In times of unexpected strife, the aggrieved seek comfort anywhere they can find it, like trees trying to grow on the side of cliffs. Since Donald Trump’s election, dejected liberals have sought catharsis in tears, in marches, in late-night comedy, in essays about reasons that marches occurred. But none of those things have changed the fact that Trump is the president.
We’re now entering a new phase in liberal self-soothing: the calming Nixon-expert-with-a-crystal-ball phase.
This week’s New York magazine cover story, written by Frank Rich, lays hard into the Trump-Nixon tie, offering history as balm. “The resistance” needn’t worry just yet. Just wait, Rich urges. “Watergate auto-da-fé wasn’t built in a day.”
Rich isn’t alone in his Trump-Watergate fantasy. It’s hard to avoid drawing some parallels between Tricky Dick and Teflon Don.
Like Trump, Richard Nixon’s Congress was stocked with allies. Nixon taped people (Trump, thus far, only lies about it). Nixon had Deep Throat, an aggrieved FBI guy, and Trump has James Comey, an aggrieved FBI guy. Nixon, like Trump, hated the press and loved his daughters and had a strange relationship with his wife.
The next part of the story, the fantasy goes, ends happily for the opposition. In Nixon’s case, journalists grabbed a thread and kept pulling. And within two years of his election, a president who had logged a record popular vote was quite literally peacing out of the White House.
Rich argues that Trump’s TBD-gate is unfolding at a comparable rate to Watergate. “You will find reason to hope that the 45th president’s path through scandal may wind up at the same destination as the 37th’s—a premature exit from the White House in disgrace—on a comparable timeline.”
Is it possible that Trump’s presidency will end in Nixonian disgrace? Sure. But there’s a much greater likelihood that it won’t, that Rich’s prediction will age about as well as Van Jones’ March 1 proclamation that Donald Trump “became president last night,” or Fareed Zakaria’s proclamation on April 7 that Donald Trump “became president last night.” If Trump somehow lurches through four or eight years, history will view the left’s starry-eyed Watergate dreams as in the same genre of smug as Clinton acolytes’ cockiness going into the final stretch of the 2016 presidential campaign. Litanies of Trump-Nixon comparisons amount to little more than fantasy, wastes of precious time that could have been better used on reality.
Donald Trump is not Richard Nixon, and 1973 is not 2017.
During Nixon’s time, Americans could only get their news from a few outlets; if they wanted anything less mainstream than the NBC Nightly News, they had to seek out the Whole Earth catalog or their local Ron Paul-esque kook and his facsimiled newsletter. The internet has democratized information, but it has also muddied the waters. In 2017, we are all denizens of a customizable media reality that has never felt more subjective. Pre-web, a person at odds with the mainstream opinion about what the truth is would be pushed to the margins. Now, the president himself has endorsed a fringe news outlet that denies that the murder of dozens of children in Sandy Hook ever happened. We no longer agree what the definition of “is” is. The margins have gone mainstream.
Watergate fantasy porn neglects to realistically establish that Watergate was a series of freakish lightning strikes. It’s hard to imagine how they could replicate themselves in 2017. Even if the public trusted the press as they did in the early 1970s (they don’t), or if Trump is actually guilty of prosecutable wrongdoing as recognized by those in a position to prosecute (we don’t know, but are acting as though we do), or if Congress, given Trump’s theoretical wrongdoing, would move to impeach (also unknown), there’s the not-small problem of Trump’s supporters. They’re not going anywhere, and the reasons they were drawn to Trump aren’t going anywhere.
In the 2016 election, Polk County, Wisconsin, went about 2-1 for Donald Trump. The 956 square-mile grid of field and forest hugging the state’s western border is home to only 43,400 residents. I was born in the now-shuttered hospital in one of its towns, a village with a population that barely cracks four digits, and lived there until I was 18 years old.
Alan Walker has been the head of Polk County’s Republican Party for over a decade. To hear him tell it, nothing has happened since the inauguration to make him second guess his vote.
The same goes for most of the people Alan Walker knows who are active in local politics. They aren’t ready to abandon President Trump. In Walker’s view, Trump is following through on what he promised he’d do. Investigations into Trump are nothing more than media agitating designed to derail a true conservative agenda.
“Many here in Polk County think the liberal elite were looking down on them,” Walker wrote in a post-election op-ed in a local newspaper. “The people in Polk County are good, honest, down-to-earth people, good citizens. People here are not ‘racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic’ people, but are labeled that way by the liberals. If people had been talking to the people of Polk County, the notion of a Trump victory wouldn’t have seemed farfetched in October before the election.”
In April, Trump supporters in the area held two Trump-less Trump rallies in the area, one in Turtle Lake, and one a short drive south in Hudson. Walker estimates that a few dozen gathered in Turtle Lake; about 120 in Hudson. Local politicians and activists spoke. At one gathering, Walker led a prayer.
“I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember Reagan,” Walker tells me, via phone. “When Reagan was president, it was constantly people against him. It’s much worse with Trump than it was with President Bush or Bush Jr.”
People who want Donald Trump to be president for as little time as possible are in the market for good news right now, but there’s not much good news to be had. Trump already has installed one Supreme Court justice and will probably get to nominate another, a feat that hasn’t gone unnoticed by his supporters like Alan Walker. Trump has already pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, another victory for his base. He’s got part of his travel ban enacted, for the time being. His party has the House and the Senate, and most statehouses. Sure, he’s faced setbacks due to his seeming lack of knowledge of how to navigate the Washington jungle gym, but the longer he’s in charge, the more accidental wins he’s likely to stumble into. The people who already liked Trump are always going to like him; the people who never liked him never will.
Hoping for the best is sustaining. But the other half of that adage is “prepare for the worst.” For too long, liberals have clung to the former and ignored the latter. In order to survive the Trump era intact, they must resist the urge to look for the future in the 1970s. They must stop wasting their time reading fan fiction and deal with the reality that we are probably stuck with Trump. And then what?