Forget Watergate. In the second half of Trump’s term, there are other lessons he could learn from the Nixon years. Like reaching out across the centre-ground to strike deals—and do something practical for forgotten Americaby Sam Tanenhaus / December 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
In January when the new Congress convenes, the next phase—I almost wrote season—of the Trump Era will commence. The mood is expectant. The “blue wave” in the midterm elections swept in a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, and with this much will change. For the first time, President Trump will face organised opposition, and if recent history repeats itself, he could find his presidency all but paralysed.
The obvious precedent is also the most recent one: President Obama, who lost control of government in 2010, when the Tea Party captured the House and swept in a new cadre of ideological zealots. Yet Obama had something Trump conspicuously lacks: healthy personal approval ratings. Trump has yet to reach the threshold of 50 per cent and is currently in the low-40s. Like Obama, he can still count on the Senate, after modest gains that were produced by the tilt of the electoral board this year which strongly favoured the Republicans. Even so the Democrats easily won the cumulative vote nationwide and came very close to winning Senate as well as House seats in solidly “red” states that went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016.
The question now facing House Democrats is whether they will devote the next two years to prosecuting Trump for a well-documented record of illegalities and misuses of office—the congeries of misdeeds the special counsel Robert Mueller has been looking into since May 2017. It is surely tempting: Trump’s anxieties could not be more obvious.
The morning after the midterms, he sacked Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General—“my attorney general,” as Trump liked to call him. Sessions’s crime had been to recuse himself from Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the election of 2016: pro forma rule-following, but to Trump a personal affront. It’s not just ego. Mueller’s sweepingly broad probe, modelled on criminal racketeering prosecutions, poses a genuine threat to Trump and at least one of his sons, who during the election—evidence shows—actively sought damaging information from a foreign source on Hillary Clinton. This likely violated US election law.
“At one year after the formal appointment of a special or independent counsel, only the Watergate special prosecution force had obtained more indictments and guilty pleas,” the website FiveThirtyEight reported in May. That means Mueller has outdone: Lawrence E Walsh, the special prosecutor in the Reagan-era Iran-Contra affair; Kenneth Starr, who went after Bill Clinton over Whitewater and then Monica Lewinsky; and also Patrick Fitzgerald, who investigated the Scooter Libby-CIA leak case during George W Bush’s tenure.
So far, Mueller’s casualties—that is, culprits—include four former Trump advisers and 26 Russian nationals. Trump himself remains unscathed, thanks to the cover he got from Republicans, who for two years declined to hold serious investigations while also trying to tarnish Mueller, a former Director of the FBI. But Democrats now control the House Intelligence Committee and have made it clear they will reverse the Republican course—going after Trump and protecting Mueller, even if it means inviting him to present his findings in public hearings, creating a spectacle that could have the same effect as the Senate Watergate hearings which helped bring down Richard Nixon.
Potentially more damaging are prosecutions in Trump’s home city, New York. Its great newspaper, the New York Times, spent 18 months exploring the Trump family’s dark history of tax evasion, while prosecutors there seized the records of Trump’s “personal lawyer,” Michael Cohen. He later cut a deal with Mueller, promising to divulge “critical information”—in effect a plea bargain. In another recent twist, Cohen admitted, in a second plea bargain, to perjuries in Congressional testimony about efforts to build a “Trump Tower” in Russia and has agreed to cooperate with Mueller.
It all provides a giddy, caffeine jolt to Trump’s “enemies” in the “liberal media,” who seem permanently poised for his impeachment. “The endgame of this presidency seems as clear now as those of Iraq and the financial crisis did months before they unfolded,” the New Yorkerpredicted in April, numberless revelations ago. Clear? Not to most Americans, who would flunk even a simple pop quiz on Trump and Putin. This widespread indifference subtly vindicates Trump’s claim of “fake news.” Trump’s detractors seem not to grasp the actual meaning of this taunt, which he makes not so much to deny the facts as to deny that they matter. “It”—the latest malfeasance, take your pick—may be true, but is it news? For the first two years of Trump’s presidency, the answer has been no.
