“Let others wallow in Watergate, we are going to do our job,” said Richard Nixon with typical unearned self-righteousness in July 1973. By then, more than a year had passed since a slapstick posse of five had been caught in a bungled burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex. It had been nine months since Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported in the Washington Post that the break-in was part of a “massive campaign of political spying and sabotage” conducted by all the president’s men against most of their political opponents. Now the nation was emerging from two solid months of Senate Watergate hearings, a riveting cavalcade of White House misfits and misdeeds viewed live by 71 percent of the public.
Even so, Nixon had some reason to hope that Americans would heed his admonition to change the channel. That summer, the Times reported that both Democratic and Republican congressmen back home for recess were finding “a certain numbness” about Watergate and no “public mandate for any action as bold as impeachment.”
For all the months of sensational revelations and criminal indictments (including of his campaign manager and former attorney general, John Mitchell), a Harris poll found that only 22 percent thought Nixon should leave office. Gallup put the president’s approval rating in the upper 30s, roughly where our current president stands now — lousy, but not apocalyptic. There had yet to be an impeachment resolution filed in Congress by even Nixon’s most partisan adversaries.
He had defied his political obituaries before, staging comebacks after a slush-fund scandal nearly cost him his vice-presidential perch on the GOP ticket in 1952 and again after his 1962 defeat in the California governor’s race prompted the angry “last press conference” at which he vowed that “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Might Tricky Dick pull off another Houdini? He was capable of it, and, as it happened, it would take another full year of bombshells and firestorms after the televised Senate hearings before a clear majority of Americans (57 percent) finally told pollsters they wanted the president to go home. Only then did he oblige them, in August 1974.
In the decades since, Watergate has become perhaps the most abused term in the American political lexicon. Washington has played host to legions of “-gates,” most unworthy of the name, and the original has blurred in memory, including for those of us who lived through it. Now, of course, invocations of Watergate are our daily bread, as America contemplates the future of a president who not only openly admires Nixon — he vowed to put a framed Nixon note on display in the Oval Office — but seems intent on emulating his most impeachable behavior. And among those of us who want Donald Trump gone from Washington yesterday, there’s a fair amount of fear that he, too, could hang on until the end of a four-year term that stank of corruption from the start. Even if his White House scandals turn out to exceed his predecessor’s — as the former director of national intelligence James Clapper posited in early June — impeachment is a political, not a legal, matter, and his political lock on the presidency would seem secure. Unlike Nixon, who had to contend with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Trump has the shield of a Republican Congress led by craven enablers terrified of crossing their Dear Leader’s fiercely loyal base. That distinction alone is enough to make anti-Trumpers abandon all hope.
I’m here to say don’t do so just yet. There’s a handy antidote to despair: a thorough wallow in Watergate, the actual story as it unfolded, not the expedited highlight reel that most Americans know from a textbook précis or cultural artifacts like the film version of All the President’s Men. If you look through a sharp Nixonian lens at Trump’s trajectory in office to date, short as it has been, you will discover more of an overlap than you might expect. You will learn that Democratic control of Congress in 1973 was not a crucial factor in Nixon’s downfall and that Republican control of Congress in 2017 may not be a life preserver for Trump. You will find reason to hope that the 45th president’s path through scandal may wind up at the same destination as the 37th’s — a premature exit from the White House in disgrace — on a comparable timeline.
Watch: How Trump is his own worst enemy.
The skids of Trump’s collapse are already being greased by some of the same factors that brought down his role model: profound failings of character, disdain for the law (“If the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” in Nixon’s notorious post-resignation formulation to David Frost), an inability to retain the loyalty of feuding White House aides who will lawyer up to save their own skins (H. R. McMaster may bolt faster than the ultimately imprisoned Nixon chief of staff H. R. Haldeman), and dubious physical health (Trump’s body seems to be bloating in stress as Nixon’s phlebitis-stricken leg did). Further down the road, he’ll no doubt face the desertion of politicians in his own party who hope to cling to power after he’s gone. If the good Lordy hears James Comey’s prayers, there may yet be incriminating tapes as well, Trump’s weirdly worded denial notwithstanding.
