of Richard Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal.
There was some accountability in 1974: Nixon resigned when it became clear that he would indeed be impeached and that support for him in the Senate was evaporating. But there is now another president who feels free to do as he chooses: Donald Trump has openly declared that “I have the right to do whatever I want as president.”
And this time there is no watchman in the night. The Republican-controlled Senate, in acquitting Trump without hearing evidence or witnesses – in effect without a trial – has rubber-stamped his claim to arbitrary and unaccountable power.
Nixon paid the price and Trump has been given not just absolution for past sins, but permission to corrupt his office in the future in any way he sees fit
To understand how democracy in the United States has reached this crucial staging post on the road to autocracy, we have to ask why the last out-of-control president, Nixon, was finally brought to book.
Nixon’s abuse of power, like Trump’s, was aimed primarily at interfering in the next presidential election: the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington in June 1972 was linked to the wonderfully named Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP).
Nixon, like Trump, claimed that a sweeping interpretation of “executive privilege” allowed him to withhold documents and records (including the secret tapes he had made of conversations in the Oval Office) from courts, prosecutors and Congress.
If anything, Nixon’s personal position was stronger than Trump’s. The evidence of Trump’s direct involvement in the plot to withhold $391 million dollars in military aid – to force the government of Ukraine to collude with the smearing of the possible Democratic challenger in November’s presidential election, Joe Biden – emerged very quickly.
In Nixon’s case, while his inner circle was speedily implicated, it took two years for his personal centrality to the cover-up of the break-in to emerge. Yet Nixon paid the price and Trump has been given not just absolution for past sins, but permission to corrupt his office in the future in any way he sees fit. Why?
The answer, oddly enough, lies in the collapse of conservatism in the US. The memory of Watergate rightly focuses on the heroic role of investigative journalism: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post got to see themselves played on the silver screen by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.
There were also tenacious and honest special prosecutors: Archibald Cox (whom Nixon fired) and Leon Jaworski, and immensely impressive Democratic politicians, not least the 31-year old Elizabeth Holtzman. But none of this work would have brought Nixon down without the presence of a force that definitively disappeared from US public life this week: Republicans who actually believe in the constitutional imperative to check the abuse of power.
The Watergate scandal would have gone nowhere without the persistence of John Sirica, the judge who conducted the trial of the burglars. He cracked open the cover-up by forcing the accused men to reveal on whose orders they were acting.
The courts on the one side, Congress on the other, existed, among other things, to check and balance the great power of the presidency
It was Sirica who instructed Nixon to turn over his White House tape recordings to the House Judiciary Committee. He presided over the trial of Nixon’s chief aides and repeatedly demanded, as he once spelled it out to the jurors “T.R.U.T.H.” But Sirica was a conservative Republican.
Likewise, when Nixon’s claim to absolute privilege for the tapes came before the Supreme Court, he was confident he would win, not least because three of the justices were his own appointees, good Republicans all. They all voted against him.
And what sealed Nixon’s fate was that four young Republican congressmen went against their party leaders and voted to impeach him: Hamilton Fish of New York, Caldwell Butler of Virginia (“I cannot condone what I have heard, I cannot excuse it and I cannot and will not stand still for it”), Tom Railsback of Illinois (“We are considering [impeaching] a man, Richard Nixon, who has twice been in my district campaigning for me, that I regard as a friend”) and Bill Cohen of Maine: “It has been said that impeachment proceedings will tear this country apart. To say that it will tear the country apart to abide by the constitution is a proposition I cannot accept. I think what would tear the country apart would be to turn our backs on the facts and our responsibility to ascertain them.”
These Republicans acted as they did because they believed in two conservative principles. One is a sense of patriotic duty. The other is the need to uphold existing institutions. Those institutions – the courts on the one side, Congress on the other – existed, among other things, to check and balance the great power of the presidency.
And both of these beliefs have now virtually disappeared in the Republican party. The Republicans declined to go through the motions of a trial in the Senate. They were afraid even to give the appearance that constitutional norms can restrain Trump.
Just three years ago it was common to hear mainstream Republicans in the US insist that Trump would be controlled by the “adults in the room” and restrained by constitutional checks. This was always delusional and now the delusion is fully exposed. The adults in the room have long gone – only sycophants remain in the White House.
The constitutional checks are impotent when those who are supposed to implement them are too craven to do so. Trump has a compliant Supreme Court: the idea that his appointees would, as Nixon's did in 1974, rule against the man who picked them is risible. At least until November, he has a servile Senate. The once-formidable Republican party is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc.
'What a black historical irony,' wrote the journalist Martha Gellhorn to Daniel Ellsberg in 1971, 'if the Free World was lost due to the tyranny of the Leader of the Free World'
If he wins again, Trump’s boast in 2016 that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York and get away with it will be closer to fact than to bluster.
This is autocracy. Tyranny takes hold in a democracy when there are no “watchmen in the night”. With the collapse of conservatism, the watchmen and watchwomen within the Republican Party have placed themselves in a self-induced coma.
Conservatives used to hold with the dictum of John Philpot Curran that the price of liberty is “eternal vigilance”. Even under Nixon, enough of them still had the courage to exercise that vigilance. Now, they have decided that the price – Trump’s disfavour – is just too high.
"What a black historical irony," wrote the great journalist Martha Gellhorn to Daniel Ellsberg in 1971, "if the Free World was lost due to the tyranny of the Leader of the Free World."