Sometimes protesters turn out to be the people who are right on target. During the inauguration this week, there are predictions of unprecedented numbers of protesters coming to Washington to state their strong opposition to the president-elect. The protesters want the world to know that Donald Trump does not represent the kinds of values they feel define the American citizenry and to warn that they see a real threat to the sanctity of our political institutions. With a major scandal looming over this transition revolving around Russian interference in the election and FBI Director James Comey’s October surprise that derailed Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, the events that we are witnessing don’t sit well. Congressman John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, went further than most when he declared that Trump was not a “legitimate” president. Several legislators will join him in refusing to attend the ceremony on Friday.
President-elect Trump and his team will dismiss the protesters as malcontents and fringe groups who just can’t accept that their candidate lost the election. With regards to Lewis, Trump blasted off a tweet-storm telling the legislator that he should pay more attention to his district, which he claims is in terrible shape. “All talk, talk, talk—no action or results” Trump said of the congressman whose skull was fractured during the marches in Selma in 1965.
Even as Trump continues to blast off angry tweets in what has become the most public of Enemies Lists, the Trump administration-to-be insists that the inauguration should be about national unity not discord. Given that he seems to be a big fan of Richard Nixon, Trump is likely to take a page from the former president’s playbook and use the protests as evidence that liberals don’t believe in law and order.
But we should remember that sometimes the protesters are more perceptive than the general electorate about the threat that a president poses to the republic. Indeed, this was the case on Jan. 20, 1973, when Richard Nixon was sworn in for his second term. From the perspective of the time, it seemed that Nixon was on his way to become one of the most transformative presidents of the 20th century. Not only had he successfully opened relations with China and signed an arms agreement with the Soviet Union, but also he had won a massive re-election victory against George McGovern in 1972 that the pundits were comparing to Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1936 or Lyndon Johnson’s success in 1964. The editors of The New York Times said he was “overwhelmingly elected” and as a result “all Americans—including those who, like ourselves, vigorously opposed their reelection—recognize that the President yesterday received an unchallengeable popular mandate and that the destiny of this country for the next four years is now, for better or worse, to a large and important extent in his hands.”
Left-wing activists were not buying it. Nixon had promised that he would end the Vietnam War. The anti-war movement did not believe him. The anti-war movement decided to stage a major protest on the day of the inauguration to warn that world that Richard Nixon was a war criminal and that his administration could not be trusted. The security was the tightest in the history of inaugurations, with 8,000 Washington police and National Guardsmen, as well as 2,000 federal riot troops in place.
The night before Nixon was sworn in for a second term there were counter-inaugural ceremonies. At the Washington Episcopal Cathedral, the musician Leonard Bernstein organized a high-profile event, the “Concert for Peace,” to offer relief from the euphoria over Nixon. Up to 15,000 people crowded into the cathedral and the area right outside it in Northwest Washington to hear the concert. Senator Edward Kennedy and his wife Joan thrilled the crowd when they arrived to participate. Bernstein conducted Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War.”
On the day of the inauguration, an estimated 100,000 protesters came to the capital to gather at the Washington Monument as the media watched closely. The protesters centered on the Vietnam War and what they believed were Nixon’s false promises to end it. The posters and the chants reminded the nation about all the domestic programs that had suffered as a result of spending on the war. When Nixon’s motorcade emerged from the White House, the president and his staff could see banners out the car window that said, “Impeach Nixon.” The protesters were brutal in their depiction of Nixon. One put up a 10-foot-long rat with Nixon’s face on it, carrying a blood-stained doll in his mouth. Some wore pins that read: “Nixon You Liar: Sign the Treaty.” At one of the rallies, New York Democratic Congresswoman Bella Abzug garnered huge cheers when she proclaimed: Now, we have no intention of uniting around this president.”
When Nixon took the oath of office, two demonstrators shouted out “Killer, Killer, Killer!” as Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger administered the oath. As Nixon’s motorcade drove down Pennsylvania Avenue after it was over, there were screams of “Nixon, You Liar, Sign the Cease-fire” as the president passed by in an open car. One held a sign that said “Sieg Heil.” One group chanted a song, “Worried Man Blues,” while others held a sign that said “Cheer Up, Today is the Beginning of the End.” Some threw oranges, apples, and tomatoes. Nixon dismissed the protesters, waving his “V-sign” at them as he passed by.
There were also protests in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. Some 2,000 people marched from State Street and Wacker Drive in Chicago to walk through the loop despite a bitter wind calling on the president to end the war. There were even protests in other countries. Thousands gathered in Europe and Asia. “Nixon fascist assassin,” screamed students in front of the U.S. embassy in Paris’s Place de la Concorde while about 300 students gathered at the U.S. embassy in Mexico to say the same. There were demonstrations in London, the Hague, Amsterdam, Marseilles, Stockholm, Zurich, Hong Kong, Japan, and West Germany.
While Nixon ignored the protesters and went on with his celebration, the outrage on display in the streets never disappeared. It turned out that the protesters were right about the general character and untrustworthiness of the administration. Although the war did end in 1975, because of the pressure that had come from the anti-war movement and the defeat of U.S. forces, there was another scandal—Watergate—that blew up in the months that followed. The Watergate investigation in Congress and the media would reveal just how corrupt this administration had been and just how far Nixon was willing to go in abusing his power. When Nixon resigned from the presidency on Aug. 8, 1974, in one of the most dramatic and traumatic moments in American political history, the protesters at the inauguration seemed prescient.
There are many reasons today to be concerned about the Trump presidency. The concerns about Russian intervention in the election emanate from the findings of 17 intelligence agencies. There is little question that Russia mounted a major cyber-intervention in this campaign, and the connections between a number of high-profile members of Trump’s campaign team and Putin’s allies have been well told. As Trump continued to advance an unusually zealous defense of Putin—while condemning every other threat the U.S. faces—concerns mounted.
The issues involving Russia are only one area of concern. So is the very well-established record of Trump’s expansive view of his own power and disregard for any institution or person who ever stands in his way. If there was ever a person who will stretch his authority as much as possible, it’s Trump. He is going after the news media with a level of aggression that we have not seen since Nixon, threatening and bullying any reporter or any outlet that raises questions about him.
It is also important to remember that many parts of his campaign revolved around rhetoric and ideas that were antithetical to core values that many Americans believe in, including pluralism, diversity, and social tolerance. Although some politicians are willing to move past the nativism, Islamophobia, sexism, and anti-Semitic tropes that were part of his campaign lexicon, others are not willing to forget. Those words mattered and those kinds of ideas being supported from the president of the United States can have enormously damaging consequences.
In 2017, the protests against the new president will be that much more important since we are currently in a period of united government, and the congressional Republicans are generally a pretty united and rightward bunch. With Nixon, the nation could count on a Democratic Congress to oversee, to investigate, and to cause problems for the president as evidence of wrongdoing emerged. It is true that the Senate Intelligence Committee has announced it will look into alleged connections between the Trump campaign and the Russians, but there is reason to be skeptical about how far they will go. Republicans don’t like to cause too much trouble for themselves at a moment like this. Indeed, it wasn’t very shocking that at the same time the Senate committee gave way on the issue, Republican Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter to the director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, summonsing him to appear before the committee and answer questions about his public criticism of Trump.
As the protests come to Washington, Americans would do well to listen to what they have to say. It might very well be that much of what the protesters have to say is as prescient as what the nation heard in 1973, when the word on the streets was very different from the message from the ballot box.