The Republican Party: From Watergate to Donald Trump

It is eminently possible to argue that Trump is little more than a stranger within a Republican Party he has subdued with aggressive populism. However, it goes much deeper than this.

Richard Nixon is among the greatest American presidents when it comes to foreign policy. He realized a historic rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China, negotiated the withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam and carried out a policy of détente with the Soviet Union that included an ambitious treaty to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Weaving together the threads of each one of those acts, he managed to make them mutually reinforceable. In this way, his rapprochement with Beijing redirected pressure from this regime to authorities in North Vietnam, thereby facilitating peace negotiations with the United States. In a similar manner, these events forced Moscow to search for a sort of entente cordiale with Washington and to negotiate many contentious issues, particularly with respect to nuclear weapons. This thawing of relations with the Soviets simultaneously generated pressure on the Chinese to become more flexible. Nixon knew how to play his country’s adversaries like puppets, making them compete among themselves to curry favor with Washington.

Nixon’s visit to Beijing spooked Moscow, just as his visit to Moscow spooked Beijing. Furthermore, both encounters convinced Hanoi that it needed to find a negotiated solution with Washington so as to not be left out in the cold. All this handed the reins of strategic initiative to the United States. John Lewis Gaddis, an acclaimed Cold War historian, noted that Nixon’s achievements in this field were worthy of Klemens von Metternich, Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh and Otto von Bismarck, the three great statesmen of 19th century Europe.

The nation rewarded Nixon in 1972 with an overwhelming vote for reelection. His Democratic opponent, George McGovern, won just 17 Electoral College votes compared to Nixon’s 520. However, two years later, Nixon was forced to resign from the presidency. Between the victory and the humiliation, there lay the Watergate scandal. The fact that he authorized domestic surveillance of the Democratic Party offices located in the Watergate building in Washington, together with having lied about his involvement in those actions, destroyed his presidency. Subjected to an impeachment process initiated by Senate Democrats, Nixon was forced to resign when the leadership of his own party advised him they would not support him. In effect, the Republican Party chose to preserve the rule of law over keeping one of their exceptionally successful brethren in power.

Fast forward in history to 2020, and we find ourselves with a markedly different Republican Party. Donald Trump has used every tactic at his disposal to bring about a coup d’état in a way that is entirely worthy of an Alexander Lukashenko or a Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Dismissing the verdict issued by voters in last November’s election, the current occupant of the White House has resorted to every possible trick in the book to avoid leaving.

He has pushed his party’s election authorities to refuse to certify Democratic wins in various states; he has tried to provoke members of the Electoral College into disregarding the mandate that was given to them by voters; he has subjected all those who have not bowed to his will to his supporters’ aggression; he has attempted to prevent Republican-controlled legislative bodies from appointing members elected by the Electoral College in favor of others who support him; he has harassed members of the House of Representatives, calling on them to ignore the Electoral College and directly appoint the winner of the election; and he has dismissed and discredited the judgment from the Supreme Court as well as the judgment of numerous federal and state courts that have ruled against his lawsuits. Take all this, rinse and repeat. It has been accompanied by incendiary rhetoric intended to shatter his followers’ faith in the electoral system and in the results of the contest. Trump’s attack on institutions and the rule of law do not appear to have any limits.

It is eminently possible to argue that Trump is little more than a stranger within a Republican Party that he has subdued with aggressive populism. However, it goes much deeper than that. More than 60% of Republican Party members in the House of Representatives are actively complicit in his excesses, while 90% of Republicans in Congress have not recognized Joe Biden’s election.

Aware that the popular vote has not favored them for some time now in various presidential elections, the Republican Party has been developing a strategy with the purpose of restricting or manipulating the vote in their favor. Nevertheless, the switch from this to showing their explicit or implicit support for disregarding a presidential election is a significant leap. The jury is in: The Republican Party of the Watergate era bears no resemblance to the Republican Party of today.

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