If you’re depressed about the political situation in Australia, it’s probably not a great idea to turn for relief to the United States, where the same tendencies have reached a more advanced stage. But just possibly there are some glimmers of hope there as well.
As you’ve no doubt heard, the US House of Representatives two weeks ago opened an investigation into president Donald Trump, as the first step on the road to impeachment proceedings. It’s suggested that articles of impeachment could be approved before the end of the year, with a view to trial before the Senate early next year.
No president has ever been removed by impeachment. But one – Richard Nixon, 45 years ago – resigned after the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee voted for articles of impeachment against him, knowing that his conviction was a virtual certainty.
The development of the Republican Party since 1974 is a sobering story. Nixon’s Watergate crimes were taken seriously; while many Republicans defended him for political reasons, they did so – as did Nixon himself – by denying his guilt. They did not, for the most part, suggest that if he really had committed the offences alleged, he should still be supported.
As a result, once the evidence of Nixon’s criminality (which he had carefully tape-recorded and kept) became overwhelming, Republican support for him collapsed.
For one section of the Republicans, however, the pattern was different. Hard-line conservatives – the sort who later became known as “movement” conservatives – started out sceptical of Nixon. They disagreed with many of his policies, notably the opening to China. But when Watergate came to dominate the agenda, they swung around to supporting him.
As the rest of the nation followed the unfolding story of corruption and cover-ups, the Watergate-as-liberal-conspiracy narrative quickly took hold in conservative media. …
No longer was he an opportunist tacking in whichever direction led to power, but rather a president whom elites were driving to the left, against his will. … From the outbreak of the scandal until the resignation, conservatives became Nixon’s most ardent supporters.
Fast forward thirty-odd years, and the conservatives had taken over the Republican Party. George W. Bush was president, and he and vice-president Dick Cheney were carrying out an undeclared war against the US constitution.
Whereas Nixon had gone to great lengths to cover up his crimes, Bush seemed unconcerned about exposure. When he authorised wiretaps on American citizens without a warrant, John Dean – the Watergate conspirator and whistleblower who had helped bring down Nixon – remarked that he “was the first president to actually admit to an impeachable offence.”
And this time there was no crack in the party’s wall of defence. Republican senators and representatives defended Bush’s right to break the law in the name of the “war on terror”. Nor was impeachment a serious option; it had been discredited by the Republicans’ frivolous pursuit of Bill Clinton a few years earlier.
On to today. Looking back now at the Republican Party of 15 years ago, which at the time seemed to have taken leave of its collective senses, many people find it an example of relative sanity. Trump has not been content with just admitting to impeachable conduct: he has actually committed it in public. Investigation almost seems superfluous.
Note at each stage the unimportance of anything that could reasonably be dignified as ideology. Whatever composite picture you produced of conservative beliefs and values, it would never look much like Nixon, Bush jr or Trump. Conservative support for them was tribal, not ideological.
In principle, a president from any philosophical tendency could behave like a mafia don. But in practice human nature, while prone to inconsistencies, is not quite that inconsistent. As I said a year ago in relation to the Kavanaugh nomination, “if you engage someone to do bad things, it’s a fair bet they’ll turn out to be a bad person.”
The Republican Party chose Trump as a representative of its tribal identity; its nativism and hostility to modernity. It may not have known or cared that he was also a crook, but it certainly has no right to be surprised. Personal and political vice entwine in a seamless whole.
The silver lining? Despite the radical shifts that have taken place since then, the Nixon case does at least show that it is possible for the Republican establishment to abandon a Republican president. So far, the members of the party who have denounced Trump are few in number. But the enthusiasm of his defenders seems tepid as well; many are still sitting on the fence.
As Lee Drutman explains at FiveThirtyEight, Republicans who privately dislike Trump – which almost certainly is most of them – face a collective action problem. “Without a bold leader, there are no bold followers. But without the promise of bold followers, there are no bold leaders.”
The corollary is that if Trump’s party does abandon him, it will probably happen suddenly; a line of some sort will be crossed, and the ground under the president will fall away quickly. So perhaps it’s in the nature of the case that we can’t see the line in advance. But it could also be because it just isn’t there, and this Republican Party in reality will follow Trump anywhere.
As Drutman concludes,
If there is a Republican cascade against Trump, in retrospect, it will look inevitable, as if the steady drip of revelations and testimony was always destined to reach that final dramatic tipping point. But a note to future historians: As of this moment, it does not look inevitable at all.
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