The American University historian Allan Lichtman, famous for his lonely prediction of Trump’s electoral victory, has followed up that feat with The Case for Impeachment, a book-length forecast of Trump’s doom. The impeachment, he writes, “will be decided not just in the halls of Congress but in the streets of America.” I’d go further to speculate that Trump’s implosion is more likely to occur before there’s an impeachment vote on the floor of the House — as was the case with Nixon. But where Nixon’s exit was catalyzed by an empirical recognition that he’d lost the votes he needed to survive a Senate trial, in Trump’s case the trigger will be his childish temper, not the facts. He’s already on record as finding the job to be more work than he bargained for. He’ll tire of being perceived as a loser by nearly everyone except the sort of people he’d never let in the front door of Mar-a-Lago — and of seeing the Trump brand trashed to the point of jeopardizing his children’s future stake in the family kleptocracy. When he’s had enough, I suspect he’ll find a way to declare “victory,” blame his departure on a conspiracy by America’s (i.e., his) “enemies,” and vow to fight another day on a network TBA.
But as was also true with Nixon, some time and much patience will be required while waiting for the endgame. The span between Nixon’s Second Inaugural and his resignation was almost 19 months. Trump’s presidency already seems as if it’s lasted a lifetime, but it’s only five months old. Never forget that the Watergate auto-da-fé wasn’t built in a day.
For those who haven’t refreshed their Watergate memories lately — or only vaguely know the history to start with — there’s a vast trove of entertaining Nixon literature worth taking to the beach, from Woodward and Bernstein’s classic The Final Days, featuring a sobbing Nixon and Henry Kissinger dropping to their knees in prayer, to the recent tell-all by one of Nixon’s last White House loyalists, Pat Buchanan (Nixon’s White House Wars). To understand how the melodrama played out in real time in the capital, there may be no better guide than Washington Journal, the collected 1973–74 dispatches of Elizabeth Drew, The New Yorker’s Washington columnist at the time. (Drew is on the D.C. Trump beat now for The New York Review of Books.) This book had long been out of print, but, as luck would have it, its republication in 2014, to mark the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, proved more timely than anyone except perhaps Allan Lichtman could have predicted.
Here’s Drew describing a typical Watergate day: “The news is coming too fast. Faster and harder than anyone expected. It is almost impossible to absorb.” And here she is a week after Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, resigned upon pleading no contest to charges of bribery and tax fraud: “The city seems to be reeling around amidst the events and the breaking stories. In the restaurants, the noise level is higher. At the end of the day, someone says, ‘It’s like being drunk.’ ” It already feels like that right now.
One could argue that the context is different today — that the America of 2017 is not the America of the early 1970s. We think of our current culture as being harder to shock, easier to distract, and more inured to crude public figures who violate traditional societal norms as unabashedly as Trump. This, in theory, would make him harder to dislodge than Nixon, whose sins would more easily scandalize a relatively innocent 20th-century citizenry. But even without the internet’s cacophony, Nixon faced a post-1960s America as factionalized, jaded, and accustomed to shock as our own: It had witnessed the assassination of two Kennedys and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a complete overhaul of its mores as a consequence of a rising counterculture and women’s movement, and a domestic civil war precipitated by the catastrophe of Vietnam. The alarming toxicity of Trump has burst through the noise of our America much as Nixon’s did through his. And while the technology for delivering news makes it come faster and harder in 2017 than Drew or any of us could have anticipated in that day of daily newspapers and nightly news broadcasts, the onslaught of shocking developments felt no less overwhelming then than now.
Human nature hasn’t changed — not for those of us standing outside a teetering White House or for the cast of characters within. Much as Trump risked his presidency by empowering hotheaded ideologues like Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon, so Nixon’s White House had recruited the similarly reckless G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt to wage war on the president’s perceived enemies. As John A. Farrell writes in his new, state-of-the-art Richard Nixon: The Life, both of them were “wannabe James Bonds.” Hunt, an alumnus of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, was the prolific author of often pseudonymous spy novels, while Liddy was alt-right before it was cool: “a right-wing zealot, with a fixation for Nazi regalia and a kinky kind of Nietzschean philosophy,” who “organized a White House screening of the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.”
Though there are a number of areas where the Nixon and Trump narratives diverge, in nearly every case Trump’s deviations from the Watergate model make it even less likely that he will survive his presidency. (One exception to the rule: Nixon drank to excess; Trump is a teetotaler.) Nixon was genuinely tough, a self-made man who’d climbed out of what may have been the most Dickensian childhood of any American president. He’d served as a Navy officer in the Pacific theater during World War II. He entered the White House at a younger age than Trump — 56, not 70 — hardened by decades of political combat as a savage knife-fighter during the McCarthy witch hunts and the explosive American divisions of the 1960s. Nixon actually knew American history, read books, and, unencumbered by ADD, played the long game in life (his courtship of his wife, Pat) as well as in politics. He was a lawyer who repeatedly (and presciently) advised his staff that the cover-up, not the crime, posed the greater legal threat, a lesson he had learned during his star-making turn on the House Un-American Activities Committee; his prey, the State Department official Alger Hiss, was convicted of perjury, not for being a Soviet spy. Nixon was also a far more strategic liar than Trump, crafting sanctimonious and legalistic falsehoods to paper over wrongdoing rather than spewing self-incriminating lies indiscriminately about everything.
