Richard Nixon once famously quipped: “It takes an awful lot to embarrass me.” He was right too, it did – but he was eventually embarrassed. Of all the strikingly analogous scenarios between the fall of Nixon and the train-wreck of Trump, it is actually a difference between the two that proves the most disturbing. Nixon has become a caricature of American political corruption and mendacity, but at least he was aware of his wrongdoing, which was why he tried to cover it up. Trump on the other hand, doesn’t seem capable of embarrassment. The absurdity of his ego is such that there is not only no right or wrong, but no truth or fiction and no transparency or cover-up. He is a singular man utterly without virtue or intellect. Nixon was understandable, as he sought to secure his power like Caesar. Trump on the other hand, seeks to pervert power like Caligula.
President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey is a bombshell – a bombshell in the sense that an unexploded shell has crashed through the ceiling of America’s living room, and everybody is dumbly incapacitated by the second-by-second threat sat cradled in the rubble of the Ikea coffee table. In crass gold-painted letters on the side of the shell reads: ‘Trump Industries’ – this of course explains the shell’s impotence but leaves the nation suspicious that there could be something entirely ridiculous inside.
A phrase that found footing during the Watergate Scandal proposed: “It’s always the cover-up, never the crime.” However, considering the context we already know surrounding the Russia-Trump-Flynn-Comey-Gate (we’ll need to find a better name) the crime is looking pretty malevolent, much more than say, the Watergate robbery. Nixon attempted to cover up the scandal by attempting to derail investigations by the FBI (wait a second…?), the police, various grand juries, congressional committees and of course the Wagnerian Tristan Chord of the whole affair, the “Saturday Night Massacre.” In a desperate eleventh-hour attempt at obstructing the airing of the White House tapes that were known to exist, Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox, before turning his attentions to both the Attorney General Elliot Richardson, and his deputy William Ruckelshaus who both refused to comply with Nixon’s demands - therefore resigned.
Until the end however, Nixon attempted to play the game. He offered a rather silly compromise, although a compromise no less, known as the “Stennis compromise,” in which a practically deaf conservative Senator John Stennis would “listen” to the tapes and provide Cox with a summarized account. Cox obviously refused this desperate ploy and Nixon, with his back to the wall, began sacking any prying eye he could find. As the legendary journalist James Fallows, who covered Watergate, argues in The Atlantic: “Nothing Donald Trump has done, on the campaign trail or in office, has expressed awareness of, or respect for, established rules.” For Trump supporters, not adhering to “established rules” may seem, to use that awfully contemporary word: ‘refreshing.’ However, these aren’t rules that can be bent or played with - these are laws. Furthermore, these are the laws which guarantee democracy.
Many people seem to have forgotten that the Cold War even happened. During McCarthyism, if anyone - let alone a politician - let alone the President, were accused of coordinating with the Russians, they would’ve been thrown in the docks. This is not just the matter of a cover up; it has the potential to compromise the entire United States government.
After all, the allegation of which Comey’s dismissal gives credence, is on a scale that would make John Le Carre blush. The interference in the electoral process by an authoritarian foreign government is incredible enough, especially as the UK, France, Germany and other democracies are facing similar incursions. But for that interference to be in coordination with the current executive branch is simply astounding. If the cover up is supposed to outweigh the crime, we’re sure in for a hell of a show.
In Gore Vidal’s play An Evening with Richard Nixon (1972), which was written and took place prior to Watergate, Vidal put Nixon on the stage with Presidents Washington, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. Even before Watergate, Vidal had noticed just how banal, in an almost Arendtian sense, Nixon’s language was. By contrasting Nixon with previous presidents, Vidal was attempting to show the decline of the Republic, but also how inevitable Nixon was - how of his time he was.
Of course, Washington, Eisenhower and Kennedy were no talismans of virtue either; Vidal knew that better than anyone. Vidal was attempting to show the rate of the decline of the Republic. After all, the decade between Kennedy and Nixon was arguably the most truculent American decade of the century. Vidal was showing that the Republic itself was rotten, and that it was decomposing in front of our eyes. In The Fire Next Time James Baldwin similarly likened the nation to a “burning house” when he posed the question: “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” The Nixonian point is that the 60s and 70s, of which Baldwin and Nixon were products, accelerated that process…or perhaps Nixon was just a highlighting of it.
The banality of language to which Nixon sometimes succumbed, as noticed by Vidal, evolved through Reagan, until it has now reached Trump’s point of absolute nonsense. Politicians, at least adept ones, try to be on guard at all times; they are the masters of talking around subjects without ever venturing into one. Nixon often made the mistake of revealing too much of himself; the ranting and raving spoke a lot of his youth, but also of his political frustrations. Vidal has George Washington rib his juniors (Eisenhower, Kennedy) by saying that Nixon “is just more naked than the rest of you.”
Indeed, what will really be to blame if and when all this comes to a head? Trump of course will be front and center- his ego praising him for it, but even if all the allegations are true, and the election was abrogated, that merely accounts for the deterioration; it doesn’t identify the parasite. An abrogated election doesn’t silence the drums at Trump’s rallies, nor does it Photoshop out Trump’s admittedly tiny inauguration crowd. Nor does it rectify the past transgressions and paradoxes of the flawed American experiment itself. As Eisenhower remarks at the close of the play, when asked just who “did cut down the cherry tree?” – Ike replied, hopefully on behalf of every self-identifying white American, “We all did.”
Why does the American experiment keep finding itself in this position? Nixon and his era was the exact opposite of some anomaly in the course of American history. Open the book to any page and you’ll likely find similarly heinous activities, from Jefferson to Jackson - from Polk to Reagan. Christopher Hitchens once aptly characterized Reagan and his tenure as the “President of laughter and forgetting…and the steady politicization of the Justice Department.” The parasite in the American system has developed an excellent anticoagulant, which serves to numb the rotting skin and keep the host unmindful – the result of which is the curious and observable occurrence known as American amnesia.
Vidal’s play registers this tradition as well. In the second act, as Nixon attempts to elude the stinging reminders of past gaffes, lies, and forgotten promises by noting that the public very swiftly forgets anyway. Con (spoiler alert: Buckley) then removes his glasses and casts his eye across the audience, reflecting: “They’re forgetting the first act already.”
This is the challenge America faces. History is the responsibility of the present - our duty is to learn from our mistakes, and to progress. Just as the British have ‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November’, maybe here in the United States we can adopt ‘November Eight, dare not forget the date’. At the very least a rhyming reminder should prompt the making of a good film about our dystopian status quo.