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The Past Won’t Save You and Neither Will Political Institutions

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Ever since Trump was elected, liberals have been holding on to the ideas that something will save us from this. The nadir of this was people begging the Electoral College to not allow Trump to be elected. C’mon.

Anyway, as this hell has continued, the obvious comparison to the present has been the Watergate era. People continually compare Trump’s corruption to that of Nixon and note how Watergate forced him out the door. We don’t know what will become of Trump and the Mueller investigation. But as Will Bunch usefully states, the comparisons aren’t very valuable because the nation is a very different place in 2018 than in 1974, and not in a good way.

The emotional pull of seeing the aging lions who brought down Nixon night after night, the thrill of seeing a Carl Bernstein byline taking on a modern president, the swelling drama of a movie like “All the President’s Men” all carries a subliminal message, that the system that worked in 1974 is going to work again — maybe not this week, but soon.

Isn’t it pretty to think so? The reality, of course, is that while some of the giants of the Watergate era still roam the earth, the planet that they inhabit is nothing like the world that existed two score and four years ago — mainly because the powerful institutions that supported the Nick Ackermans and the Jill Wine-Bankses and the Woodwards and Bernsteins have collapsed.

Go back and watch “All the President’s Men” as I did the other night, and one of the most striking things about the film (aside from the clever, grown-up dialogue and the brilliant direction by Alan J. Pakula) is how many people were trusting and would readily divulge key information to two journalists they’d never met before — even (not always, but sometimes) when they knocked on the doors of strangers’ homes late at night. That level of public trust — or naivete, perhaps — is long gone. After Watergate we paid lip service to journalism with moves like the Freedom of Information Act but the reality is that FOIA laws are honored mostly in the breach, and where journalists can go and whom they can talk to is greatly restricted, as evidenced most famously by the holding pens for reporters at Trump rallies.

Sure, Nixon and his chief hatchet man, vice president Spiro Agnew, waged war on the “nattering nabobs of negativism” in the media, but Trump has taken that to 1930s-Europe levels with his “enemies of the people” shtick, and the 45th president also has something that the 37th president would have killed for — a network that includes the top-rated cable news channel, a ring of talk-radio stations and online news sites that can present “alternative facts” for his rabid base.

In 1974, idealistic young prosecutors like Ackerman and Wine-Banks were able to take on an imperial president because the political system — especially Congress — was still committed to fundamental notions of democracy. Some of that was ideology — you actually had such as thing as “liberal Republicans” like Connecticut Sen. Lowell Weicker who could be a thorn in Nixon’s side — but some of that was real accountability; the Senate voted 77-0 in February 1973, when the president was at the peak of his power, to investigate Watergate. That simply would not happened today, not with Republicans answering to voters who claim they’d prefer Vladimir Putin over Hillary Clinton.

The other difference, though, is the man in the Oval Office. Nixon — for all his paranoia and the illegality of his campaign dirty tricks — still respected the guard rails of constitutional democracy enough that didn’t destroy the White House tapes, didn’t defy the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court when he was ordered to turn them over, and even voluntarily released that “smoking gun” tape with an acknowledgement that he would be impeached. (Instead, he resigned after a delegation of GOP senators urged him to do so; could you imagine Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — after shredding the Constitution to get Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court — doing the same?)

Trump, on the other hand, is a graduate of the despicable “fixer” Roy Cohn’s school of political diplomacy — deny everything, admit nothing, lie profusely, and when those don’t work, sue everybody in sight. There’s little doubt that had Trump been president in 1974, he would not think twice about doing the things that even Richard Nixon would not do — ripping America apart and maybe even threatening a civil war, all for the sole purpose of saving his own narcissistic hide.

Watergate remains a hell of a story, but when you plop it down in a new millennium — where the bitter seeds of an American strain of fascism have already been planted — it should be read more as a myth. The fatal flaw in the storyline is the idea that a few heroes — ink-stained wretches and wide-eyed kids straight out of law school or a wise judge like John J. Sirica or a jowly senator like Sam Ervin — can take down the excesses of the Trump presidency.

The only answer to defeating Trump is organizing. And it might not work. No political heroes are going to come save us. Democrats winning the House would be huge because even if Trump fired Mueller, the House could start its own investigations, and certainly would. But we need to erase the idea that anything like what brought down Nixon will bring down Trump. It almost certainly will not. If anything does, it’s us.

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