Cracks in the glass ceiling
Besides, the prosecutorial narrative belies another more hopeful one, harder to work out, because it involves more than the connecting of dots and the scotch-taping of sinister pictures to the wall. Yet it is the one Democrats will need to make sense of if they mean to revive themselves as the true majority party and recapture the White House in 2020.
They will need, first, to interpret the result of their party’s midterm victory. Since the elections, the US voting public has been treated to a kind of continual Instagram festival of cultural diversity—as described by gender and race. The media has been saturated with images of the 100 women now in Congress, including telegenic northeasterners Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York City, who turned 29 three weeks before election day, and Ayanna Pressley of Boston. Also elected were Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, both from the midwest and the House’s first ever Muslim women, and Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, both Native Americans. Davids is additionally “the first openly LGBT member of Congress from Kansas,” CNN reported. Kyrsten Sinema is the first ever woman elected to the Senate from Arizona, and the first openly bisexual person ever elected to the Senate from any state.
More cracks in the “glass ceiling.” Congress looks different, which most agree is a good thing. But what do Americans want the new Democrats to do? Watergate yielded short-term victories—Nixon’s resignation and a Democratic sweep in the 1974 midterms. But it also deepened the cultural divide and pushed the country to the right. The Republicans handily won all three presidential elections in the 1980s building majorities through what social scientists today call “affective polarisation”—the continuous assertion of group identity.
Today those differences are even more magnified. Our voting preferences are items on a checklist that includes the zip code where we live and shop and send our kids to school, the type of coffee we drink, the websites and “feeds” we choose to get our news from. But the collectivity, really a kind of barricade erected against the Evil Other, has infected our two-party system. Republicans and Democrats sedulously court our votes but what they promise is to keep the other side from winning and doing harm. The possibility of some positive good coming from politics seems to dwindle with each passing day.
This Trumpian era thus is said to have been the final phase in the repudiation of “consensus,” that midcentury period of relative harmony, when the two parties met in the middle and were presided over by an elite, drawn from the same colleges, clubs, law firms and banking houses. It was a dull (and very white) world of split differences, compromise, “trimming,” the despised “horse trading” politics of the backroom and the secret bargain. But in other ways those staid guardians of the establishment were also nimble—and responsive. The ethos of bipartisanship unleashed them to do big and bold things. A single decade, the 1960s, gave us sweeping anti-poverty measures, breakthrough civil rights laws, a space programme that landed men on the Moon. It wasn’t only elected politicians who made all this happen. On the contrary, they gave shape to ideas and passions that originated with public, rather than political, leaders—the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, the labour leader Cesar Chavez, the feminist Betty Friedan, the environmentalist Rachel Carson, the urbanist Jane Jacobs. In time such visionaries came to look like uniting, national figures, mobilisers of the broad American consciousness. Their messages were less ideological than moral, built on shared ideals rather than “tribal” differences.
“Law and Order”
All this holds a clue as to why the Watergate scandal is the wrong example for Democrats to study as they prepare to confront Trump. Democrats remember only the resignation of President Nixon, who for many remains a loathed figure, and it’s easy to see why. The crimes he encouraged and authorised badly damaged the republic. But polarising though Nixon was, he was also the first modern president to speak to and for the alienated centre even as he broke the stalemate of the “second civil war”—the racial conflict of the 1960s—by giving something to both sides. He gave resentful whites coded rhetoric (“law and order”) while at the same time working with Democrats, and sometimes outdoing them, on a series of progressive policy measures in almost every area of domestic policy. On the economy, with the traditional Republican “sound money” vote safely in his pocket, he proved to be an expansionist who put employment first—unpegging the dollar from gold, and being caught off camera confessing “we’re all Keynesians now.”
These calculations were worked out by Nixon’s chief domestic policy brain, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a lifelong Democrat. Nixon-Moynihan grasped a simple truth. People might say, and believe, that government was their foe, but they also cherished the things the government did for them and wanted even more, so long as the benefits went to them, and not to someone else at their expense. In 1969, Nixon-Moynihan proposed a guaranteed income to help the “working poor,” the ancestor of today’s “universal basic income.” The plan stalled in Congress—for various reasons—but even its failure gave rise to other programmes that achieved some of its objectives. Today one can hear echoes of it in the talk of a guaranteed job and UBI ideas supported by Ocasio-Cortez and others who are called leftists (see Bernie Sanders, p14), even though a version of the UBI has been experimented with north of the border in Canada with backing from conservatives as well as liberals.
