In his farewell address to the nation, George Washington warned his countrymen that democracy is fragile:
“Cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”
Richard Nixon and Donald Trump were precisely the kind of men Washington had in mind. In a superb piece in The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein write:
As reporters, we had studied Nixon and written about him for nearly half a century, during which we believed with great conviction that never again would America have a president who would trample the national interest and undermine democracy through the audacious pursuit of personal and political self-interest.
And then along came Trump.
The heart of Nixon’s criminality was his successful subversion of the electoral process — the most fundamental element of American democracy. He accomplished it through a massive campaign of political espionage, sabotage and disinformation that enabled him to literally determine who his opponent would be in the presidential election of 1972.
With a covert budget of just $250,000, a team of undercover Nixon operatives derailed the presidential campaign of Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, the Democrats’ most electable candidate.
Nixon then ran against Sen. George McGovern, a South Dakota Democrat widely viewed as the much weaker candidate, and won in a historic landslide with 61 percent of the vote and carrying 49 states.
Trump's attack on American democracy was much broader and deeper:
Donald Trump not only sought to destroy the electoral system through false claims of voter fraud and unprecedented public intimidation of state election officials, but he also then attempted to prevent the peaceful transfer of power to his duly elected successor, for the first time in American history.
In a deception that exceeded even Nixon’s imagination, Trump and a group of lawyers, loyalists and White House aides devised a strategy to bombard the country with false assertions that the 2020 election was rigged and that Trump had really won. They zeroed in on the Jan. 6 session as the opportunity to overturn the election’s result. Leading up to that crucial date, Trump’s lawyers circulated memos with manufactured claims of voter fraud that had counted the dead, underage citizens, prisoners and out-of-state residents.
We watched in utter dismay as Trump persistently claimed that he was really the winner. “We won,” he said in a speech on Jan. 6 at the Ellipse. “We won in a landslide. This was a landslide.” He publicly and relentlessly pressured Pence to make him the victor on Jan. 6.
On that day, driven by Trump’s rhetoric and his obvious approval, a mob descended on the Capitol and, in a stunning act of collective violence, broke through doors and windows and ransacked the House chamber, where the electoral votes were to be counted. The mob then went in search of Pence — all to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. Trump did nothing to restrain them.
By legal definition this is clearly sedition — conduct, speech or organizing that incites people to rebel against the governing authority of the state. Thus, Trump became the first seditious president in our history.
Nixon and Trump were very different men. But they shared one important characteristic. Both men were driven by white-hot hatred. But Nixon was much smarter than Trump. He was even capable of self-criticism. As he left the White House, Nixon said, “Always remember, others may hate you — but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” Trump has no such gifts.
Ultimately, Nixon failed -- because the Republican Party rejected him. Times have changed and so has the Republican Party. Trump may yet succeed where Nixon didn't.
Image: The Washington Post