I recently noted that the cover of the latest issue of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s quarterly Intelligence Report features a huge picture of Trump’s head in full berserk mode, along with the headline “The Year in Hate and Extremism.” This week I received a “special appeal” from the American Civil Liberties Union asking me to support its “effective leadership role in resisting Donald Trump’s attempts to undermine the Constitution and trample on the rights of vulnerable people.”
Prominent institutions opposing President Trump seem to be taking it for granted that, not only is he a menace to democracy, but that he’s already actively attempting to subvert it. Some Trump critics go so far as to say they’ve seen nothing like this administration since Watergate—a historical comparison as sentimental as it is frightening. For that was quite a time, Watergate, when the plotting and subversion extended to the highest levels of government and democracy dangled by a thread.
And what a cast of characters it had!
To help us appreciate Donald Trump’s designs on liberty, let’s make some comparisons:
There was Richard Nixon, the president himself, elected in a squeaker in 1968 after a campaign directed at lunch-bucket Americans who believed their voices were no longer heard in a country that had lost its way. As historian Julian Zelizer of Princeton writes, “Nixon, like Trump, brought to the White House an aggressive understanding of executive power, a deep distrust of government officials, a ruthless and defensive personality, a willingness to play to the worst elements of American society and the ability to do whatever it took to achieve victory.”
Then there was the vice president, Spiro Agnew. Nixon gave Agnew a big job, which was to cut the media down to size. Agnew rose so enthusiastically to the challenge that his words still ring today. National media, Agnew sneered, is dominated by a “little group of men” clustered in Washington and New York who “do not represent the views of America.” Agnew immortally dismissed them all as “nattering nabobs of negativism [who] have formed their own 4-H Club—the ‘hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.'” Agnew left big shoes, which Trump trusts no one to fill but himself.
Then there was the godfather of paranoia, special counsel Charles Colson. Nixon had a lot on his plate, but Colson made sure the White House kept track of the president’s enemies, a responsibility President Trump reserves for himself. When Colson died in 2012, the Washington Post recalled him as a self-described “hatchet man” who put together the “notorious ‘enemies list’ of politicians, journalists and activists perceived as threats to the White House.”
But no Watergate figure was more entertaining than the wife of attorney general John Mitchell. Martha Beall Mitchell was ruled by impulse, and no one knew what she’d say or when she’d say it. Or, for that matter, why. Though she was born too soon to tweet, to quote the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Martha Mitchell “shared her views on everything: the Vietnam War, school busing, nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, and more. She was known to call reporters at all hours of the day to comment on particular issues. . . .” In a story last year marking the reopening of the Watergate Hotel, Capitol File magazine wrote that what Martha Mitchell had to say was “dismissed as the musings of a paranoid and imaginative (and some said, alcoholic) housewife. But her zesty defiance and taste for publicity are as much a part of the hotel’s history as Deep Throat and the White House tapes.”
I worry that our president, determined to make sure his scandal is even “huger” than Watergate, is spreading himself too thin. Even if he never lifts a finger to attend to his presidential duties, the demands he’s making on himself might be too great for someone his age. Trump’s past 70—and he doesn’t look healthy.
Maybe he should at least outsource the Martha Mitchell part. Yet I know that of all his roles, that’s the one closest to his heart.