The New Administration May Trump Nixon's Scandals
For those of us of born in the Millennial generation, 1973 will remain forever accessible only through history books, archived newspapers, and experiences recounted to us by our elders. However, in times of political division like what we face today, it is pragmatic to call upon memories made and lessons learned in times before our birth. In lieu of the inauguration of President Donald Trump, it seems appropriate to call to mind a past era that bears a disturbing resemblance to what we are experiencing now: Richard Nixon’s second presidential inauguration in 1973 and its aftermath.
It was January 19, 2017—the day before Trump’s inauguration. I was sitting in my car, parked outside my house listening to radio news stories about protests expected to occur across the country and the potential accompanying violence and destruction. The magnitude of the backlash from the American public was surreal to me. It seemed unprecedented, making it difficult to get a grasp as to what was in store for the future. I decided to call my dad, a career investigative journalist for over 30 years. We talked for a while about the demonstrations expected to take place in Washington D.C., and my plans to go to the solidarity march in Portland on December 21. I told him I wished that I could go to the protest in Washington. He laughed and said “You know, 44 years ago today, your aunt and I were in a van on our way to Washington D.C. to attend the protest at Richard Nixon’s inauguration. I wrote an article about the event and took photos during it for an article I did for the LaGrange Standard & News.”
His comment got me thinking. As shocking as it felt, this was not the first time something like this had occurred. Like they say, history has a habit of repeating itself.
Nixon’s second inauguration on January 20, 1973, drew a crowd of around 100,000 protesters to the Capitol, setting the record for the largest inaugural protest in U.S. history—that is, until this year. The Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017, brought over 500,000 people to Washington D.C. alone. It is estimated that over five million in total participated in solidarity marches in cities across the world.
On January 20, 1973, nearly 100,000 people showed up to Washington D.C. to protest Nixon’s swearing-in Protests and marches occurred simultaneously in around 50 other cities around the country. Anti-war protests had been sending a loud message during the late 1960s and early 1970s. A significant number of the protesters at the inauguration were activists of the anti-war movement, though they were not the only activists that attended that day. Seekers of justice representing a variety of social justice movements and organizations—trade unionists, Gay Liberationists, students, and more—joined the anti-war protesters at the Nixon administration’s doorstep to march that day. The “March Against Death,” was led by a large group of people dressed in black with white face paint and had signs bearing the names of bombed Vietnamese villages hanging from their necks. The march was a peaceful one. As reported that day by the New York Times, “No violence was reported during the inauguration ceremony or the parade that followed, and few, if any arrests were made by security forces.” Participants in the march sang chants such as “Nixon, Agnew, you can’t hide; we charge you with genocide,” as well as “Nixon, you liar, sign the ceasefire,” and “1-2-3-4 we don’t want this fucking war!”
The reaction to Trump’s inauguration this year was fraught with similarities to the day of Nixon’s inauguration. Instead of anti-war activists, this time it was women who spearheaded the march. But, like 1973, activists attended the march on behalf of an assortment of social-justice issues and organizations. An intersection of issues was expected and supported in the message of the Women’s March, with women’s rights, immigration, global climate change, racial equality, and LGBTQ rights taking precedence. Another similarity to the 1973 march was that it remained a nonviolent demonstration.
I took the bus into downtown Portland on January 21 to observe and take part in the big event. The bus was packed. More than half the riders stood, holding bulky signs, squished together and anxious to exercise their first amendment rights. Upon arrival, a crowd far larger than I had expected to see flooded the waterfront area and the adjacent street, Naito Parkway. Everyone was standing, patiently, and quietly waiting. I took a moment to stand on the median on my tiptoes to get an idea of the real size of the crowd. I stood in a colorful sea of umbrellas and poster boards. There were young people, old people, and families with children; people of all income levels, races, genders, and religions, their respective invisible identities proudly made clear by clothing and the statements on their signs. It was raining and cold, but still we waited. An RV that had found itself parked in the middle of the crowd, graciously sold hot chai from its side window to chilly resistance members. The police had blocked off a route for marchers to follow without being disturbed by traffic. Demonstrators and police shook hands and engaged in friendly conversation. The sound of music and drums echoed through the city streets, giving a beat to chants such as “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here,” and “we won’t go away, welcome to your first day!” Older people held signs that read “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.”
After the march, I was able to dig up the article about the protest at Richard Nixon’s inauguration written in 1973 by my father, Dan Luzadder, from the microfilm archives of a county library in LaGrange, Indiana. The headline reads “In Search of Peace: 100,000 file by in whispering protest,” published on January 25,1973 in the LaGrange Standard & News. His words were a foreshadowing portrayal of the experience—timeless in their relevance. My memory of the horde of Portlanders patiently waiting underneath their umbrellas for forward movement to begin was brought to mind when he wrote: “And there, beside the reflecting pool, alongside the Washington Monument, beside the Lincoln Memorial, as the sweet acrid smell of the counter-culture’s opiate drifted across the scene, we stood in the cold, waiting, protesting by our presence, waiting for the March Against Death to begin… waiting also for it to end.”
If I had not known better, I might have thought that he had written about the Women’s March on Washington. The similarity between these respective days in 1973 and 2017 are disquieting and symptomatic of something much deeper.
