Friday 14 October 2016

Raising Nixon's Ghost.

Political Pathology: Once again, the United States risks falling under the spell of a man pathologically incapable of quarantining his own disreputable impulses from the immense powers of the supreme political office he is seeking.
IN THE FINAL, desperate days of the Nixon Administration, a crucial instruction was communicated to the commanders of military bases in or near the American capital. Any  presidential order pertaining to the disposition of units under their command should be obeyed only if it was countersigned by James Schlesinger, the Secretary of Defence.
That was how seriously the situation had deteriorated in the early months of 1974. Senior figures in the government of the United States were taking grim precautions against the possibility that Richard Nixon, acting in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, might attempt to forestall his imminent impeachment by ordering tanks onto the streets of Washington DC.
Why was the prospect of such an unprecedented abuse of presidential power considered plausible? The answer lies in what came to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre”.
On Saturday, 20 October 1973, President Nixon ordered his Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, to sack Archibald Cox, the Independent Special Prosecutor appointed by the Justice Department to investigate the Watergate scandal. Cox’s investigation had advanced perilously close to the Oval Office and Nixon wanted him gone.
Richardson refused to obey the President’s order and immediately tended his resignation. Upon being given the same instruction, the Deputy Attorney General of the United States, William Ruckelhaus, also refused and resigned. Undaunted, Nixon ordered the Solicitor General of the United States, Robert Bork, brought to the White House. After swearing-in Bork as his new Attorney General, Nixon immediately ordered him to sack Cox. With considerable reluctance, Bork complied.
It was the Saturday Night Massacre that finally drove American public opinion towards impeachment. The President’s evident contempt for the US Constitution and the Rule of Law made the Watergate accusations all-too-believable. The events of 20 October also caused a number of senior White House officials and Cabinet members to wonder just how far Nixon would be prepared to go to avoid impeachment, arraignment, almost certain conviction, and, quite possibly, incarceration.
For students of American history these forty-year-old events have been pulled into sharp focus by Donald Trump’s threat to put Hillary Clinton in jail. Routinely castigating his opponent as “Crooked Hillary”, Trump used the occasion of last Sunday’s Second Presidential Debate to inform his opponent that: “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.” When Clinton responded: “It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.” Trump shot back: “Because you’d be in jail.”
This is a chillingly Nixonian exchange. Once again, the United States risks falling under the spell of a man pathologically incapable of quarantining his own disreputable impulses from the immense powers of the supreme political office he is seeking.
The attempt to establish an “imperial presidency”, began in 1937 with Franklin Roosevelt’s unsuccessful bid to pack the Supreme Court. By the end of the 1960s, it was threatening to turn the American Constitution into a museum piece.
The Watergate scandal and Nixon’s downfall had vindicated the Founding Fathers’ commitment to the doctrine of the  “separation of powers”. Under the US Constitution, a President Trump has no more right to hire a special prosecutor than President Nixon had to fire one. In a democracy, presidents don’t put people in jail, courts do – and only after the accused has been found guilty, at a fair trial, according to law.
Unfortunately, two generations of Americans have grown to maturity since the Saturday Night Massacre, and the lessons of Watergate are only now recalled by ageing Baby Boomers.
But if the “great silent majority” that re-elected Nixon in 1972 were voting for a strong leader to quell the waning “youth revolt” and restore “law and order” (i.e. repress African-Americans) the ambitions of the marginalised white males currently cheering-on Donald Trump are much more perilous.
What Trump’s supporters want is an America purged of all the social gains achieved by blacks, women and gays since the 1960s. An America ready to wall-up Latino immigrants below the Rio Grande. An America in which Muslims are neither seen nor heard.
This is the America they bellow for so raucously whenever their putative Emperor/President promises to “Make America Great Again”.
And because Hillary Clinton is standing in his way: “Lock her up!”
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 October 2016.


David Stone said...

Hi Chris
I don't think Trump meant to imply that he would usurp the legal process. I think he just meant to see to it that due legal process was followed as it would be for an ordinary citizen. That was my take anyway.
Cheers David J S

pat said...

so many great paragraphs to choose from in this excellent piece that the following was selected with a dart.

"Media fascination with the hateful white Trump voter fuels the theory, now in fashion, that bigotry is the only explanation for supporting him. Certainly, financial struggle does not predict a soft spot for Trump, as cash-strapped people of color – who face the threat of his racism and xenophobia, and who resoundingly reject him, by all available measures – can attest. However, one imagines that elite white liberals who maintain an air of ethical grandness this election season would have a harder time thinking globally about trade and immigration if it were their factory job that was lost and their community that was decimated."

