If we try to keep a sense of balance, the exposures of the past several months are analogous to the discovery that the directors of Murder Inc. were cheating on their income tax. Reprehensible, surely, but hardly the point.
Noam Chomsky, “Watergate: A Skeptical View,” 1973.
On October 22, 1968, Richard Milhous Nixon, the Republican nominee for President of the United States, made a choice to destroy millions of lives. Just two weeks away from the election, the mood in the country was historically pessimistic. Recent assassinations of beloved political leaders, mass protests over racial oppression and educational inequality, and shockingly overt displays of corruption by the political class disturbed a middle class that until recently had been calmly and complacently enjoying the longest period of economic growth in American history. But no horror was as crushing as the invasion of Vietnam, a nonsensical and illegal war that had already claimed over 20,000 mostly-unwilling American conscripts and likely hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians. To increase the limited appeal of the superdelegate-selected Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Johnson administration was desperately trying to end the war before the election.
Nixon had just received a call from Henry Kissinger, a Republican foreign relations scholar working with the American embassy in Vietnam, telling him that the President had just made a breakthrough. If the United States ended its bombardment of North Vietnam, the Hanoi government would begin to withdraw troops from South Vietnam, effectively ending the war. Nixon scribbled out a now-public note to his closest aide, H. R. Haldeman, with instructions on how to “monkey wrench” President Johnson’s peace talks. By morning, a triumvirate of destruction sprang into effect: Vice Presidential nominee Spiro Agnew would blackmail the CIA into spying on the negotiators, Republican lobbyist Anna Chennault would bribe regional allies including South Vietnam to oppose the deal, and Kissinger would personally sabotage any mediation efforts on the condition that Nixon make him National Security Advisor.
And so the war did not end. In the election on November 5, Nixon defeated Humphrey by less than 1% of the popular vote. His administration went on to expand the violence in Vietnam to Laos and Cambodia, enormously increase the number of American men drafted into the military, allow another 20,000 US troops to die, and murder millions of civilians before declaring “peace with honor” in the region he devastated beyond any hope of recovery. In a single act of political gamesmanship, Richard Nixon made possible every element of the intergenerational and international trauma emanating from the most violent five years of the Vietnam War.
This astounding crime (“treason,” Lyndon Johnson can be heard calling it on tapes his library released in 2013) has been relegated to practical invisibility in the mainstream discussion of American history. There has never been a shortage of proof. In 1982, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh uncovered a wiretap of Nixon and Kissinger discussing the conspiracy, President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford both referred to it in their memoirs, co-conspirator H. R. Haldeman published his own documentation of Nixon’s, direct involvement in 1994, and the Johnson and Nixon Libraries had both released detail evidentiary recordings by 2014. Still, the episode is conspicuously absent from major scholarship on Nixon or Vietnam, and until recently, was vociferously denied by apologists on both the left and right. The New York Times, the nation’s self-proclaimed “newspaper of record,” never once mentioned Nixon’s sabotage before December 31, 2016, 34 years after Hersh leveled his charges in the Atlantic and almost 50 years after Kissinger’s fateful phone call.
Richard Nixon died in 1994, never forced to confront the millions of human beings whose lives were destroyed in the brutality of his ambition. Henry Kissinger has also been spared any criminal prosecution. But there is a profoundly illustrative divergence between the two men’s lives. Kissinger, now 93, is a venerated elder statesman, an icon of realpolitik so untouchable both major party candidates sought his endorsement in the last 2016 election. He just last week met with Donald Trump in the White House, as he has with each of the past seven heads of state. Nixon, however, died in unquestionable disgrace, widely remembered as one of the worst presidents of the 20th century, his very name synonymous with corruption and dishonesty.
His humiliation, of course, stems from the FBI’s revelation that he paid subordinates to break into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel prior to the 1972 election. The ensuing scandal has been logged in the national psyche as one of the defining traumas of the modern era – one of only three times in American history a sitting President has publicly faced criminal charges. When Nixon resigned his office in 1974 (having been promised a complete legal pardon by his Vice President, Gerald Ford), he became the only President ever to do so. Watergate remains perhaps the only manifestation of governmental lawlessness the general public, deeply alienated from the political class, has been permitted to examine. Thus it has survived and blossomed in popular consciousness, so much so that 43 years later, the word “Nixonian” has become a term of capital condemnation.
Of course, as is the case in any moment in history, the weight given a particular event can obscure surrounding details critical in communicating context. Two such details in the Watergate incident has been largely ignored by the dictators of narrative. Firstly, the break-in was a politically unnecessary event. Even had the Committee to Re-Elect the President succeeded in their mission of stealing demographic data from DNC, which they did not, it is hard to imagine any strategic information they gleaned could have improved Nixon’s performance in his reelection campaign. In one of the biggest landslides in US history, every state but Massachusetts swung against the unusually progressive Democratic nominee George McGovern, due largely to the “Anyone But McGovern” campaign waged not by Nixon but by the Democrats’ conservative elite. The burglary would have had no impact on history had it not been interrupted.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, attacks on political opponents were not unprecedented, or even atypical of American presidents. Nixon’s FBI had planted drugs on members of dissident political organizations such as the Black Panthers and the Students for a Democratic Society in order to justify police violence. The Johnson administration had gone to stunning lengths to silence dissenting populists (sabotaging Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and even trying to push Martin Luther King to suicide), and a mere decade before, hundreds of Americans were arrested simply for membership in the Communist Party. Skeptics at the time understood that Nixon was actually being punished for who he tried to burgle – the Democratic Party, whose wealthy donor class do not face such insubordination lightly. As Noam Chomsky wryly put it in a noteworthy 1973 essay, “The targets now include the rich and respectable, spokesmen for official ideology, men who are expected to share power…Such people are not fair game for persecution.”