The main lesson of the midterms is that the country today is still looking for programmes like this. Republicans know it. The most comical-absurd moment of the midterms came when many GOP legislators who had relentlessly attacked and tried to eradicate Obama’s Affordable Care Act, suddenly became born-again supporters. Even Trump vowed to put healthcare protections in place, such as coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions—coverage that his own party had previously tried to strip away. Democrats emphasised this Republican volte-face time and again in op-eds, speeches and in advertising campaigns. They were on the case in the spring of 2018 and did not let up. But the media paid little attention. Even MSNBC, the oracle of pro-Democratic cable news, hardly noticed. It was more fun to report on the latest Trump scandal or mindless tweet, even while polls showed that healthcare was the number-one issue on the minds of voters.
The effort to save Obamacare—a mission that resonated across the political spectrum—became the Democrats’ great rallying cry. And no one was more qualified to make the case than the leader of the House Democrats, Nancy Pelosi. She was Speaker when the law was passed in 2010 and as I write she looks set to be Speaker again. At the age 78, she is six years older than Trump, and a controversial figure—Republicans and conservatives have always hated her so-called “San Francisco values,” which they regard as suffused with cultural libertinism. In fact, she is an old-style easterner, raised in a family of power Maryland Democrats—her father “Tommy the Elder” and brother “Tommy the Younger” were both mayors of Baltimore.
Pelosi’s return as Speaker of the House was not a certainty. There were rumblings of discontent and vows of revolt by some of the new Democrats on the ballot in 2018. Pelosi was said to be worried. “She knows the so-called insurgents in the party despise her and deplore her longevity in office, which they think is corrupting,” the political journalist Michael Hirsh wrote shortly before election day. And yet, soon after the Democratic sweep the talk of deposing Pelosi got softer. She made peace with potential rivals and got the provisional backing of the firebrand Ocasio-Cortez. A month before the formal vote—in January—Pelosi was 15 votes shy of the 218 she will need.
This suggests that pre-election talk of “divided Democrats” was somewhat overstated. For all their contrast in rhetoric and style, Pelosi and her opponents on the left agree on the commanding issues—from healthcare and education to gun control and climate change. There are some differences on immigration, trade, and on America’s declining status as a global power, but on core domestic principles, Democrats speak with one voice and have done for years. The centrist Hillary Clinton, once she had defeated Bernie Sanders, adopted much of his programme with only slight adjustments, just as Obama had adopted some of Clinton’s programme after defeating her. Pelosi and her new colleagues agree on most things too.
And this is where congressional Democrats could practice a new Nixonism. It would start with the premise that the obstacle to the Democratic agenda is not so much the transactional Trump, but his party—more specifically, the Republican Party leadership, which remains trapped in the outmoded right-wing ideology of the 1960s, when conservatives captured the GOP and eventually made it the vehicle of anti-government “movement conservatism,” which vowed to roll back Democratic “statism.” Its latest exemplar was Paul Ryan, the House Speaker under Trump who is now out of politics. Ryan’s dream America is a giant Rotary Club that rewards the “entrepreneur” with ever-lower taxes and deregulation (of Wall Street and the environment) while also offering moral reeducation to the poor, the elderly and the ill, all of them too dependent on government alms-giving like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
The trouble—it began with Barry Goldwater’s calamitous presidential campaign in 1964 and continued through the 2016 Republican nomination that gave us the outlier Trump—has been that this libertarian crusade has consistently gone against the popular will, which was why Republicans who were elected president, from Eisenhower to the two Bushes governed from the centre, not the right. Even the conservative hero Ronald Reagan abandoned his longstanding opposition to Medicare (which he once warned was the first stage of Big Brother-style enslavement) and, once in office, raised taxes when he needed to. He came into office declaring government was “the problem” but left Leviathan more bloated than he found it.
