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.