Nixon knew how to pull the levers of government and pile up achievements, variously admirable and horrid, especially in foreign policy (opening up China, the secret carpet bombing and invasion of Cambodia) but also on the domestic front (embracing the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, impounding billions of dollars appropriated to enforce the Clean Air Act). His active governance was a more effective tool in distracting the public from White House scandals than Trump’s tediously serial signing of executive orders. Nixon not only took an elaborately theatrical trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel to try to drown out ominous headlines (Trump’s recent trip barely departed from the Nixon playbook) but also became the first American president to visit Moscow, in the substantive cause of furthering détente and negotiating historic arms agreements.
Nixon’s most empowering asset in deflecting Watergate was one Trump can only fantasize about (and clearly does): the size of his election victory. Nixon defeated George McGovern by 18 million votes (still a record) and carried all but a single state in the Electoral College (then a record, matched since by Ronald Reagan in 1984), allowing him to arrive at his second Inaugural with the political capital of a 68 percent approval rating. Nixon also was blessed by a Democratic opposition even more splintered and hapless than that facing Trump in 2017. Its majorities in Congress were managed by a Speaker, Carl Albert, and a Senate majority leader, Mike Mansfield, who were weak beer next to the powerhouses who bracketed them. (Albert would be succeeded by Tip O’Neill in 1977; Mansfield’s predecessor had been LBJ.) The two presidential tickets that Nixon had vanquished were both trainwrecks, the defective products of the party’s post–JFK-LBJ civil war.
The underside of Nixon’s character, which would eviscerate his virtues and advantages, was very Trumpian. His flaws led to both the creation of the Watergate scandal and the commission of the political and legal mistakes that would entomb him within it. No matter what success he achieved, as Drew wrote, Nixon “never lost his resentments” or “his desire for revenge.” Success also failed to tame his kleptomaniacal tendencies; he was caught using government funds to pay for luxurious improvements to his private residences in Key Biscayne, Florida, and San Clemente, California, and manipulating his tax bill to near zero even as he became a millionaire in office. (Like Trump, he gave virtually nothing to charity.) Devoted to his adult daughters but distant from his wife during his White House years (at times literally so in their living arrangements), Nixon had but one close friend, the Florida businessman Bebe Rebozo. He ridiculed those running government agencies and contemplated curbing the tenure of federal judges. “His attitude was that the only bright, really intelligent fellow in town was himself,” said the CIA chief Richard Helms. Prone to temper tantrums, he ended up with an ever-shrinking Oval Office inner circle restricted to fearful yes-men. As Drew concluded, “There was no one to challenge his assumptions, to set him straight in his confusion of political opponents with enemies. He didn’t recognize boundaries. He never learned to observe limits — anything went — and one thing led to another until he was in too deep to extricate himself.”
The genesis of Watergate was Nixon’s desire to sabotage the opposition in the 1972 presidential race at a time when he thought Edmund Muskie, Teddy Kennedy, and George Wallace all posed serious threats to his reelection prospects. It was left to underlings to dream up the various dirty tricks, including the ill-fated efforts to tap phones and steal files at the Democratic National Committee’s office. While we don’t know yet the extent to which Trump or those around him collaborated or colluded with the Russians (and WikiLeaks) in the subterfuge that roiled the 2016 election, the motive, the means, and the goal were roughly the same as Nixon’s: to sabotage the Democrats by stealing the internal communications (emails in lieu of files) of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the DNC. (One should note that Nixon and Trump were both beneficiaries of dirty tricks hatched by Roger Ailes and Roger Stone.) In a move that would have floored Nixon, Trump was stupid enough to publicly ask Russia to hack Clinton on his behalf. If it turns out that Trump’s campaign did collude with a foreign adversary to undermine the election — whether through hacking or other means — Clapper and others who judge Trump’s potential crimes as worse than Watergate will be easily vindicated.
