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Watergate Is Irrelevant to the Impeachment and Potential Removal of Trump

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This really can’t be said enough:

1973 was a long time ago. The party system, the judiciary, and the media environment have evolved so much that there are no inferences to be applied to the present day — period.

American elites rarely seem to do this, but they should consider the lesson that toppled Mariano Rajoy’s corrupt right-wing government in Spain in 2018, Park Geun-hye’s corrupt right-wing government in South Korea in 2017, and Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson’s corrupt right-wing government in Iceland in 2016: Large-scale public protests work.

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Watergate played out under a party system that was remarkably loose compared to today. Not all conservatives were Republicans, and not all Republicans were conservatives. That arguably set the stage for presidential misconduct to be evaluated as separately from political ideology or orientation as is possible.

Arch-segregationists — mostly Democrats — were serving openly in the halls of Congress. Meanwhile, the greatest champions of civil rights were also mostly Democrats, yet a liberal African American Republican represented Massachusetts in the Senate. Individual members faced cross-cutting ideological and partisan pressures, and even beyond race the system was only loosely organized with hawks and doves sitting in both parties.

The judicial system was also much less polarized. There was no institution like the Federalist Society to organize a coherent conservative legal movement, and there wasn’t an ideologically coherent party to install such a set of judges on the bench anyway.

Meanwhile, the media environment was dominated by three broadcast television networks whose nightly newscasts could between them essentially dictate “truth” to the mass public.

Defeating Nixon under those circumstances meant winning a series of difficult elite insider games. Historical happenstance meant that an unrelated scandal had recently elevated Gerald Ford — who had genuinely nothing to do with Watergate — to the vice presidency. Ford presented a compelling solution for the network newscasts, a powerful but less organized judiciary, and the dissonant conservative Democrat and liberal Republican factions in Congress. Building a consensus that compelled the president to resign was arduous, and the people who did it are rightly proud of their work.

But none of this is relevant to contemporary politics, any more than the Senate’s unanimous passage of the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act has relevant lessons for contemporary climate politics. Today’s Congress is much more partisan and much more ideological, featuring many members who have no personal loyalty to Trump but who can nevertheless be expected to stand by him through thick and thin, thanks to broader partisan and policy objectives.

I continue to think that removing Trump through the impeachment process will be nearly impossible. But if it happens, it will be because of mass mobilization, not because Republicans suddenly decide to turn against Trump. And in by far the most likely scenario that Trump survives, at least it can marginally increase the political costs of Republican collaboration.

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