The conventional wisdom is that Donald Trump firing FBI director James Comey and all that has followed since has meant the beginning of the end of his administration. A few countervailing voices have written about how slow the process of ending an administration actually is, and a few others have spoken about the end of Trump’s presidency in the context Democrats winning the midterms in 2018.
But these two frames are missing four crucial elements: first, a consideration of the future of the Republican Party; second, what post-Watergate historical analogues can be made at the level of detail and at the level of policy; third, how other countries across the world have recently dealt with the transition from one somewhat difficult government to one a little less difficult; and, fourth — and perhaps most importantly — what it actually feels like to actually live in this country at this particular moment, and how that might square with the first three points.
The GOP has been accused by many of giving a wide berth to Trump so that they can get what they want. “When will the Republicans stand up to Trump?” Max Boot wondered in The New York Times on May 12th. John Cassidy and the headline editor at The New Yorker characterized the GOP as “craven enablers.” The National Review pleaded with Republicans to not go down the route of Trump. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell shrugged when Comey was fired, and other Republicans have offered up a range of excuses for the administration’s behavior. “For months after the Watergate burglars were arrested in June 1972, Republicans continued to defend the president,” James Downie wrote in The Washington Post.
Downie continued —
Sen. Bob Dole described the first stories of The Post’s now-famous reporting as “a barrage of unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations.” Ronald Reagan described the burglars as “well-meaning individuals committed to the reelection of the president.”
What can be done to change the GOP for the better? One step will be in comparing reaction to reaction: when Barack Obama became President, the wives of the Koch brothers didn’t rush off to get IUD’s, did they?
And an argument for the future of the GOP could follow the following path: first, the de-Kochification of the party. The second will be in re-establishing an across-the-board positive relationship between government, society, and international capital: in 2014, Thomas Piketty argued that tax evasion could cost the world 10% of its GDP. That can be fixed. (And this can be explored in much greater depth, as I’ve tried to demonstrate elsewhere.) Third: it’s worth returning to Reince Priebus’s post-mortem, as — fourth — there is going to be a need to contain, roll back, and heal the damage caused by the dramatic expansion of white nationalism within the GOP’s ranks, which is something that makes itself manifest in tram attacks in Portland and the proposition for the creation of ‘Bathroom Bills’ across the country.
At the level of policy, John Wonderlich, director of The Sunlight Foundation, which promotes transparency in government, told me that the future would be made better if Presidential candidates were required to disclose their tax returns; that “the loophole in the Ethics in Government Act that has allowed President Trump to maintain his relationship to his massive corporate and branding network clearly needs to be closed. Our longstanding assumption that an American President would choose the public interest over their private interests, and transparently, fully divest has been proven false.”
At the level of individual people, we can point to a conversation with John Robert Greene, the Paul J. Schupf Professor, History and Humanities at Cazenovia College, who wrote The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford, and who told me of the transition time between Nixon and Ford, saying that —
Ford took it upon himself to travel the country, meet with Republican leaders, shore up his Republican base, shore up his relationship with donors, and although he was minority leader, he knew virtually every republican of consequence in the country. In short, took care of his own power base.
If you look at Pence now, he has done and is doing none of these things. Pence is not doing any traveling to shore up any Republican base of power. As governor of Indiana, he did none of that. If he was in Congress, he was too junior to do that. If there is a Pence presidency, there won’t be that base that Ford had when he came in — [that made it] easier for Ford with 48 hours notice.
After talking about Spiro Agnew, the 1968 convention, and Ford’s appetite for eating rubber chicken, Greene noted that —
The Watergate babies come into force in 1974: you’ve got Gary Hart, Joe Biden … democrats who were elected for the first time in 1974, riding the national wave of revulsion against Vietnam and Watergate. Ford is faced in his last two years with a Democratic majority in both houses. He didn’t have a good Congressional relations staff for dealing with an opposition. He brought people with him from his office, but they weren’t ready to be in the minority. If you look at his legislative accomplishments, 1975–1977, it’s a short list. It’s not so much apples and oranges — plus, he’s spun into the Presidency and re-election in the same heartbeat. Ford knows he’s going to get opposition from Reagan. He’s fighting a Democratic house, Reagan, and Jimmy Carter.
It is not difficult to look at this and imagine replacing Reagan with Ben Sasse’s recent high-profile exhortations of moderation, Tip O’Neil with Nancy Pelosi, and Jimmy Carter with every Democrat under the sun.
The history of this seems to run slightly against the grain of the omnipresent Jeet Heer, who writes that —
A few people make this argument: once Trump is gone & replaced by a mainstream figure (Hatch or Warren, say) norms will return. Nope … once you elect a clown like Trump, you lose trust not just now but for many years to come. A nation that elects a Trump once could easily elect a similar figure again in the future. That becomes priced into national reputation. For the Germans, South Koreans, Japanese etc. this is no joke: they’ve stake their lives on having stable USA foreign policy …
And if that level of damage is incurred — if a kind of ‘worst case version’ of Steve Bannon’s fever dream comes true — then what should be done? Should we be looking towards a lighter version of democratic transitions undertaken by Chile, Argentina, and Spain in the past thirty-to-forty years? If all the warning signs have been flashing red — to the point where Timothy Snyder has been touring promoting On Tyranny — then shouldn’t the next logical step be examining a field of democratic transition?
I’d be tempted to argue yes if it weren’t for the comparative history with the transition from Ford to Nixon, but it also seems to overlook a fundamental feature of the agreement between authoritarians and the population in that an authoritarian gives the public something, as this paper from 2006 reminds us —
In Mexico the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for many years provided organized labor with numerous benefits while these labor groups, in turn, supported successive PRI-governments’ restrictions on political freedom (Collier 1992; Murillo 2000). In South Korea, rulers reached similar implicit and explicit agreements with major domestic investors and large conglomerates (Kang 2002). In the Middle East, authoritarian bargains have remained resilient particularly in oil-rich states, where welfare spending provided by earnings from oil exports have historically granted rulers considerable autonomy from pressures to liberalize politically (Heydemann 2002). In non-democratic Sub-Saharan Africa, finally, the provision of private goods by rulers to groups on the basis of ethnic or linguistic solidarity has long been a hallmark of those regimes’ survival (Olivier de Sardan 1999.)
And who has Trump delivered to? Russians, the business elite, air traffic controllers (except — a month after I wrote this — not), and himself. That does not strike me as a sustainable strategy, even if he and his team manage to invent a new villain every other week.
But this is an argument about the future, and totally ignores what life is like now.
The above photo was taken on June 6th, 2017, two days before Comey’s testimony, and — to my mind — there are two ways to think about it: the first is that these are possible fans of Donald Trump milling in front of the White House; the second way to think about this photo is that it’s a nice day and these are citizens and tourists at the White House, so why not take a picture? The decrease in tourism may be a number that you couldn’t ignore, but you couldn’t ignore the people taking advantage of the day either. It was a lovely day for it — restaurateurs were eating outside, rooftop bars were opening up, and pride flags were lining the windows of restaurants in preparation for Pride occurring the coming weekend — and who were politics to get in the way of the idea of what it meant to be a citizen of this country?