“Nixon was the hinge upon which the entire American Century turned, the figure who ushered out the expansive liberal consensus of the New Deal and the Great Society and brought to the mainstream a darker, racialized, nativist, fearmongering strain of the Republican Party and American politics that would a half century later find its natural conclusion in Donald Trump.” — Garrett Graff, Watergate: A New History, 2022
Richard Milhous Nixon had a remarkable notion of presidential power. In his famous interview with British broadcaster David Frost, conducted two years after Nixon's ignominious post-Watergate resignation and helicopter departure from Pennsylvania Avenue, the former president bluntly declared, "Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."
As an example of what "it" might entail, Nixon said if a president were to order a "black bag job," such as a burglary, in the averred interest of "domestic tranquility," nobody involved could be subject to prosecution. (Perhaps it's none too soon to sympathize with rapper KRS-One circa 1995: "Every president we ever had lied / You know, I'm kinda glad Nixon died."
Presumably under Nixon's interpretation, if former President Donald John Trump stole classified information before his own ignominious helicopter departure and then stashed the documents at his mansion — a violation of the Presidential Records Act and the Espionage Act — that would be copasetic, legally, so long as he mumbled something semi-coherent about national security.
Most of us disagree with Tricky Dick about that, though. After the Frost interviews, more than 70% of Americans still considered Nixon guilty of obstruction of justice and deserving no further role in public life, and 58% told Gallup that Nixon should be brought up on charges. Against that majority sentiment, Veep-turned-President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon for "all offenses he may have committed or taken part in." Ford lost the next election to a peanut farmer from Georgia, whose middle name was Earl, for consistency's sake.
But that was nearly a half-century ago. Prospects for current President Joe Robinette Biden pardoning his predecessor are decidedly slimmer. On Aug. 8, the Federal Bureau of Investigation executed a search warrant at Trump's resort residence in Palm Beach. Every Trump lapdog in the country was thereby politically obligated to denounce the search without any of the relevant details. Texas' own desperate Gov. Greg Abbott did not wait even a day before his pearl-clutching tweet:
"This is next-level Nixonian. Never has the country seen an Administration go to such extent [sic] to use the levers of government to target a former President and political rival. This weaponizes power to squelch dissent."
Wouldn't Nixon have just had former CIA agents and other shady characters burglarize Trump's safe in the dead of night instead of successfully applying for a warrant after showing probable cause?
Rebutting Abbott and other GOP figures, National Review columnist Kevin D. Williamson penned a refreshingly terse editorial directed at his fellow conservatives entitled "Do We Believe Our Own Dogma?"
"If we really believe, as we say we believe, that this is a republic," Williamson wrote, "that the presidency is just a temporary executive-branch office rather than a quasi-royal entitlement, then there is nothing all that remarkable about the FBI serving a warrant on a house in Florida. If it turns out, in the least surprising political development of the decade, that Donald Trump is a criminal, then he should be treated like any other criminal."
Well told. Acting FBI director Christopher Wray is a Trump appointee, after all, and Attorney General Merrick Garland, to ensure full transparency, filed the motion to unseal the warrant and the receipt of what had been found. G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, they are not.
Where was Abbott's newfound concern for protecting dissent in the summer of 2020 when Trump sent federal officers to Portland to throw Black Lives Matter protesters in the back of unmarked vans and detain them without charge? As former San Antonio Current staffer, now news editor for the Portland Mercury, Alex Zielinski reported that as of Aug. 10, "at least 20 federal and state lawsuits against Portland Police Bureau remain unresolved."
Odd/not-odd as well that Abbott headlined the opening day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in Dallas earlier this month with Viktor Mihály Orbán, the authoritarian leader of Hungary. Is this what strong leadership looks like to Republicans these days?
Lydia Gall at Human Rights Watch offered some no-shit-Sherlock advice.
"Instead of welcoming Orbán, conservative leaders at the Dallas conference (and beyond) should make clear that Orbán's values — fixing elections, crushing dissent and pursuing a nationalism rooted in racism — are harmful and not welcome in the United States," Gall said.
The right of dissent does not only belong to billionaires and demagogues and billionaire demagogues, and any apt historical parallels to the Nixon administration come decisively at the expense of Trump and his sycophants.
And speaking of authentic dissent, heartfelt regards go out to author Salman Rushdie who is recovering from multiple stab wounds inflicted by an assailant who attacked him on the lecture stage in Chautauqua, New York.
That the Trumps of this world might someday be held accountable for breaking the law is hardly "a dark day for our Republic," to cite Fox News' hyperventilating take. That an eminently brave man of letters was near-fatally assaulted for embodying the ideal of free expression is indeed a dark day for our Republic, and for the entirety of the free world.
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