Among the many pejorative monikers given Hillary Clinton during her 2016 presidential campaign, "Grandma Nixon" gained wide bipartisan traction. It was a perfect comparison in the narrative of Mrs. Clinton as her detractors understood her: an intensely private political pragmatist, a creature of the establishment willing to resort to any scheme (including the destruction of evidence) to achieve her ends, known to hold a bitter grudge. Classic Nixon, and a popular assessment of Mrs. Clinton's decades in public life. But those decades are over and Mrs. Clinton's personality will never define a presidential administration with all the gravity and inevitable judgment of history that entails.
The same can't be said for the man whose days in public life effectively began the day he ended Hillary Clinton's, now a President making the decisions that will define him for posterity and establish similarities between his 37th predecessor and himself.
On Donald Trump's 109th day of his first-ever term in any public office, he made the decision to fire FBI Director James Comey and invited a landslide of comparisons between his actions and those of Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, when he fired the special prosecutor investigating his administration's involvement in Watergate, causing the exit of two attorneys general and bringing the integrity of America's institutions of justice into question like never before.
Trump can't be said to have much in common with Nixon the politician, who was experienced, well-spoken, politically circumspect and, at one time, full of greater purpose. Nixon came from nothing and worked in public service all his life. Trump came from everything and, at seventy, has worked in public service since January. He has nothing resembling the veneer of respectability and affability that Nixon projected. But it's becoming clear that President Trump may share a great deal with President Nixon, who was ultimately paranoid, vengeful and arrogant to the point of considering himself above the law.
Their most significant shared trait is one that empowered them to build and leverage the unlikely coalitions that would carry them to the White House: an incredible talent for manipulating narratives and people. It's an indisputably useful gift in the profession Nixon lived and Trump has lately entered and redefined. They also share a lifelong conflation of revenge and justice in their professional and personal lives that attracted support. There's no manipulation there—voters who care more about watching people they don't agree with be excoriated than they do about policy don't need to be persuaded to love it.
These are the two "law and order" men who captured the hearts and imaginations of the "Great Silent Majority" (rhetoric their campaigns both used), which sent them to Washington to crush snobby political elites and culture warrior faux-intellectuals gone mad. Nixon controlled his narrative masterfully enough to enjoy the devotion of his Great Silent Base, a majority of the country, until days before he resigned. Even then nearly a fifth of Americans, faced with overwhelming evidence of his guilt, still thought he should stay on and that the stories of his misconduct were being either sensationalized or outright manufactured by the media—a belief Nixon carefully reinforced for years.
That's why President Trump's much-touted historically low approval ratings are all but irrelevant in light of the broader point: he's still very popular with around forty percent of Americans, who are largely aware of what he's said and done before and since attaining office. Those millions of voters believe he is behaving responsibly and telling the truth (enough to be convinced not only that he's fit for the office, but that he is doing as well or better than they expected). His rendition of the Great Silent Majority is rarely silent and certainly is not a majority, but it's surely big enough to mount a united defense similar to that which Nixon's true majority mounted on his behalf.
Support so devout from so many people is not to be underestimated. It can help shrewd leaders survive all but the most damning allegations. These are the voters they can trust to believe that the media is dishonest and out to get them, that their political opponents are only piling on them because they want their agenda to fail, that what their critics allege simply can't be true. If sold at the jump, these voters will be with their champion to the surprisingly distant limit of denial, as long as it's remotely believable that the accusations against them are based on lies. Only when the truth becomes inescapable does the Great Majority return to silence.
Nixon would likely have retired honorably with a passing blemish of scandal on his administration's legacy had it not been for the tapes having him dead to rights on involvement in Watergate, as the pivotal question of "what did he know and when did he know it?" would likely have been unanswerable. But his downfall is not solely owed even to the recorded evidence against him and his staff— by 1973, he was also facing a hostile Congress his party didn't control, a universally rabid press with no mitigating force of partisan media running defense for him, and an independent Attorney General with whom he had no personal or political relationship. All of these adverse circumstances still may not have been enough to bring him down without the tapes, the "smoking gun."
