We made it, man! 2021, a promised land of golden sunsets and chirping birdsongs and....oh, who are we kidding? — Donald Trump is still committing impeachable offenses, the Eagles have embarrassed Philadelphia on a national stage, and the pandemic is still just damn depressing. Feels like, dare I say it, 2020 — but better days have got to be ahead. Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch, because stuff keeps happening.
Even after years of snowballing White House scandals and an impeachment debate in Congress, the news of a tape recording involving the president and his chief of staff shocked the nation. Here was America’s commander-in-chief, openly discussing ways to abuse his power in order to make sure that he won reelection over a liberal Democrat.
Most legal experts said there was little doubt that the Republican president had committed an impeachable offense and probably a felony in the meeting captured on tape. And so when three of the GOP’s most powerful men in Congress read the raw text of their president’s words, they marched down Capitol Hill to the White House to tell him in no uncertain terms it was time to resign.
You may have guessed by now that I’m not talking about Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, or Mitch McConnell. No, the Republican Party’s three wise men were Barry Goldwater, his fellow Arizona Sen. John Rhodes, and Pennsylvania’s Hugh Scott, while the president, of course, was Richard Nixon, and the date was August 7, 1974 — more than 46 years ago on the calendar, but light years away when it comes to America’s respect for democracy.
You can tell a lot about America, what went wrong, from the tale of two tapes — the one that brought down Nixon at the end of the long national nightmare known as Watergate, and the one that was handed on Sunday to the Washington Post in which President Trump threatened and bullied Georgia’s secretary of state about “finding” 11,780 votes (which don’t exist, regardless of what Trump believes) to give him the state’s 16 presidential electors.
We should acknowledge that both presidents committed obscene abuses of power in order to influence their own reelection. In the Nixon “smoking gun” tape that led to his resignation three days after it came out, the 37th president told his chief of state H.R. Haldeman to tell lies about a CIA operation to quash the FBI’s nascent criminal probe into the Watergate break-in engineered by his campaign. Likewise, Trump has been caught trying to tamper with Georgia’s vote count while using the power of the White House and his political clout to try to extort the state’s top election official, Brad Raffensperger.
Americans were arguably a tad more innocent in 1974; voters were shocked then to read transcripts of Nixon’s thuggish behavior and his deleted expletives, while Trump’s bad imitation of a Queens mafia boss has been in the public domain for years. But while the electorate is more jaded today, the public still isn’t nearly as cynical as the Republican Party that first tolerated Trump’s antics and now is willing to shred the Constitution in the futile pursuit of four more years.
The weird thing is that you can make the case that the GOP’s congressional heroes of 1974 and its traitors of 2021 — the as-many-as 140 House Republicans and at least 13 senators who will push on Wednesday to cast aside the democratic results of November’s free and fair elections — were motivated by similar political survival instincts. Forty-six years ago, leaders like Goldwater and Scott were worried that Nixon’s nightly crimes on the three main TV networks would drive so-called Middle Americans away from the GOP for a generation. Today, Republican voters — fed a steady diet of lies on right-wing cable TV and YouTube conspiracy channels — don’t want to hear about Trump’s crimes as long as he tortures the liberals they hate, and they will punish any GOP electeds who don’t support their Dear Leader.
Joe Biden will become America’s 46th president two weeks from Thursday, but the madness of King Donald is bearing us ceaselessly back to the past. When the new president finally addresses a joint section of Congress later this winter, he will be looking right at least 150 lawmakers who tried to thwart his election in what can only be described as a coup. It’s a major constitutional crisis. What is to be done?
When it comes to governing, Biden needs to abandon his fantasies about restoring long-lost bipartisanship. Yes, the president-elect should reach out to the handful of Republicans, like Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, who’ve stood up now to the worst of the Trumpian nonsense, on the off chance there’s common ground on...something. But Biden would be wise to focus, for now, on the administrative aspects of the job — especially a REAL warp-speed, all-hands-on-deck delivery of the coronavirus vaccine that was promised by Trump but hasn’t happened — and not on legislation, not with this crew.
The 150 Republican traitors can’t realistically be officially sanctioned — heck, there’s no way any of them will lose in their gerrymandered, wackadoodle-dominated GOP-red districts or states — but they can, and should, be shunned and quarantined as the threats to American democracy they are. Tomorrow’s obituaries will remember their betrayal of the Constitution much as yesterday’s segregationists are now despised. They must be ignored and not solicited.
A federal prosecution of Trump doesn’t seem high on the agenda for Biden (who’s dragged his feet on naming an attorney general) and could be complicated by Trump pardoning himself. But the new Trump tapes make clear that this president’s illegality has become so brazen that something must be done, even if it falls on local prosecutors in Georgia or New York — home of Trump’s tangled finances — to finish the job. Americans who thought “the system worked” when Nixon resigned but was pardoned in 1974 have lived to see what happens when we, the people, don’t make it clear that absolutely no one is above the law.
For America’s beleaguered news media, one of the biggest challenges of the Joe Biden era will be how to play an aggressive, watchdog role in covering the new president while avoiding the false equivalency of trying to balance any dubious ethical lapses with the blatant illegality and authoritarianism of Trump’s America-killing presidency. I have progressive friends on Twitter who are partisans, not journalists, and they erupt with rage at any article criticizing the ethics of Team Biden on the same day when Trump is staging a coup. I get that emotion, but I can’t fully agree with it. Journalists should push Biden to do better, and so should his supporters.
The story this week that Biden’s nominee for Treasury secretary, the former Fed chair Janet Yellen, earned more than $7 million for giving speeches to banks, Wall Street firms and other interested parties is a classic example. Biden supporters ask, why is this a story because a) it’s legal (yeah, it is) and b) it’s apparently sexism to complain any time a talented woman “gets paid” and c) the college-educated elites who’ve become the base of the Democratic Party generally don’t see a conflict when people like them get big paydays for being “smart.” But did firms like Citibank, which paid Yellen more than $1 million, write those checks for her smarts, or for political influence? I think it actually should be illegal for people like Yellen to keep these huge fees if they go right back into government to regulate their benefactors. And I think Biden supporters should care, unless they want to give the Trumpists ammo to “drain the swamp” again in 2024.