4 Reasons Trump Is Worse for America Than Nixon
After waking up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday, hunkered down in his sunny vacation home far from the White House, a bleary-eyed president of the United States offered a few thoughts to sum up his mood: “Above all else: Dignity, command, faith, head high, no fear, build a new spirit, drive, act like a President, act like a winner,” he wrote in a staccato stream of consciousness. “Opponents are savage destroyers, haters. Time to use full power of the President to fight overwhelming forces arrayed against us.”
While we all adjust to a seemingly new normal of presidential paranoia and vindictiveness, it is helpful to remember that we’ve seen something like this before — for these are not the words of Donald Trump, but Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate.
Like a lot of people trying to get their heads around the Trump era, I’ve been dusting off my frayed copies of dystopian novels. But to better understand what this means for American foreign policy, I’ve been thinking about 1973, another moment when the White House was mired in scandal and instability, yet when the United States also got some big things done abroad. So along with 1984 and Brave New World, I’ve picked up Tim Weiner’s book One Man Against the World and the second volume of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs, appropriately titled Years of Upheaval — and I recommend you do too.
1973 was a rough year. Just months after winning re-election in a 49-state landslide, Nixon found himself drowning in Watergate. The country spent the summer fixated on the congressional Watergate hearings, with the president in a pitched battle with the courts over executive privilege and fighting his own bureaucracy (the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” occurred in October 1973). Nixon’s chief of staff resigned, and his former attorney general and White House counsel were indicted. Also that fall, Vice President Spiro Agnew quit after getting ensnared in a corruption scandal.
On the one hand, remembering events from 44 years ago helps recall America’s resilience (hey, we survived Watergate!) as well as the fact that amid monumental domestic turmoil, America can cobble together an effective foreign policy. In fact, 1973 brought the signing of the Paris Peace Accords to end the Vietnam War, important steps forward in opening relations with China, a superpower summit with the Soviet leadership, and a skilled response to the October Yom Kippur War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states.
But in fundamental ways, the 1973 crisis weakened America abroad. Kissinger recalls that his “predominant concern” during the Watergate era was not the headlines of the day but, in his words, “to sustain the credibility of the United States as a major power.” Other countries were constantly asking about the extent of damage to the presidency, some tried to create distance from the White House, while friends worried about American weakness. Kissinger observed that the United States was “losing its ability to make credible commitments” and squandering its leadership capital. Worried that the country was in a “suicidal mood,” Kissinger lamented to a friend in May 1973 that “four or five years of amassing capital in nickels and dimes is being squandered in thousand-dollar bills.”
With Nixon besieged and increasingly checked out, Kissinger, who became secretary of state in September of that year, was stuck holding foreign policy together. As the end neared, Kissinger felt duty-bound to preserve a sense of security and credibility by “creating a façade of unity and purposefulness,” reassuring the world that America remained strong. “The edge of a precipice,” Kissinger recalled, “leaves scope for only one imperative: to obtain some maneuvering room.”
So is it 1973 all over again? We’re not sure whether Trump will be enveloped in a Watergate-scale scandal, yet the United States seems once again teetering on history’s precipice, scrambling for maneuvering room. And there are four reasons why I fear the drama of 2017 is worse...