If you’re even mildly engaged in the outside world, and are living in the US of A, you are already very familiar with the tendency of the media to compare President Donald Trump with the mythical unicorn of anti-democratic values, Richard Milhouse Nixon. To be honest, I view it as a very black and white comparison. Far from being just “Mr. Watergate,” Richard Nixon, like most people with a career, had other things that defined him.
Nixon eventually pulled America out of the Vietnam War. The process of ending the conflict took five years, so any associations you might have concerning the conflict should include Nixon as well as Lyndon Johnson. The military draft also came to an end because of Nixon.
But the Vietnam War, like Watergate, was just one aspect of his presidency. He engaged in diplomatic relations with China and the Soviet Union, supported desegregation in Southern states, and created the Environmental Protection Agency (which is “directed” aka under siege by yet another pro-corporate, anti-citizen official).
While Watergate shamed Nixon out of the presidency, in his post-presidency he was surrounded by a certain mystique. He tried to resuscitate a public image that tanked after the scandal by visiting foreign countries and established relationships with their leaders. He wrote his memoirs. Visited Carter in the White House. Supported Ronald Reagan’s ambitions to be president. Thus Nixon walked out of the highest office in America and into the frame of a benign anti-hero (and the accuracy of that perception is debatable). Not to be trusted, was Nixon, but in retrospect, more like Steve Bannon? (in the eyes of the people). A man that didn’t have the greatest intentions and who fell from grace after his trench coat popped open. This sentence helps to define both men.
But what about Donald Trump, will he join the trench coat club too? Problem is he traveled the campaign trail with it open. He walked into the Oval Office with no shame, coat agape. The platform that catapulted him to those kempt lawns and layers of bureaucrats meant that shame took a bit of a holiday.
A government official with destructive intentions, but who ultimately ends up a failure, should be perceived differently than a man whose political fate is unknown. Even if Trump were to be ousted from the White House, he has set things in motion that will outlive him. The alt-right, for instance. Their emboldened state won’t necessarily disappear if Trump steps down or is forced from the podium. Tweetstorms might rumble in the distance, waiting for another POTUS to take up the mantle of rainmaker.
Invoking the Nixon comparison can be dangerous as well, because complacency could reign in liberal circles. “Nixon ended up in the garbage bin, Trump has to end up there eventually.”
Does he, though? Did Nixon have Fox News? Social Media? A very strong cult of personality?
If you’re waiting for the current POTUS to spoon Mr. Watergate in a hefty bag, let’s get real. Certainly anything is possible, but vague similarities shouldn’t be confused for reality. Nixon’s long shadow won’t eclipse a finger-pointing firebrand. Things have changed.