In the unfolding inquiry into the Trump campaign’s Russian connections, one can’t help but see Trump-Nixon parallels. Trump’s firing of James Comey in the middle of an ongoing investigation bears obvious similarities with Nixon’s firing of Watergate investigator Archibald Cox. Not only do we see evidence of a coverup, but a tendency to obfuscate, distract, and mislead by the man in charge.
The differences between the two protagonists, however, are significant. On character issues, Nixon impresses one as disciplined and single-minded, while Trump seems self-indulgent, impulsive, and erratic. To some extent, this is a reflection of different life histories. Nixon, a middle-class striver with personal insecurities, advanced himself through careful calculation and shrewdness. By contrast, Trump, the son of an alpha real estate magnate, learned to excel through aggressive self-promotion and flamboyant salesmanship, often in the absence of personal reflection. While Nixon comes across as sinister and obsessive, Trump seems simply out of control.
The Trump-Nixon contrast brings to mind a famous quotation from Karl Marx when he was comparing Napoleon Bonaparte to his lackluster nephew Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III). Marx remarked that when history repeats itself, it does so differently the second time around, namely, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” One could argue that Nixon’s transgressions, carried out with a ruthless single-mindedness that ultimately leading to his downfall and disgrace, qualified as tragedy. By contrast, Trump’s feckless and spontaneous errors, whatever the ultimate result, seem much closer to farce. The orange-haired narcissist simply does not rise to the level of tragedy.
One can certainly expect Trump to handle the crisis he faces with more circus bombast than Nixon was ever capable of. While Nixon, an introvert, withdrew into the White House and shared his morbid thoughts with his band of followers, Trump, the unrepentant extrovert, will make his fight a public one with the assistance of his daily twitter account. He will double down on the conspiracy motif and rely increasingly on spinning counterfactual facts. We will hear a great deal in coming months about the revenge of the elites, the tyranny of a rigged system, and the repression of the people’s will.
During this time, Trump will turn to his hard-line base for inspiration. That base may erode as the failures of his regime become more etched in people’s consciousness. But Trump will continue to maximize it in his own mind and treat it as a kind of mystical “vox populi” constituting a justification for his every action. He will use the base as a warning to those in his own party of the dangers of thwarting him and as a protection against impeachment and conviction in Congress, if things go that far. His playing of the populist card will be everything the Founding Fathers warned against.
Will our constitutional system survive all this tumult unbruised? If our countervailing institutions (especially the press, the courts, the bureaucracy) continue to do their job as they have done so far, it seems reasonable to think that our system will come out intact, if not uplifted. Trump’s incompetence and congenital self-destructiveness will do him in, and he will probably be paired in infamy with Richard Nixon. But it will not be an easy slog for the American people. The potential danger lies in a crisis brought on by external forces–either a terrorist attack on the homeland, which Trump could use to abrogate our freedoms, or an international incident that could end up starting a major war. For these reasons, it is no time to let down our guard.