Under Reagan, the conservative policy writer David Frum pointed out in the 1990s, “only one spending programme of any size was done away with and even that—the worthless -Comprehensive Employment and Training Act—was instantly replaced by another programme, the Jobs Training Partnership Act, meant to achieve almost exactly the same end.” Reagan’s ideological heir, George W Bush, did much the same thing, and made big government even bigger, increasing federal control over education. He also led the global fight against Aids in Africa, spending $15bn to get drugs and medical care for some 10m patients. Bush was able to do this because most Democrats went along.
In fact, the call for “activist government” has been growing on the right for a decade or more in response to the curse of income inequality. For the typical working American man, wages have stagnated in real terms since 1973—the year of the oil shock and also, as it happened, Nixon’s last full year in office. Since then there has been massive economic growth, but it’s the old story of the rich getting richer while most others fall ever further behind. Trump was elected, in large part, because he understood this, or at least pretended to. He may have signed plutocrat-pleasing tax cuts, but he’s an ideological chameleon who told “forgotten” Americans “I am your voice,” and suggested he might actually help them, through fierce immigration controls and also by legitimately questioning unfair trade deals (with China, principally). It could be that his talk of infrastructure spending will amount only to building “the Wall” along the Mexico border. But unless he can get the money for it while Republicans still rule Congress, the Wall will be only talk. And talk may not be enough.
The less Trump delivers, the more open he may possibly be to fresh currents of thought that might carry him in a more useful direction. And there are people who can help. In the Bush and Obama years a young group of reform conservatives, “reformicons,” proposed measures rooted in the belief that the party had been letting down its blue-collar base at a time when those voters were crying out for help. Those reformicon intellectuals have, in turn, inspired a new cohort who now call explicitly for the GOP to renounce its libertarian recent past. One of its stars, Oren Cass, is the author of The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America. In the book, he outlines proposals on jobs and trade that would fulfill Trump’s hints (or perhaps more properly Steve Bannon’s idea) of a reinvented GOP, a right-tilting “Workers’ Party” that aims to help the GOP’s blue-collar base, rather than exploiting its cultural anxieties during election cycles. Cass and other “post-Trump” or millennial conservatives, some in their 20s, are on Capitol Hill, working on legislative proposals on jobs, healthcare, and “family leave,” all ideas that they know will attract more Democratic than Republican support.
The credit and the glory
The possibility that Democrats cannot ignore—hard though it is for many on the left to swallow—is that Trump could yet be the useful vehicle for these new ideas. He is free of ideological baggage and operates more by instinct and whim than by theory or principle. He is anchored by one thing, his bond with his base—the same middle Americans that need help. The GOP for him is little more than an accessory, and he will shed it without compunction, as the Republicans who have crossed him—some of them now out of jobs—have found.
Trump would reap the credit, and the glory—as he demands—if policies to help struggling Americans ever passed into law. But the author would be fixers in Congress, like Pelosi. She knows this script and has worked it with brilliant success. What Americans call Obamacare has another less-well-known name, “Pelosicare.” It was she, in her first term as House Speaker, who got the Bill written and then mustered the votes to push it through, a triumph of cat-herding, head-counting and persuasion.
Even conservatives were impressed. “Democrats were willing to risk their seats to pass that,” Ramesh Ponnuru, the influential National Reviewand Bloomberg columnist, told me not long afterwards, adding that it was hard to imagine the Republicans who would make an equivalent sacrifice. He was right. But after Trump smashed his mainstream rivals two years ago, a shock now compounded by this autumn’s reprimand from the electorate, smarter Republicans will begin to reason that if they are to get themselves into contention in a post-Trumpian age, they’re going to have to find a way to offer voters some practical answers rather than relying on scapegoats. Democrats, too, must understand that neither parading diverse law-makers nor zealously prosecuting Trump’s misdeeds will win the trust of middle Americans.
“Affective polarisation” is not going away anytime soon. It is the shared psychopathology of our hyper-politicised moment. But Trump’s election is against-the-grain evidence that Americans still cling to a vestigial faith in government—to the idea that the system might be made to work again if only someone who defies all familiar categories is in charge. The same can be said of the rainbow-coloured Democrats. They are the direct, if unintended, consequence of Trump. Recognising this could be the starting point of a new consensus. America will not recreate the past—but it could start by learning from the much-abused consensus period of monochrome elites who got so much done and made the US a better country, and a great one too.