The Alcove

“Hot Mic” Politics

A new article urges the Republican Party to abandon Trump as they did Richard Nixon after Watergate. But there is still a difference between a President facing impeachment and a candidate spouting sexist crudities.

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged Donald TrumpRepublicans

As we face the final scramble toward the end of this godforsaken election, the historical analogies are coming at us from all angles. At History News Network—a site well worth your visit—James Robenalt writes, in a desperate plea: “It’s Time for Trump to Go. Party Leaders Need to Give Him a Push.” The article, first of all, reminds readers that Donald Trump isn’t the only guy in history with a “hot mic” problem. Remember Richard Nixon? Do you recall those  incriminating “hot mic” tapes in which our 37th President was caught on his own recording system saying that he wanted to put the kibosh on “the Watergate investigation”? He had  fervently denied this in public; and the incident finally exposed his imperial presidency.

Robenalt reminds us that “Republican leaders,” including, infamously, Barry Goldwater, pushed for Nixon’s resignation. And, well, Robenalt thinks the Republicans jumping ship from the Trump campaign should take the next step and do the same—ask Trump to stand down. What would be the likely result should this actually occur, Robenalt doesn’t really say. Should Republicans fail to act, however, he provides an ominous warning: “they risk the destruction of their party.”

Unfortunately, Robenalt’s historical analogy doesn’t work terribly well. There’s a world of difference between a sitting President facing the prospect of impeachment for criminal actions and a reality television star spouting sexist crudities and conspiracy theories on the campaign trail. And there’s also the question of how in the world the Republican party, in less than a month, could choose an alternative candidate while not offending the large number of primary voters who handed Trump his majorities?

But before jettisoning this analogy, we should still consider where a broader Trump equals Nixon analogy does work, so long as we’re a bit more circumspect. First off, I was surprised that Robenalt didn’t mention how what really shocked Americans (if they were indeed shocked) about Nixon’s tapes was the President’s use of words like “bastard,” “cocksucker,” and “kike.”  Trump definitely shares a certain affinity for crudity and vulgarism with Nixon, and he certainly swiped a number of Nixon’s campaign slogans, most notably his use of phrases like “the silent majority” and his quips about restoring “law and order.” He doesn’t always stick to those slogans, but they show a serious indebtedness to Tricky Dick. Not to mention Trump’s disdain of ye olde “mainstream media” and a penchant for paranoid conspiracy theories—the Clintons have teamed up with The New York Times to get me!—also rhymes with much of Nixon’s worldview. It’s what the historian Richard Hofstadter referred to as the “paranoid style in American politics.” Both men embrace, or embraced, “enemies lists,” except that Trump has taken this one step further by placing his political opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, at the top of his. Either way, both men have certainly recycled the politics of tough male domination, bullying, and a dangerous blindness to the limitations of executive power.

I have also reminded numerous friends that, if Trump is really impeachment material, a vote for him could actually be a vote for Pence. I’m not big on making political predictions like that, but, in this case, it strikes me that Trump, unsurprisingly, hasn’t done what the Kahn family suggested he do—that is, read the Constitution. Everything he pronounces sounds absurdly unrealistic, unethical, and unconstitutional: building a wall in Mexico and forcing Mexico to pay for it, pursuing national stop and frisk policies for the “inner cities,” banning Muslims from entry into the United States, encouraging Russia to hack his opponent’s e-mails, and having his attorney general (whoever that would be) put Hillary Clinton behind bars. Every time I hear these grandiose statements, I usually think to myself: If elected, no doubt he will overreach, and even if there are Republican majorities after this election, he has lost far too much support from his own party (even those Republicans who have not necessarily denounced Trump have put so much distance between themselves and his candidacy, they might as well have), which would seem to put him in a very precarious situation. In other words, Trump isn’t Richard Nixon facing impeachment right now, but he sure has the making of a President susceptible to impeachment.

But to think that the Donald would actually acquiesce and step down now, that’s a different matter. He won’t. The presidential candidacy is his property. He feels entitled to it, he owns it, the way he owns Trump Towers, the way he owns the votes he garnered during the primary, and the way he owns any woman he lays eyes on. And here is, once again, a major difference between Trump and Richard Nixon. Trump was born into a well-off family whose wealth came from real estate (and namely the New York City region); Nixon was born into much humbler circumstances out west. The sense of entitlement that wealth brings with it colors everything that Donald Trump does. Nixon, on the other hand, was a man with deeply held populist resentments; Trump is a man who simply believes that people are there for his use, and, with them, he can do as he pleases.

As far as the Republican Party itself? I’m highly skeptical of those who claim it is truly about to destruct. And here I’m reminded of another important episode in our history. This one has to do with a famous contemporary of Nixon’s during the 1950s, namely Senator Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower and a number of Republicans thought the Senator from Wisconsin, who made baseless accusations of communism rampant within the media and even within the U.S. Army, were too scattershot and reckless. But, at the time, Ike and his fellow Republicans did nothing to denounce the Senator, despite numerous opportunities to do so. They knew their political prospects hinged on being tough on communism and, therefore, didn’t want to attack the man who had taken this toughness to its extreme. They simply let the man flame out chugging to death on his own steam—which happened, famously, at the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, as we now refer to them. And the Republicans went on to do relatively well in upcoming elections, holding onto the presidency in 1956.

Which is to say that, as we already know, being ethical and being political are not one and the same. So why should we expect the Republican Party leadership to act so differently than they have in the past, to muster the strength to depose Trump? Sit it out, remain silent, denounce but don’t disown—this seems like the course of action the party is insisting upon. It likely means they won’t win the presidency in 2016, but it’s a better bet, in the long term, than pursuing the high-minded course that Robenalt and others advocate. Sad as that may be.

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Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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