Even as the jury remains out on that question, Trump is clumsily mimicking Nixon in orchestrating what looks like a cover-up. He persisted in flattering the jettisoned Flynn, who surely has stories to tell prosecutors in exchange for immunity, much as Nixon made sure to praise his intimates Haldeman and John Ehrlichman as “two of the finest public servants it has been my privilege to know” when he sent them packing. But Trump failed to heed a bigger lesson he might have drawn from Watergate history: Don’t antagonize the FBI and CIA. Trump started insulting both agencies even before he took office. He apparently was unaware that Woodward and Bernstein’s Deep Throat was a Comey of their day — the FBI’s No. 2, the associate director Mark Felt. If Trump knew history, he also would have known that it was a self-impaling blunder to try to enlist the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, and the NSA director, Mike Rogers, to intervene in an investigation on his behalf. Nixon attempted the same by leaning on Vernon Walters, a loyalist he’d promoted to be deputy director of the CIA. But as John Farrell writes, “Walters’s knowledge and experience” of both Nixon and Washington prompted him to write “self-protective memos (‘Notes to refresh my memory, if I should need it,’ Walters called them) when the White House ordered him to impede the FBI’s investigation.” The memos found their way to the New York Times.
Another counterproductive Watergate defense strategy that Trump emulates is Nixon’s obsessive effort to counteract the daily leaks by trying to discredit the press that reported on them. “Never forget, the press is the enemy,” Nixon told his aides, instructing them to “write that on the blackboard a hundred times.” His notorious communications strategy — led by Ron Ziegler, a former tour guide on Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise” ride — is the template for the Trump White House’s denials: an ad hominem attack on the offending news organization coupled with false claims of exoneration and false charges that the press was ignoring the opposition’s wrongdoing. Here is the Nixon campaign manager Clark MacGregor’s statement responding to a relatively early Washington Post investigative report after the break-in: “Using innuendo, third-person hearsay, unsubstantiated charges, anonymous sources, and huge scare headlines, the Post has maliciously sought to give the appearance of a direct connection between the White House and the Watergate, a charge the Post knows — and a half-dozen investigations have found — to be false.” MacGregor went on to complain about how Democratic “disruptions of the president’s campaign” were “buried deep inside the paper.” The Post’s motive, he asserted, was “to divert public and national attention away from the real issues of this campaign — peace, jobs, foreign policy, welfare, taxes, defense, and national priorities — and onto phony issues manufactured” by the Post and the McGovern camp. Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway should be embarrassed that they lack the creativity to improve on spin devised nearly a half-century ago.
Nixon’s flunkies, like Trump’s, wielded intimidation along with bluster against the press. The White House tried to challenge the licenses of Florida television stations owned by the Washington Post and was successful in browbeating William Paley, the head of CBS, to truncate a Walter Cronkite special report on Watergate. At the same time that the Nixon administration was trying to hobble what was then derided by conservatives as “the eastern media conspiracy,” it basked in the alternative facts spread by the Limbaughs, Drudges, and Breitbarts of its day — right-wing radio stars like Clarence Manion and Paul Harvey and their print adjuncts. In the judgment of the weekly publication Human Events, the supposed White House scandals were nothing more than a manufactured Democratic plot, a “legal Putsch” to “countermand the 1972 election results and install a Democrat in the White House.” Or, as the truculent White House spokesman Ken Clawson called it, a “witch hunt” by “people who were completely rejected at the polls” and were “trying to bring down this presidency.”
The constituency for press-bashing and alternative-right-wing media was the populist base that Nixon considered his ultimate insurance policy against being driven from office — not just Republicans but former George Wallace voters, those disaffected southern white and northern blue-collar Democrats who resented both the antiwar cultural left and blacks empowered by new civil-rights laws. Nixon christened this base “the silent majority,” a retro designation Trump has adopted, and pandered to it by railing against the Establishment, demagoguing what he saw as a national breakdown in “law and order,” and choosing, in Agnew, a vice-president whose only talent was for vilifying the press and black civil-rights advocates. Nixon, too, would seek solace among this faithful at proto–“Make America Great Again” rallies. As he arrived in Nashville for the opening of the new Grand Ole Opry theater, the president was serenaded in a National Guard hangar by a flag-waving crowd singing special lyrics (“Stand up and cheer for Richard Nixon”) to the tune of “Okie From Muskogee.”