Kansas is closer than you think.

Victor said...

An excellent post, Chris.

However, to my mind, the invention of the Imperial Presidency didn't simply involve Roosevelt trying to pack the Supreme Court with amenable judges.

It also involved an extensive and unprecedented level of federal involvement in the economy, including (inter alia) the creation of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Works Progress Administration, the TVA etc, as well as the subsequent successful prosecution of the Second World War, using the same "big government" approach.

Yes, most of this was accomplished by constitutional means. But precedent, the traditional servant of constitutional government, went out of the window and the once puny federal administration suddenly loomed benificently large in American lives, along with the prestige of the presidency itself. In this sense the office had become "Imperial" and, I agree, remained so more or less up till Watergate.

Would a president with less imperial pretension than Ike or JFK have dared send the National Guard or the army into southern cities to help boost desegregation? I doubt it. Similarly, I doubt whether a non-imperial president would have grasped the levers of power with the same confidence and purpose as did LBJ after Kennedy's murder or have pushed the Civil Rights Bill through Congress and launched the "War on Poverty".

Sadly, the same sense of executive authority also contributed to the extension of the war in South-East Asia, with some of the most significant escalations taking place without formal approval from Congress. Power, as always, can be used for good or ill.

Perhaps our difference over this point is purely semantic. But it does seem to me that, military adventures apart, the Oval Office has less and less ability to make significant changes in the life of the Republic. I'm not convinced that this is cause for un-nuanced rejoicing.

Anonymous said...

Trump is sounding like the Beloved Leader of North Korea, perhaps we should call him "KIM JONG TRUMP"

Polly said...

Chris one of the better piece's I have seen on this topic, it looks like he is done for though it is chilling that already he is spouting loud and clear to his worshipers that if he loses then the vote will be rigged.
I think he is mentally ill.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Say what you like about Trump, he is creating hundreds if not thousands of jobs – for comedians.

Patricia said...

The better question to ask is what is going to happen if Trump loses. In my view this emphasis on the personality of Trump and comparing him to Nixon is missing the whole point. When people can only look forward to lower and lower wages, to no security of tenure, to zero hour contracts, when they lose their homes, when they can see no future for their children they get very angry and that anger is expressed in ways that frighten the middle class. Trump is saying out loud the same things as his supporters say at home. Trump does not represent the traditional Republican Party and it will be interesting to see what happens now that they are disowning him. But Clinton certainly does not represent the Trump supporters. A very good article by David McWilliams on this is found in

jh said...

Trumps bigotry is only bigotry if Americans benefit from Mexcan migration etc.just like NZrs bigotry is only bigotry if we believe Spoonley and BuisinessNZ over the Savings Working Group.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Trumps bigotry is only bigotry if Americans benefit from Mexcan migration etc.just like NZrs bigotry is only bigotry if we believe Spoonley and BuisinessNZ over the Savings Working Group."

I'm not exactly sure I understand what you are saying, but Trumps bigotry is just plain bigotry. He's not just objecting to immigration, but accusing immigrants, both legal and illegal, of being murderers, rapists, criminals the whole works. Not only without, but against the evidence. And his bigotry is not simply towards foreigners, but also towards women. So how do you explain that away? Is that some academics fault?

Victor said...


I agree with you. Trump is not Nixon.

Nixon was a kid from a humble background with an extremely good brain, a capacity for self-discipline and a mass of consequent insecurities. That's four big differences.

A fifth is that (in his bullying and indecorous way)Trump seems to get a lot of fun out of life. Nixon, I suspect, never did.

I know it's not fashionable to use the 'F' word but the twentieth century bad-ass of whom Trump most reminds me is the guy who ended up hanging upside-down in the Piazzale Loreto in 1945.

BTW I think Nixon was a bad-ass on an equivalent scale. But he was a different sort of bad-ass.

I also agree with you that a swerve towards xenophobia, autarchy, leader worship, ethnic-scapegoating and strutting machismo was one inevitable result of the economic, social and personal dislocation spawned by neo-liberalism.

But we've been here before and should know that this particular cure is worse than the disease. Indeed, it normally turns out to be no cure at all.

