Two months ago, I wrote an essay, “Trump and the Rule of Law.” I didn’t contemplate that it would evolve into a never-ending series on the subject. This is part three.
Perhaps history doesn’t repeat itself but sometimes it rhymes.
“We must maintain law and order at the highest level or we will cease to have a country, 100 percent. We will cease to have a country. I am the law and order candidate.” – Donald Trump, July 11, 2016
“Law and order is in the interest of all Americans. Let’s just make sure that our laws deserve respect; then, they will be respected by all Americans.” – Richard M. Nixon, 1968
To win the 1968 election, Richard Nixon exploited fear, racial unrest and an unpopular war to exacerbate division. His message resonated with alienated voters who yearned for a bygone time that looked better in hindsight than it had ever been. He offered himself as uniquely capable of fixing anything and everything that was broken.
Shared Disdain For The Rules
Although the differences between 1968 and 2016 are enormous, Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort boasts that his candidate will continue using Nixon’s “law and order” playbook. But the most startling similarity between Nixon and Trump is the divergence of that rhetoric from their common disdain for the rule of law.
Nixon confined his dangerous views to private conversations with confidants; Trump shouts them loudly for public consumption. Those who should be paying closest attention have lost themselves in cynical calculations of personal political self-interest.
“He’ll have a White House counsel,” says Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in explaining why he continues to support Trump. “There will be others who point out that there’s certain things you can do and can’t do.”
Senator John McCain rationalizes his tolerance for Trump’s role as his personal abuser-in-chief: “I still believe we have the institutions of government that would restrain someone who seeks to exceed their constitutional obligations. We have a Congress. We have the Supreme Court. We’re not Romania.”
Senators McConnell, McCain and other Republicans refusing to disavow Trump could benefit by spending some time with President Richard Nixon’s former White House Counsel John Dean.
Magical Thinking Has A Cost
On March 21, 1973, Dean told the President:
“[T]here’s no doubt about the seriousness of the problem we’ve got. We have a cancer within – close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding. It grows geometrically now, because it compounds itself… And that is just – and there is no assurance – ”
Nixon: “That it won’t bust.”
Dean: “That, that won’t bust.”
A month later, Nixon fired him. It takes little imagination to envision Trump delivering that line with gusto: “You’re fired!” While Nixon fiddled with the levers of power for the next eighteen months, the country burned. The United States languished in its most severe recession since World War II and the business of governing slowed to a crawl.
Then as now, prominent Republicans were slow in reacting to Nixon’s attack on the rule of law. Eventually, a unanimous Supreme Court ordered release of Nixon’s incriminating White House tapes and the House of Representatives passed articles of impeachment. Only then did key Republican leaders, including Senator Barry Goldwater, urge Nixon to step down because – at long last – there were enough Republican votes in the Senate to join Democrats in convicting him.
Nixon lost his fight with Congress and the courts. But the margin was thin and for a year-and-a-half the country suffered immeasurable collateral damage. A search for the origins of current public distrust in government could start with the events culminating in Nixon’s 1974 resignation.
Nixon thought he was above the law, but didn’t admit it publicly until three years after leaving office: “When the President does it, it means it’s not illegal.”
Trump’s similar revelations occur in real-time. Even conservative legal commentators express concern for his unwillingness to acknowledge the limits of presidential power. As University of Chicago/NYU Law Professor Richard A. Epstein puts it, “I think Trump doesn’t even think there’s an issue to worry about. He just simply says, whatever I want to do, I will do.”
The Complete Makeover That Never Will Happen
On April 21, 2016, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort assured Republican National Committee members that Trump’s antics during the primaries were an act.
“That’s what’s important for you to understand – that he gets it, and that the part he’s been playing is evolving now into the part you’ve been expecting… Fixing personality negatives is a lot easier than fixing character negatives. You can’t change somebody’s character, but you can change the way a person presents himself.”
Since then Manafort’s candidate has devolved in every way.
- He blasted a “Mexican” federal judge – born in Indiana – as biased because Trump doesn’t win every issue in the case against Trump University.
- He excoriated individual reporters for doing what a free press is supposed to do.
- He threatened The Washington Post’s owner Jeff Bezos with “such problems” if Trump becomes president.
- He ranted about an “Afghan” terrorist – also American-born – who committed the Orlando atrocities as somehow proving the value of his proposed immigration ban, even though it would not have prevented that tragedy.
It Starts And Ends With The Patient
Who was to blame for all of those outbursts? Certainly not Trump himself. On June 20, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski took the fall.
“We’re going to go a little bit in a different route from this point forward,” Trump said. “A little different style.”
Since then Trump has:
- Described Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union as good for his Scottish golf course business;
- Called Senator Elizabeth Warren a racist;
- Described Jews as unduly sensitive about a campaign tweet slamming Hillary Clinton as corrupt – with dollar bills in the background and the Star of David in the foreground;
- Invited Putin to hack the computers of Democratic rivals;
- Smeared the Muslim religion with innuendo about a Gold Star mother of a veteran who’d died saving his fellow soldiers; and
- Assured the world that Putin is “not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want” — even though most of the world knows that Putin is already there.
At public events, his audiences cheer. Richard Nixon knew what that was about: “People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true.”
Where’s The Bottom?
Trump’s apologists cling to the self-deceptive notion that he’s just rejecting political correctness. Here’s the truth: almost daily he says something that is simply wrong — factually, legally, and/or morally. Often he hits the trifecta with a single shot. It’s not a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of correctness — period.
Manafort misdiagnosed his candidate’s underlying problem as something distinct from character. Trump’s personality is an extension of his character. At age 70, he remains what he has always been and always will be. But don’t take my word for it; take his.
As Trump told the press during his Memorial Day rampage against another frequent Nixon target – the media: “You think I’m going to change? I’m not changing.”
He means it. When it comes to character, decency and respect for the rule of law, Donald Trump is Richard Nixon on steroids with a megaphone and no internal filter. What we see is what we will continue to get until November when the worst reality show ever comes to an end.