In the end, none of this was to any avail. For all the cover-ups, the efforts to stifle the press, and the stoking of his pugilistic base, Nixon failed to save himself. That his demise was not primarily a consequence of the Democrats’ control of Congress is due to the fact that some of his most reliable and powerful allies in both chambers were Democrats. Even as Nixon’s race-baiting “southern strategy” was hastening the realignment of the GOP as a new home for conservative southern Democrats (like the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, who had defected to the Republicans in 1964), most in Congress had yet to transition, as typified by the segregationist Mississippi senators James Eastland and John Stennis, both Democrats and firm Nixon supporters. Even Sam Ervin, the North Carolina Democrat who presided over the 1973 Watergate hearings, was a segregationist and Vietnam War hawk who, as the historian Rick Perlstein has pointed out, was “one of the most loyal votes for Nixon in the Senate” and had initially declared that it was “simply inconceivable that Nixon might have been involved” in the White House horrors.
A related misperception that some present-day liberals tend to retrofit to 1973 has it that the Washington Republican leadership of that time included ballsy, principled moderates who would speak truth to their gangster president as the pathetic Trump lackeys Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will not. If only. A few Republican senators did ask tough questions during the Watergate hearings — Howard Baker and Lowell Weicker, famously — but it took even them a year after the Watergate break-in to find their voices, and they were not in the leadership. Then, as now, so-called Establishment Republicans were more likely to gripe about Nixon in private or in not-for-attribution conversations with reporters. In public, they usually cowered, sparing the president their harshest criticism and cordoning him off from impeachable offenses out of fear of him and his base. The Republican minority leader in the House, the Arizona congressman John Rhodes, found his mail running three to one against Nixon until he talked about a possible presidential resignation; then the count flipped to eight to one in Nixon’s favor.
It was not until three months before Nixon did quit that a trio of Republican senators — all up for election that fall — called for him either to resign or step aside temporarily under the 25th Amendment. More typical were towers of Jell-O like the secretary of the Interior, Rogers Morton, a former Maryland congressman and chairman of the Republican National Committee. In that same month, May 1974, he told the Times he was having “a very difficult time in living with” what he called “a breakdown in our ethics of government” — only to pop up in the Post 24 hours later saying that he was “not going to jump off the ship until there’s evidence that the ship is sinking.” (And he still held on tight, surviving in the Cabinet after Gerald Ford assumed the presidency.)
Nor did Nixon’s base ever desert him. At the nadir of Watergate, Nixon’s approval rating fell to 27 percent; by the time he resigned, that number had dropped to 24 percent. In other words, at least a quarter of the American populace had no problem telling pollsters that they were still behind a president who had lied repeatedly and engaged in unambiguously criminal conspiracies. They still saw Nixon as “one of us,” as he billed himself on posters in his first House run in 1946, and as a fighter who took on “them” — essentially the same elites that Trump inveighs against today.
Trump’s base is roughly the same size as Nixon’s then, or only a shade less. At FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver quantifies that base as voters who “strongly approve” of Trump, a figure that peaked at 30 after the Inaugural and had dropped to 21 to 22 percent by late May. They will no more abandon Trump than their parents and grandparents did Nixon. If anything, Trump’s ascent has once more confirmed that this constituency is a permanent factor in the American political equation. Should Trump follow Nixon into ignominy, that base may in time rally around a more cunning and durable Trump — a new Nixon, if you will. He will be far scarier than an understudy like Pence, who is unlikely to survive his association with a tainted president any longer than Ford did (if even that long). Future Democrats may be just as ineffectual at stopping the next right-wing populist before he (or she) lands in the White House, but that’s a depression for another day.
What finally did in Nixon — besides himself — is what will do in Trump: not the Democrats, or a turncoat base, or brave GOP leaders. “Historians have written that Nixon was persuaded to resign after the arrival at the White House on Wednesday, August 7, of a delegation from the Hill — Senator Barry Goldwater, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, and House Minority Leader John Rhodes — to tell him he must go,” writes Pat Buchanan in his memoir. “This is myth.” Nixon’s collapse was well under way by then, from the ground up. With the midterms growing ever nearer, garden-variety GOP officeholders, most of them as cowardly as today’s, started to flee. The House Judiciary Committee voted on an article of impeachment on July 27, three days after a unanimous 8-0 Supreme Court, including three Nixon appointees, ruled that the president would have to turn over the White House tapes. Even then there was wavering. The ten Republicans who voted “No” on all the impeachment articles in committee would switch their votes only after the August 5 release of the “smoking gun” (a new coinage then) — the transcript of a June 23, 1972, tape showing that Nixon had ordered the facts of the Watergate break-in to be covered up six days after it happened despite his repeated public protestations otherwise. One congressman who didn’t bolt even then, Earl Landgrebe, regarded such revelations as fake news (“Don’t confuse me with the facts”), telling the Today show hours before Nixon resigned that he was “sticking with my president even if he and I have to be carried out of this building and shot.” Landgrebe hailed from Indiana’s Second Congressional District, which decades later would send Mike Pence to the House.