It is no accident that Watergate remains one of the most widely remembered events of the twentieth century while Nixon’s truly staggering war crimes evade even fleeting mention. The political class has much to gain by emphasizing how dangerous it is to transgress against either of the pro-corporate parties. And it has much to lose by criticizing mass violence. How can we acknowledge the brutality of Nixon’s fraudulence in Vietnam without first decrying Lyndon Johnson’s utterly false claim that US troops were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, a lie he used to ensure Congressional approval of the Vietnam War in the first place? Would it not then be necessary to criticize liberal darling John F. Kennedy for sending Americans, illegally and in secret, to kill Vietnamese farmers in concentration camps? Had Nixon been punished, would his accomplice Kissinger have been free to guide Gerald Ford through committing genocides in Indonesia and Nigeria? Would future Presidents been so uniformly cavalier in their capitalistic atrocities around the globe?
On May 9, Donald Trump, a President whose moronic, infantile impulsivity is about as far from Nixon’s cold pragmatism as is humanly possible, inspired widespread comparisons to his only less-beloved predecessor when he fired FBI Director James Comey in the midst of the anxiously anticipated Russia investigation. MSNBC’s Malcolm Nance, an expert on manufacturing hysteria through inaccuracy, promised “This is a Nixonian move…It will blow past Watergate.” In the wall-to-wall coverage Comey’s dismissal has received, many more level-headed commentators drew similar connections, as have public figures from The Simpsons to John McCain. The analogy is not without merit. In the heat of the Watergate investigation, Nixon famously embarked on a “Saturday Night Massacre,” forcing his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General to resign when they refused to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.
The most plausible explanation for Comey’s firing is the most obvious. Trump is trying to end the FBI’s search for a link between his presidential campaign and foreign governments, including (but not limited to) Russia. If the President’s decision was part of a strategic move by his administration, it was clearly ill-advised. Unlike Cox, Comey had no personal involvement in the investigation, which, despite the President’s absurd boasts, is continuing unimpeded as an Obama-appointee, Andrew McCabe, takes control of the Bureau. More likely, Trump chose to fire Comey in one of many demonstrations of his fundamental ignorance of the governmental branch he was elected to lead. This infantile flailing has clearly crippled the President’s case that he has nothing to hide, a case that grows increasingly desperate as one after another of his claims is proven false.
It isn’t hard to imagine what could unfold over the remainder of Trump’s administration. The FBI, the Senate, and a Special Prosecutor will broaden the investigation into his campaign until they inevitably find some law-breaking, à la Watergate. Unless he is able to concoct some grand enough distraction, the President will then either resign or face impeachment. He will be replaced by religious fundamentalist Mike Pence, who will continue to enact the Republican Party’s apocalyptic vision with none of Trump’s crippling stupidity. And while Trump lives out his humiliation with nothing but billions of stolen dollars to comfort him, liberals will breathe a sigh of relief and the wheel of American politics will trundle along its track of devastation.
In their passionate and partially righteous push to remove our truly despicable President, liberals have given surprisingly little thought to the nature of their accusations. Cries of Russian interference and Manchurian Candidates may captivate the nation through Cold War nostalgia, but they do more to heal Democrats’ pride (and reassert the war lobby’s control) than to explain the 2016 election. The allegations from the former bipartisan establishment are no more meaningful than the now-absurd claim that it was Comey himself who acted as a shill for Trump and stole a victory for the Republicans. The Democratic Party lost as soon as it used the media as a prop both to sabotage the electable populist Bernie Sanders and to promote Trump as a “pied piper,” hoping to draw votes away from more conventional Republicans. Our election was not stolen except by the electoral college; our leader, who has brought US-Russian relations to a historic low by attacking Putin’s troops in Syria, is clearly not interested in pleasing the Kremlin. If the Russians tried to swing the election, they did so foolishly and without significant consequence.
Liberals suggest that in firing Comey, Trump is clearing out the opposition to solidify his authoritarian hold on the government. But such an argument ignores his administration’s complete failure to take control of even their own executive branch, where a mere 15% of Obama nominees have been replaced. No, the President is losing his delicate grip on authority through sheer idiocy. This is not optimistic delusion; quite the opposite, the absolute control of multinational corporations in the absence of a competent government is a far more terrifying manifestation of fascism than any cult of personality could be. The reality is that despite “Hail Trump”-ing teenagers and Mussolini retweets, American fascism is now what it always has been: politicians who rule for sport, invisible rulers whose thrones are the engines of capital, a media apparatus that creates its own history, and a vicious military power that can commit unspeakable atrocities with no fear of accountability.
