Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey is worse than Nixon’s 1973 Saturday Night Massacre. Sure, just as Trump is doing now, Nixon acted out his dark psychological problems on the grandest scale, and America and the world suffered the consequences. Nixon’s downfall was his paranoia, his view of himself as a political victim, and, in the end, his irrationality. Trump clearly has a personality disorder that drives him to self-aggrandizement, bullying, lying and a complete lack of self-awareness — all exacerbated by what many see as some sort of later-in-life brain deterioration or dementia.
But there are many differences between what we observed in 1973 [I remember it well] and what we are seeing now, and this is worse.
Nixon was intelligent. He had command of the facts and could speak about issues based on knowledge–even if many of us disagreed with the policies that he implemented based on that information. In contrast, Trump knows nothing. Well, not just in comparison to Nixon — in comparison to virtually anyone — even some six graders I know. The intelligence gap between Nixon and Trump puts everything else in perspective: At least some of Nixon’s acts involved thought. Trump is all knee-jerk, and his firing of Comey is a prime example.
In addition, Nixon was politically astute. From the earliest days of his public career, Nixon calculated everything in terms of political gain or loss. Trump has no understanding of the workings of the American political system — except for when it pertains to who gets the most votes. His uncanny ability to fool the people with fake populism and validate their anger comes not from cool calculation, but from some visceral need for attention, applause, the rush of winning, and superficial validation.
When Nixon fired Archibald Cox in 1973, his demons were obviously at work, and he probably was unable to stop himself, but he also undoubtedly knew that what he was doing was going to have dire political consequences.
When Trump fired Comey, he either hadn’t thought of the consequences [his aides, who should have known better, either just went along to appease him or gave him astonishingly tone-deaf advice], or he assumed he could get away with it because of who he is.
Nixon clearly was paying attention during junior-high civics class, in history courses, and later, during law school. Unlike Trump, he wasn’t out on the playground bullying other kids, or groping girls, or getting sent away to military school as punishment for bad behavior. Nixon fully understood the basics of the U.S. Constitution and the separation of powers. He actually read books, and learned about the historical limits of power. In the end, he overstepped and did things that he knew worked against what he had learned, but he knew what he was doing. He must have known, perhaps as soon as the Watergate plumbers were caught, that he was in political and constitutional trouble, because he immediately began trying to cover it all up.
Trump’s utterances [I refuse to call his tweets and blurts “thoughts” or “policies”] and his behavior demonstrate that he has no understanding of the essentials of our constitutional structure. Or, he doesn’t care. For him, firing Comey for questioning him via an investigation was just another episode of “The Apprentice.”
Nixon not only was knowledgeable about our constitutional structure, he respected it–even though he violated it personally. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I actually liked Richard Nixon — I thought he was awful — but, in comparison to Trump, you have to give Nixon credit for believing in the institutions of American democracy. It’s obvious that Trump has never really thought about democracy, except perhaps superficially, as he parrots the Pledge of Allegiance or sings the national anthem at a baseball game. Granted, he probably has thought about government, but only in terms of it being a regulatory pain in the ass and a taker of his money through taxes. He “loves” democracy when it gives him what he wants — when he can buy off a politician who’s thinking of investigating him — or when he can pay to play and get legislation favorable to his business interests. Otherwise, democratic values and institutions are just not his gig.
One other difference between Watergate and Comey is less about Nixon vs. Trump and more about the circumstances and people surrounding the events. When Nixon fired Cox, the investigation was already in full swing. Charges had been filed, and the legal wheels were already turning. In the case of Comey, we’re not there yet, so Trump might actually get away with it.
Things look even worse when you consider the political atmosphere in each instance. The Saturday Night Massacre took place in a political world where there were principled Republicans, such as Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee. He was not afraid to buck the president, question his activities and motives, and take action to protect American democracy from presidential overreach and criminality. Today, we are still waiting for any Republican to stand up and call for an independent investigation–to put country before party.
In the end, Nixon exhibited one final shred of decency that Trump probably lacks: He resigned before an impeachment trial could cripple all three branches of government and undermine our system. It remains to be seen if Trump can muster the self-awareness and personal responsibility to do the same [or if any of his toadies and hangers-on will step forward and push him in that direction]. I’m not holding my breath for that. Unfortunately, It seems clear that we’re going to have to wrestle our democracy back from Trump’s cold, brain-dead grip.