As Buchanan and Nixon’s speechwriter Raymond Price (in his 1977 memoir, With Nixon) attested, the president’s resignation speech was already in hand by the time Goldwater & Co. visited the White House on August 7. Rather than the importuning of noble Republican elders, it was the stampede of defections that followed the revelation of the smoking gun that finally convinced him he could not numerically survive a trial in the Senate. By then, it was too late for some of his congressional backers to leap into the lifeboats. On Election Day that November, the GOP would lose four seats in the Senate and 49 in the House. Typical of the losers was Charles Sandman Jr., from New Jersey’s still solidly red second district, which in 2016 voted for Trump over Clinton by a margin of five percentage points. In 1972, Sandman had beaten his Democratic opponent by 23 percentage points; in 1974, after remaining a loyal anti-impeachment advocate until the final week of Nixon’s presidency, he lost by 16 points.
It’s always possible that there’s only smoke, no fire, and Trump will yet save himself, his party, and his country. Perhaps he won’t fire Robert Mueller. Perhaps Mueller will determine that Trump is not guilty of collusion with the Russians (with Trump’s voluntarily released tax returns as confirming evidence) or of obstruction of justice. Perhaps he will uncover no untoward financial dealings or subversive collaborations with the Kremlin and its network by any of the president’s men. Perhaps the courts will find Trump not guilty of violating the “emoluments clause” that restricts a president from profiting from office. (This last was debated as a possible article of impeachment for Nixon.) Perhaps Trump will stay out of trouble, stay off Twitter, miraculously avoid perjury, brilliantly staff up the executive branch, and deliver fabulously on his promises to secure cheap health care for all Americans, cut everyone’s taxes, and rebuild America’s infrastructure. Perhaps Jared Kushner will bring peace to the Middle East and reinvent American government rather than follow his father to prison.
What’s more likely is that the Trump administration will continue to mirror Garry Wills’s description of Nixon’s: “a world of little men using large powers incompetently from a combination of suspicion and panic.” The little men will continue to drive the country into a ditch. And GOP leaders will look the other way right up to that moment when Republicans in the 60 to 80 districts (according to FiveThirtyEight) more competitive than those in last week’s special elections figure out that they may have to choose between the minority of voters who are Trump’s irreducible base and a larger group, including Independents, who will determine whether they keep their jobs.
Between now and then, there will be lulls in the downward trajectory — after Nixon hit a new low of a 27 percent approval rating in November 1973, he spiked to 37 in a Harris poll a month later — and many shocks and surprises. In the 13 months that fell between our comparable point in the electoral cycle — the Fourth of July, 1973, when Nixon was still safely riding out the storm — and his resignation in August 1974, as the midterms loomed, the following happened: He was hospitalized with pneumonia; the White House taping system was revealed, and Nixon refused to release the tapes; a first impeachment resolution was introduced in the House by a liberal antiwar Massachusetts Democrat widely dismissed as an outlier; Agnew resigned; a special election to fill the House seat of Agnew’s successor, Ford, yielded a Democrat in what had been a safe Republican district; Nixon fired the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, and abolished his office, forcing out both the attorney general and deputy attorney general in the “Saturday Night Massacre”; a crucial White House tape was revealed to have an unexplained 18-and-a-half-minute “gap”; seven former administration officials were indicted by a grand jury; and the president appeared at a press event at Disney World where he declared, “I am not a crook.”
Looking back on it all, Elizabeth Drew would write, “In retrospect, the denouement appeared inevitable — but it certainly didn’t feel like that at the time.” That’s how I remember it. Certainly such a denouement for Trump doesn’t feel inevitable now. But whatever the end proves to be, we cannot expect to have a real inkling until an impending election starts concentrating Republican politicians’ minds next summer. The best thing to do in the meantime is to keep calm, carry on with the resistance, and rest assured that the day is coming when we won’t have Trump to kick around anymore.
Top image: Photo-illustration by Bobby Doherty
*This article appears in the June 26, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.
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