Trump, Nixon and the Path to American Fascism | Opinions
Far too many people in the United States have been preoccupied with blaming the fascist space in which the United States finds itself. For almost six years, “Oh but those e-mails! was the social media shorthand for Americans who did not vote in the 2016 presidential election or who voted for a candidate other than Hillary Rodham Clinton or Donald Trump.
With hearings underway on January 6 in the United States House of Representatives, the question of how the United States devolved at this time remains all about Trump and 2016. Pundits and ordinary Americans alike have been short-sighted (or really, Trump short-sighted) in their explanation of how the United States got down the path of far-right corruption.
Journalist and cultural anthropologist Sarah Kendzior in particular has done a tremendous job in to predict the rise of Trump and explaining the kleptocratic nature of his rise, including his book Hiding in Plain Sight. To Kendzior and others’ credit, they occasionally mention Ronald Reagan or cite the United States Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision (which awarded George W Bush the presidency in 2000) to understand how American leaders prepared the United States for Trump. But neither do they explore the path that led the United States and its democracy to the brink.
At least 50 years ago, attempts by another administration to alter the potential outcome of an election first came to light. Indeed, Trump’s televised attempt to steal a presidential election by force was not something entirely new, but only a variation on the theme of “dirty tricks” dating as far back as President Richard Nixon.
With the 50th anniversary of the Democratic National Committee of Plumbers’ break-in at the Watergate complex having passed on June 17, many Americans will recognize the most famous attempt to steal a presidential election in US history before January 6, 2021. More than a few Americans at the time understood the dangers to American democracy posed to American democracy by Nixon and his 1972 campaign operatives, particularly in covering up their spying, wiretapping and disinformation operations against the Democratic candidates.
My own memories as a four-and-a-half-year-old are tied to Nixon’s televised announcement at 9 p.m. on Thursday evening, August 8, 1974, announcing his official resignation from office.
It started because of a traumatic injury. My mother was cooking in the communal kitchen of our second-floor apartment, preparing some sort of chicken dish. She had the oven door open, she had just taken the chicken out and put it on the stove. I tried to climb on top of the stove to taste using the open oven door as a step, and I burned the outside of my right calf. The skin around the burnt area was gone (it was a pretty good second degree burn), leaving a circular white burn mark. Mom applied ointment and a bandage and made me take two Bayer aspirins for the pain.
Still crying in pain from the shock of seeing, smelling and smelling my burnt skin in the kitchen, I plopped down on the living room couch, which was slightly to the right of the TV. A man with a lumberjack-like face appeared on the 19-inch Quasar color television screen, a man I vaguely knew as President Nixon. I remember Mom shaking her head and Walter Cronkite calling it a “sad time” for the country. Nixon looked as sad and pitiful as I did that night, as the rest of America probably did too. I didn’t understand everything I saw, of course. Words like ‘impeachment’, ‘hearings’ and ‘resignation’ were far beyond a child’s vocabulary at a month in kindergarten. But I saw what I saw, and for more than a few moments.
Over the past 48 years, I’ve had flashbacks to those times. With that, I was encouraged to learn more about what was then the unprecedented level of political corruption that Nixon brought with him to the White House and maintained for over five years as President. The worst part of Watergate and the uncovering of all the corruption that followed was what happened after Nixon resigned from office on August 9, 1974. A month later, newly installed President Gerald Ford issued his proclamation 4311, pardoning Nixon for all the crimes in which he played a part.
Ford’s reasons? “As President, my primary concern must always be the greater good of all the people of the United States whose servant I serve… My concern is the immediate future of this great country,” Ford said in his speech defend his decision. So much for “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” which Ford had said a month earlier while taking the oath.
Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon for his illegal activities of undermining his Democratic opponents and then covering up those activities was short-sighted, cowardly, and narcissistic. Ford let Nixon and all those convicted for their role in Watergate off the hook, extending the “national nightmare” into the present day. The decision not to punish the leader of the greatest attempt to smash American democracy at the time would lead to greater corruption and ever more shameless scandals.
Links can be drawn from Nixon and Ford to Iran-Contra, to Bush vs. Gore, to Citizens United, and to the ever-increasing amounts of black money in the US election, to Trump, and now to the January 6 hearings.
With such a focus on Trump’s rise, though so many have ignored the glide path that led to the January 6 hearings, and with it comes serious doubt that Trump will ever be punished for his fascist acts. And it will probably encourage him and others to try again. Despite what pundits like Sarah Kendzior and others have written in recent years, America’s drift toward corruption and fascism has never been “hidden in plain sight.”
This flight to perdition began as a response to the expansion of civil and human rights for black and white women and as a response to the quagmire Vietnam had become politically for cold warriors seeking economic access to mainland China. Far-right forces have blinded Americans and the rest of the world with their penchant for unvarnished and cowardly brazenness. They dared progressives and leftists to call them out for willful ignorance, corruption, and outright lies, in 1968, 1972, and 2022. Trump and his corruption of American politics, budding fascism, and the merry band of kleptocrats he leads, his rise is only the latest danger in a representative democracy heavily influenced by white male demagoguery. The belief that the election of Hillary Clinton in 2016 would have reversed this 50+ year trend is as delusional as believing that the fundamentals of American political institutions remain strong.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.