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Al Cross: Fifty years after Watergate, we live in an age of bad faith

As a House committee tries to awaken Americans to the seditious behavior of Donald Trump, the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the burglary that led to exposure of another president’s criminal enterprise, the Watergate scandal of Richard Nixon.

If the country is to recover from Trump, it would do well to reflect on Nixon, their similarities and differences, and the connections between their scandals.

They both perverted our system of government and politics, but Nixon was a product of the system, so he retained some respect for it – and that may be why he didn’t destroy the tapes that led to his resignation in the face of certain impeachment and removal.

Trump ran against the system and the elites who steer it, and that worked for him in 2016. When voters in 2020 used the system to remove him from office, he tried to break it. He partly succeeded, because he had turned much of the Republican Party into a personality cult that strikes fear in GOP officials who want to be re-elected (and first re-nominated).

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune is the anchor home for Al Cross’ column. We offer it to other publications throughout the Commonwealth, with appropriate attribution.

In refusing to accept the will of the voters, and inspiring a deadly insurrection with the lie that the election was stolen from him, Trump broke the norms that make the system work. He doesn’t care about the system. He only cares about himself, and his ego will not permit him to leave as a loser.

Why is Trump’s big lie believed by millions? Mainly because they are suspicious of the system. To find the roots of that, look to the era of Nixon.

As the Vietnam War and domestic unrest laid the path for Nixon’s election in 1968, Americans’ trust in government “to do what is right just about always or most of the time” had fallen to 62% from a high of 77% in 1965, according to the Pew Research Center. When Nixon won re-election in 1972, the trust level had fallen to 53%. After Watergate and his resignation, it was 36%. Since then, the trust poll’s moving average has been below 50%, and since George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004 it hasn’t been above 35%.

We live in an age of bad faith, driven by doubt that any given person or institution is operating on the level, and the suspicion that they have bad motives: money, power, partisanship, etc. This sad age was created in part by Richard Nixon and capitalized upon by Donald Trump.

The two are compared in a foreword for the 50th anniversary reprint of All The President’s Men by leading Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein: “Both Nixon and Trump created a conspiratorial world in which the U.S. Constitution, laws and fragile democratic traditions were to be manipulated or ignored, political opponents and the media were ‘enemies,’ and there were few or no restraints on the powers entrusted to presidents.”

When Nixon perverted the system to get a weak Democratic opponent in 1972, and did all sorts of other illegal acts, he was found out and banished because the system still worked and most Americans still believed in it.

Trump didn’t just pervert the system; he tried to discredit the electoral mechanisms and the honorable officeholders who make it work. That is a more fundamental evil than Nixon ever perpetrated, because it undermines the foundations of our democratic republic. For our system to work, people must have faith in it.

Sadly, many Americans could care less about the system, partly because they don’t quite understand it; we can blame that partly on the near-demise of civics education in our schools in the last 40 years.

The House committee hearings are a form of civic education, especially when Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., lay out the constitutional, legal and moral principles at stake. But it’s a bad time to ask Americans to care about the system; they seem to care more about today’s all-too-real fuel and food prices than some seemingly vague threat to the way we govern ourselves.

With pocketbook issues at the fore, the testimony about Trump profiteering from his falsehoods may have as much impact on voters as anything else. As Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said, “Not only was there the big lie, there was the big ripoff.” That sort of argument may help rid us of Trump, but it will do little to restore trust in the system.

The committee is an imperfect vessel for building trust. It was appointed by Democrats because of partisan disagreements about its makeup after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans blocked creation of an independent, bipartisan commission. But McConnell has endorsed the committee’s inquiry, and in January 2021, he blamed Trump for the attack. When the committee is done, what McConnell says about it will matter. A lot.

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  1. Richard says:

    I thought a hearing should give voice to all parties, but sadly this congressional committee is made up of 2 republicans and 7 democrats. Additionally, the republicans were hand picked by democrat leadership. Both of the republicans selected hate Trump. The democrats pick the witnesses as well. What took so long to start these public hearings? Could it be that this is an election year and the democrats have nothing to run on, i.e. political distraction? If Trump is guilty of a crime, then let the justice department investigate, otherwise this is a partisan political exercise, supported by the legacy media, to draw attention away from the sagging economy, high inflation and likely recession.

  2. David says:

    Good column. The commission, like the electoral process and our country, is imperfect. Just as people are.
    Let’s not continue to apologize or make excuses for Trump. It’s all about Trump. As Al says, he can’t go out a loser.

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