Trump is reaping the benefits of Watergate’s corrosive legacy
Erosion of trust has deadened the impact of abuse of office on voters and Republicans
On August 7th, 1974, senior congressional Republicans confronted president Richard Nixon at the White House. Irrefutable proof had emerged that Nixon ordered the cover-up of the Watergate break-in. Nixon was warned to resign or face impeachment and removal from office. He resigned the next day.
It is very unlikely that a similar scenario will be repeated today. It is nearly certain that after holding hearings this past week the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives will vote to impeach Donald Trump. If so, then the Senate will hold a trial to determine whether Trump should be removed from office. But chances are very slim that the Republican-dominated Senate will provide the two-thirds majority needed to do so. If Trump’s impeachment hearings seem to lack the drama of Watergate, it is partly because their resolution is a foregone conclusion.
So what has changed in American political culture from 45 years ago to today? The answer has little to do with the particular case at hand. The evidence that Trump committed the “high crimes and misdemeanour” the USconstitution requires for impeachment is no less damning than that found on Nixon’s Watergate tapes. Public testimony before Congress this week confirmed that, like Nixon, Trump unconstitutionally abused his office to interfere in the democratic process: he withheld military aid to Ukraine unless it aided him with information discrediting his political rival, Joe Biden.
But don’t expect a delegation of Republican leaders to request Trump’s resignation. The only thing that would induce them to do so would be if they felt his continuance in office would damage them politically. They will stick by Trump so long as he commands the support of Republican voters. It is improbable that Trump will be abandoned by politicians and voters who have already stuck with him despite revelations that he committed sexual assault, obstructed a federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and excused the 2017 white supremacist violence in Charlottesville.
When Republicans have proven corrupt, it has reinforced their central message that politicians cannot be trusted
During the impeachment hearings this week, Republican lawmakers tripped over themselves to distract from the clear evidence against Trump. For example, Representative Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee, amplified Trump’s fabulous claims that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 elections to Hillary Clinton’s benefit. Evidently, leading Republicans want to remain in Trump’s good graces, possibly for fear of alienating Trump’s base.
Even after congressional impeachment hearings, Trump’s approval rating hovers around the 40 per cent mark where it has lain throughout his presidency. As Trump once marvelled, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Trump survives scandal after scandal because no one expected him to be free of corruption in the first place. In fact, part of Trump’s appeal is his willingness to admit what other politicians deny: that the system is rigged. Trump’s brazenness about rigging the system in his own favour fails to shock because it surprises no one. Where Nixon tried to cover up his misdeeds, Trump openly admits them.
Nixon’s behaviour was shocking because most Americans then had faith in their political institutions and leaders. Ironically, Watergate helped create the corrosive cynicism about government that protects Trump today. In 1970, 56 per cent of Americans polled agreed “the government will do what is right most of the time”. By 1980, only 29 per cent did.
Although Watergate helped Democrats in the short term, the erosion of trust in politics benefited Republicans in the long term. Especially after the pivotal presidency of Ronald Reagan, Republicans have cast themselves as the anti-government party. When Republicans have proven corrupt or governed badly, it has only reinforced their central message that politicians cannot be trusted. The low expectations for democratic governance that Republicans have set have enabled Trump to flout constitutional norms.
Democrats rightly held Trump to account by holding impeachment hearings. But they should remember the lesson of Watergate: their long-term political fortunes will improve only if they can convince ordinary Americans that they can elect politicians who can be trusted to govern with their interests in mind. The party of Franklin D Roosevelt needs to shed its reliance on corporate donors and offer an ambitious programme redressing the economic inequalities that have grown since the Watergate era. It is not the impeachment hearings but the struggle for the Democratic party’s future direction in the presidential primary that will determine whether faith in American democracy can be restored.
Daniel Geary is Mark Pigott associate professor in American history at TCD