If history will call Director Comey's firing Trump's Saturday Night Massacre, it's happening under circumstances much more advantageous for the President. His party controls both branches of Congress, there are multiple media outlets willing to buoy his administration's alternative approach to the facts, and the current Attorney General was the earliest and most ardent supporter of his campaign in the Senate, integral to the formation of his agenda. Voices in the legislature are calling for stronger measures to deal with the administration's alleged collusion with Russia, but not many from the President's party and not a plurality, even after the week of unabated troubling news from the White House since the Director's dismissal.
If Trump did fire James Comey for the same reason that Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973 (to shield himself from an investigation into serious wrongdoing of which he is unequivocally guilty), he's in a much better position to get away with it, and that's a disturbing prospect. Nixon covered up his administration's complicity in burglary and political sabotage and espionage, which is criminal, but did not directly endanger the nation's security. Trump is alleged to be covering up a clandestine relationship with ruling entities of a hostile foreign superpower, which would be treasonous, and introduce us to a kind of danger our nation has never known.
Nixon was nine months and nine days into a second term he won with the greatest plurality of votes of any president in history, and nine days into the fallout from the Saturday Night Massacre on October 29th, 1973, when The New Yorker’s Jonathan Schnell cast the situation in dire terms:
"On this occasion, as on many others in recent years, the President has flouted the law. He has not merely broken the law; he has overthrown the law. But this time, since his lawbreaking seems to remove a threat to the very survival of his Administration in office, it is not just this one act but the continuation of the Administration itself that has become lawless. The question of whether the Republic will live or die has now been decisively posed in this form: Will we remove a lawless Administration from office or will we submit to illegitimate rule? The question has probably been put in its final form, and may not be asked again."
Schnell echoed most of the rest of the press in asserting that the only viable course forward was for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings. "The country surveys a scene of devastation," he concluded. "The wreckage of American institutions lies all around us. Any future under the present leadership is unthinkable. The point of no return has been passed, and the country has no choice but to take the first, dread steps toward putting its house in order."
Congress would not move to impeach Nixon until July 27th, 1974 and he would not resign until August 8th—ten months after what many considered to be “the point of no return.” Nixon was in office for five years and 6 months - just over 2,000 days - less than 500 of which were spent ducking investigations and fighting for his political life.
As of this writing, President Trump has been in office for 117 days and, while the scope of drama created by the allegations against him and his less than reassuring reactions is truly extraordinary, it hasn't brought us anywhere near “the point of no return.”
To the best of public knowledge, the President has done nothing illegal and no recordings exist to prove otherwise. Misguided or even dangerously foolish choices are, as past Presidents have proved, not grounds for impeachment (or even always enough to cost one an election). Presidents can share intelligence with foreign diplomats as they see fit, fire FBI Directors, and radically revise the country's foreign policy. They can, apparently, continue to profit exorbitantly from their vast international business interests and employ their politically inexperienced family members to ambiguous White House positions. None of it is, at first look, impeachable. If it were, the list of officials within our government that could be trusted to say as much is narrowing and will presumably narrow further when the President appoints a new FBI Director.
The public, and not just the liberal public, has begun to wonder if Congressional Republicans have a “point of no return” beyond which they will not follow the President. It looks increasingly doubtful that revelations about his past and present actions will deter the admiration of his base, whose judgment seems to be paralyzing their representatives and senators with fear. As long as the President can refute the truth with impunity, there can be no hope of the Great Vocal Minority accepting that he did anything wrong, or that his accusers aren't the real crooks, and the chances of the Republican caucus defying them will remain slim. A future under the present leadership is unthinkable to many Americans already, but at the moment, it's the only immediately foreseeable one.
President Trump, unlike President Nixon at the unfolding of his crisis, holds a strong hand. His bench and resources for perpetuating his survival are formidable. If we really have started careening down the road to Constitutional crisis, it will be a long and bloody one that will strain our institutions, our society and our faith in both more than we have experienced in living memory. The unspoken question at the end, beyond whether or not our leaders and institutions will protect us and themselves, is what happens if they don't. We don't know the answer, and as a nation, we can't afford to learn it. My best guess, though, is that we'd be forced to accept the creed we rejected when Nixon offered it: when the President does it, that means it's not illegal.