That doesn't mean there are no cures. The US, above all, proved their was a better approach in the 1930s.

Nick J said...

Given the exchange Chris and i had lately I have been somewhat reluctant to post. I do however think that the "Left" as a collective do themselves a real disservice in lining up against Trump in favour of an equally questionable option.

I cannot express my position as clearly as Tariq Ali editor of the New Left Review. Please please watch Tariq this week laying bare the real issues, he damns both parties and provides the evidence.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Trump the new Mussolini? Even his fascism is second-rate.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Clinton is not equally unobjectionable for those people who stand to suffer under a Trump presidency. Black people and brown people at least stand to gain or at least maintain the status quo under Clinton. Clinton is objectionable for many reasons, but racism is not one and sexism is not one either. Personally I think with a population of 300 million, the US should have come up with two better candidates. But when faced with the reality of Trump, whose unpredictability I have come to despise over the last month or so, who is supported by open neo-Nazis, who is a misogynist of the first order, and who actually can't be relied on to follow through on policy promises he has made, I think I would vote for Hillary. There are 21 candidates for president, of which two actually stand a chance of gaining the presidency. The Libertarian candidate is an amiable idiot (I think it was PJ O'Rourke who said that Libertarians are just Republicans who want to get laid and smoke weed" but whoever it was hit the nail on the head). The Green candidate panders to the antiscience crowd. The rest of them I know nothing about. So I don't believe there are any real alternatives. It's a dead rat situation all round. Liberals are just going to have to swallow it, and hope to God that Clinton takes some notice of the support that Bernie Sanders got.

Bushbaptist said...

US politics are a two horse race Nick J. It has reached the point where voters must decide between the lesser of two evils.

Neither party supports ordinary workers nor do the pressie candidates. It is riddled with cronyism and corruption.

What is got by a two party race is that the two parties get closer and closer together until they are joined at the hip and become two branches of one party with one being a little more compassionate than the other.

The underlying corruption is outstanding to anyone who watches the goings on. When Hillary announced her run DWS stated publicly and categorically that she was going to get the nomination regardless of whoever runs against her. Go and research all the videos of the event and you will see it.

Victor said...


'Trump the new Mussolini? Even his fascism is second-rate.'

I agree. He's unlikely to make the trains run on time. But his absurd, strutting,bragging pseudo-heroics come straight from the Duce's handbook.

I'd like to cite Marx's famed adage about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy the second as farce.

But the US is a superpower with a capacity for global destruction and Italy was not. So, alas, I don't find the adage all that apposite to current circumstances.

It's certainly unfortunate that Hillary had a sort of lien on the Democratic nomination, as the party is not otherwise without talent these days.

But she's been effectively running for the top slot since the late 1990s and has vast "brand recognition". Add that to Bill's influence and the Obamas' apparent need to repay favours and she should have been a shoe-in.

It's a sign both of our troubled times and of Hillary's weaknesses as a candidate that she's had to fight so hard, first for the nomination and latterly against the dangerous loons now favoured by the erstwhile party of Abe Lincoln

So, if I was a US citizen, I'd vote for her as by far the lesser of two evils but NOT as either a harbinger of hope or a particularly safe pair of hands.

And I'd also be hoping that she'd just be there for four years, which might, I suspect, be the game plan, as she has health issues and apparently diminished energy levels. Moreover, just being there for a wee while and breaking that symbolic glass ceiling might be close to the the summit of her ambitions.

Meanwhile, I don't know whether Tim Kaine is the chosen successor or just there to woo blue collar Appalachia and Hispanic Americans. Either way, the guy badly needs media training.

Nick J said...

Watch Tariq as suggested and maybe you might reassess your contention. There is an alternative and it is to build a third party candidate. The people must break the two horse system.

jh said...

I see Winston says history will show that the Clark and Key governments have been a disaster for NZr's, which is what executive of the year Kerry McDonald said (both refering to immigration). Having said that history is taught in the Humanities and Social Science Faculty isn't it?
Can you imagine Spoonley allowing that?

jh said...

Isn't a nation by definition "bigoted and xenophobic" and isn't that the problem; it means borders are "bigoted and xenophobic".