We now run the terrible risk of forgiving yet another brutal mass murderer for this fascism, and in doing so we cement our complacency in it.
Like Richard Nixon before him, Donald Trump is not on trial for the crimes the media and political class present to us. He is being punished for changing the game long ago agreed on by the rich and powerful, for winning an election against the wishes of both ruling political parties, for wasting the unprecedented $1.4 billion poured into Hillary Clinton’s campaign and becoming the first President since Carter to take office without outspending his opponent. This is a tragedy, not because it is unfairly harsh on the poor billionaire, but because it absolves him for every one of his stunning attacks on the life and dignity of people and the planet. If Trump’s legacy is defined by “Russiagate,” it will not be defined by the long and profound tradition of fascism and slaughter he manifests.
In December 1973, while the nation was reeling from Nixon’s bloodless Saturday Night Massacre, the editorial staff of The Call magazine wrote in a piece titled “Dump Nixon! Stop the Fascist Tide!”:
“Nixon’s real crimes are not the petty ones of bribery and corruption which his fellow capitalists so hypocritically accuse him of. Our movement to dump Nixon must expose his real crimes against the people of Indochina, the Arab peoples, and the people of Chile as well as the working and oppressed people here in the U.S. While these are not on Time Magazine’s or Senator Kennedy’s list of Nixon’s crimes, they must be added to our indictment of the Nixon government and the imperialist interests which he represents.”
Sadly, we can safely assume that no member of the House Judiciary Committee was up to date on radical periodicals, and when the Articles of Impeachment were drafted, Richard Nixon stood accused simply of planning one failed hotel break-in. The path of history, the power of the presidency, the soulless machinery of American militarism remain unchanged. The fascist tide that had brought a Nixon administration only after a Johnson, a Kennedy, an Eisenhower, roared on ever stronger.
By all means, we should impeach the President. But to save lives and salvage our terrifyingly precarious civilization, we must avoid the Watergate trap.
Let’s impeach the President for selling $110 billion of weapons to the oil-rich Saudi Arabian monarchy, a cadre of theocrats who behead more people than ISIS and are under investigation for war crimes. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest sponsor of terrorist groups, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, so the arms deal is a federal crime and an act of treason.
Let’s impeach the President for blocking food shipments and humanitarian aid from entering Yemen, leaving a staggering 7 million people (more than a quarter of the population) at risk of starvation. Targeting civilians through forced starvation is a war crime according the Geneva Conventions he swore to uphold.
Let’s impeach the President for deliberately bombing mosques, schools, and refugee camps, all protected by the Geneva Conventions. Let’s impeach him for murdering at least 40 civilians every day so far in his presidency in bombing raids throughout the Middle East.
Let’s impeach the President for continuing the previous administration’s bombings in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia without Congressional approval. The Constitution strictly prohibits any military action taken by the Commander-in-Chief without the consent of the legislature, and international law forbids any unprovoked attack on another country.
Let’s impeach the President for intensifying our country’s most singular source of shame – our globally unparalleled rate of incarceration, a system of so-called justice that targets black and poor people and forces millions into unpaid labor. International onlookers have pointed out the ways that the deliberate humiliation and isolation of American prisoners violates basic human rights protections demanded by the United Nations.
Let’s impeach him for trying to kill his own people by taking away their health care. Or for stealing from their public services by allowing the Pentagon to operate without submitting itself to meaningful budgetary audits. Or for poisoning their children by gutting already conservative environmental protections in the face of a historically unprecedented ecological crisis.
Let’s impeach him and hold him genuinely accountable for his crimes, take the billions he never earned to pay reparations to those whose lives he has already destroyed. Let’s bring the mega-donors and conmen who pull his strings to justice as well. Let’s acknowledge that we become hypocrites without also unleashing our fury upon the murderers of state who have so far evaded justice – yes Hillary, yes Obama, yes 93-year-old Henry Kissinger. Let’s hold every one of them to the flame they reserved for the powerless and poor until anyone who would presume to rule us understands what it truly means to toy with human life.
Let’s impeach the President and keep going until we’ve impeached the presidency. Let’s demolish once and for all the imperialist fallacy that some sacred succession of narcissists has more of a right to our lives than we do. Let’s question a system in which buying one man means buying an immense army, a fleet of drones and bombers and drone bombers, a nuclear arsenal that could at any second annihilate life as we know it. Let’s realize the immeasurable potential of true democracy and refuse to participate in the institutions that feed on death and misery in their fetishized dance with profit.
If we do any less, we quite literally let Donald Trump get away with murder. But worse, we wed ourselves inextricably to the structure that created him. From the beaches of Yemen to the mountain pastures of Afghanistan to the labor camps of Louisiana, human cling hopelessly to the mercy of a state we could, at any moment, seize and destroy. We can only pray that if our positions were reversed, they would not be held back by our cowardice.