Editor’s Note: This post was written by Tyler Del Giudice.
To understand how Trump can learn from the presidency of Richard Nixon, it is best first to put Nixon’s presidency in context. The accomplishments of the Nixon presidency are often overshadowed by the legacy of its downfall, notably the Watergate crisis. In her analytic biography of Nixon, Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew states, “It has been said that Nixon’s was a ‘criminal presidency’, but that misses the larger point. He put the nation through an unprecedented constitutional crises, during which for a long while it wasn’t clear that our system of government would hold. It was a frightening time.” As Drew explains, it wasn’t Watergate itself which shaped the public view of the presidency, but more so, the general questions surrounding impeachment. No president had ever been impeached, and questions remained over whether impeaching Nixon was worth the questions that would arise surrounding the constitutional view and the long lasting implications to the office of the presidency.
While Nixon’s personality was a disastrous match with the presidency, his grasp on power shaped and strengthened his character flaws. As Drew describes, Nixon was “insecure, self-pitying, vindictive, suspicious –even literally paranoid– and filled with long nursed anger and resentments.” As such, Nixon’s political career “was a long search for vindication… he often talked, even obsessively, about his real and perceived enemies.” There seems to be some similar character traits between Trump and Nixon. Trump has shown a desire to seek revenge against those who did not support him in the election, as well as those who oppose his policy goals. Trump would be wise to learn from Nixon’s mistakes and not let his vindictive qualities affect policy.
Trump has another valuable lesson he can learn – from how Nixon approached the Watergate accusations. If he ventures down the same path there are clear warning signs about the implications Trump may face. While Nixon decided to fight the accusations against Watergate, Trump has the ability to learn lessons from Nixon’s approach, and face a different fate than Nixon. If the accusations of Trump campaign ties to Russia have serious merit and are legitimate, but don’t extend to Trump himself, Trump should follow the advice given by the congressional and intelligence communities. Trump could fire those involved, and make clear to the public that he does not tolerate any foreign meddling in our democratic process. However, if Trump decides to continually fight the accusations, regardless of their merit, he could ultimately design an attempted coverup of the Russia story that may leave Congress no choice but to proceed on to impeachment. If the investigations find that Trump personally colluded with Russia to influence the results of the election to his benefit, then he may face certain impeachment. Ultimately, if evidence points to his administration’s involvement with Russia, but evidence falls short of Trump himself, his actions in dealing with the investigations, whether attempting a coverup or letting the investigations proceed without interruption, may ultimately tell the tale of his fate.
All quotes in this post are taken from “Richard M. Nixon: The American Presidents Series: The 37th President, 1969-1974” by Elizabeth Drew.