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I did listen to Tariq Ali. He should know better. A third party is not going to run in the US, not as anything but pie in the sky. Maybe when they been beaten to a pulp by the system for a few more years, but everything works through the Republicans or the Democrats. The Tea party doesn't run as a Tea party, it tries to take over the Republican party. Bernie Sanders was an independent but he went for the Democratic nomination. And I can't think of anyone outside of the two major parties who stand the shit show of getting anywhere. Mind you I'm not an expert on US politics, so perhaps someone could suggest a name around whom a third party could coalesce?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"I see Winston says history will show that the Clark and Key governments have been a disaster for NZr's, which is what executive of the year Kerry McDonald said (both refering to immigration). Having said that history is taught in the Humanities and Social Science Faculty isn't it?
Can you imagine Spoonley allowing that?"

What does this even mean?

"Isn't a nation by definition "bigoted and xenophobic" and isn't that the problem; it means borders are "bigoted and xenophobic"."

No, not necessarily. And to be honest it's not worth any more of an answer than that. Why don't you get down to the nitty-gritty of Trump and explain why you like him so much given what he is like. Why is it so difficult to get conservatives down to specifics on Donald Trump? I guess, aside from the nutcases, he is the conservatives' own dead rat.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"If a Space Alien landed in the USA & requested: "Take me to your leader", I wonder how Pres Trump would react vs Pres Clinton"
— Neil deGrasse Tyson

"Afraid we need to know whether the alien has breasts before we can answer." JK Rowling.

Victor said...

"Mind you I'm not an expert on US politics, so perhaps someone could suggest a name around whom a third party could coalesce?"

I'm no expert either but similarly can't think of a figure to the left of the spectrum around whom support could gather.

Earlier this year, though, there was talk of Michael Bloomberg running as a third party candidate, with a campaign presumably aimed at the more metropolitan Republicans and at centrist Democrats.

As things stand, I suspect that both these groups will end up voting largely for Hillary. So the former mayor would have effectively handed the contest to Trump or whoever else the GOP chose.

I think he realised this, which is why he didn't run

Charles E said...

I don't think there is any parallel between Nixon & Trump at all.
Nixon went a bit power mad at the end but did many good things, quite surprisingly to his opposition, on the environment and weapons bans, China etc.
Trump on the other hand is fully explained by the mental pathology called narcissism. On top of which he is a pig. Pure and simple, a pig. He even looks like one!

I note that many people a while back saw him as representing the anti-establishment so were blinded to the reality that he is just a dumb pig. That is the only box he fits in.

Victor said...

Charles E

"Nixon went a bit power mad at the end but did many good things"

Like the invasion of Cambodia, which massively increased the carnage and destruction already engendered by the Vietnam war and laid the ground for the subsequent Khmer Rouge takeover?

Or ending the dollar's gold convertability, thus undermining Bretton Woods, kick-starting the 'Great Inflation' of the seventies and initiating our current happy, carefree world of floating currencies?

Watergate was just the small stuff. The fact that it brought about his political eclipse was the Washington equivalent of Al Capone going to prison for tax evasion.

Mind you, they felt comfortable with Dick in both Moscow and Beijing, where the guys in charge obviously recognised a kindred spirit.

"Trump on the other hand is fully explained by the mental pathology called narcissism"

I agree that Nixon wasn't just a narcissist. He was also deeply paranoid with a simply astounding capacity for mawkish self-pity. Few things have just one cause.

I suppose you could say that Nixon was like one of Shakespeare's heroic villains, a man close to greatness, brought down by his own irredeemable defects. Trump, by contrast, is just a clown.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Say what you like about Nixon, according to Hunter Thomson he knew a lot about American football :).

Dennis Frank said...

Interesting report on Nixon's quakerism (identity politics frame) here:

Sample: "Despite four years of service with the Navy during World War II, the commander-in-chief of the army and navy told an interviewer for the New York Times in 1971, “I rate myself a deeply committed pacifist, perhaps because of my Quaker heritage from my mother.”

Where, then, was the “real” Nixon’s religious identity? I would argue that its noisy evangelical roots and character were well hidden, a cover-up carefully engineered by mother and son."

Victor said...

Nixon was also a reasonably accomplished pianist, as was Harry Truman. But their tastes clearly differed.

On a Presidential visit to Truman's home in Independence, Missouri, Nixon tried to ingratiate himself with the old boy by sitting down at his piano and performing a piece of saccharine known as "The Missouri Waltz".

Truman, who referred to Nixon in private as simply "that son of a bitch" (JFK was "Joe Kennedy's boy") wasn't particularly impressed, as he preferred Chopin and Beethoven.