As I feared, the protests are not the only parallel between the Nixon experience and the Trump experience so far. More similarities include but are not limited to scandal, the launched attacks on news media, inclinations to test the boundaries of executive power, and instability within the president’s bureaucracy.
Scandals, a word often used in discussion of the Nixon administration, have been another common denominator with Trump’s administration. The Watergate Scandal, a well-known historical event, led to the end of Nixon’s career as president. Trump has not yet faced anything as severe. However, issues of concern that have been brought up include among other things his refusal to willingly release his tax records, accusations of sexual assault made against him, and questions of whether his extensive business endeavors constitute a conflict of interest. The ongoing investigations into his ties to Russian government officials have been an issue perhaps most likely to qualify as cause for impeachment, and is also the one that most resembles Watergate.
It should be noted that leaks to the press from unnamed administrative officials were a precursor to Watergate. The Washington Post’s Watergate Timeline observes that during Nixon’s first term as president, a White House entity known as the “plumbers unit,” had been ordered to plug up the leaks. On September 3, 1971, the unit broke into the office of a psychiatrist in an effort to obtain files on Daniel Ellsberg, the previous defense analyst who had leaked the Pentagon Papers. In current events, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has heightened efforts to stop similar leaks from staff members. Word surfaced on February 26 that there had been “an emergency meeting” recently called by Spicer. During the meeting, Spicer confronted communication staff about information that had been leaked to the press. White House staff members’ personal and government-issued phones were made subject to an Orwellian phone-check, overseen by White House lawyers. As stated by Politico, “Spicer also warned the group of more problems if news of the phone checks and the meeting about leaks was leaked to the media. It’s not the first time that warnings about leaks have promptly been leaked.”
In both the Nixon and Trump administrations, we have seen a habit of the president and their staff delegitimizing the press and placing blame for problems on the news media. For example, an April 18, 1973 New York Times article about Watergate reported, “The Administration never condoned the Watergate crime, but it denied any involvement by its people, denounced the press for nosing into it or implying that anything was wrong, suggested that the whole thing was a political trick to help George McGovern and embarrass the President—and used all this to prove that irresponsible newspapers should be compelled to disclose their sources of information.”
Sound familiar? The Washington Examiner reported on February 16, 2017, in an article regarding the suspicion that Russia had been hacking to influence the results of the election. The article states, “President Trump on Thursday dismissed the swirling allegations that his administration is too close to Russia, and called that Democratic line of attack against him more ‘fake news’…. ‘Russia is fake news. This is fake news put out by the media,’ Trump concluded. ‘The real news is the fact that people, probably from the Obama administration because they’re there.’” Again, on February 26th, he posted a tweet in which he wrote: “Russia talk is FAKE NEWS put out by the Dems, and played up by the media, in order to mask the big election defeat and the illegal leaks!”
It has been the transpiration of events of this nature that has led to bureaucratic instability and a fracturing of the GOP—another experience the Trump administration has in common with that of the Nixon administration. Continuous leaks appear to indicate resistance from within the government itself.
In both instances there have been what the New York Times described as “sparring about constitutional principles, ‘executive privilege,’ [and] the rights and responsibilities of the press,” in an article published on April 18, 1973. Trump’s actions and rhetoric have also been analyzed for the way they seem to demonstrate that his administration have been testing the boundaries of executive power and the stability of the system of checks and balances. Trump’s use of executive orders, such as the now nullified travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries and the order to build a wall along the border of Mexico have persistently sidestepped the legislative process, leaving the judicial branch alone to uphold our democracy’s balance of power.
Avoidance of the legislative branch is only one instance demonstrating how the new administration has been gauging the extent of its power. In addition to frequent use of executive orders, there have been promises to shrink the government in size and reach and eliminate agencies, as well as a stymie in initiatives to investigate questionable exchanges with Russian officials justified on the grounds of executive privilege. These occurrences may rightfully be reminiscent of what Arthur Schlesinger termed as the “imperial presidency”, or as a U.S. presidency characterized by greater power than the constitution allows. The “Imperial President” became a nickname not-so-affectionately given to Richard Nixon.
Based on these parallels, the imperial presidency description appears to be a fitting one for the Trump presidency as well. This characterization is rooted in Richard Waterman’s unitary executive theory, a theory on presidential power which posits that the president is exclusively responsible for everything that happens within the executive branch. Therefore, everyone in the executive branch is accountable to the president. Consequently, the ability of the president to appoint public officials provides the ability for the president to build a loyal bureaucracy by appointing individuals to office who share his goals and values. These use of these executive appointments have, over time, allowed for an expansion of the power of the executive branch that, despite being controversial, is completely legal.
There is another related theory that Richard Nathan, former director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, coined the term in 1983 “the administrative presidency strategy,” in which loyal officials appointed by the president are distributed throughout various government organizations at different levels of authority, allowing for the organization to be restructured in a way that more effectively serves the president’s policy agenda. The term was first used primarily in an analysis of Richard Nixon’s presidency, because his administration took things a step farther by using these constitutionally supported tools to accomplish goals that would have been legislatively impossible. Nixon’s reorganization of bureaucratic agencies was an effective strategy for expanding presidential power until those executive actions crossed a line and became an abuse of power. Nevertheless, his presidency set a precedent for his successors. Every presidential administration from Nixon to present day has employed aspects of the administrative presidency strategy to varying degrees. As a result, executive power has expanded with each new administration.
The unitary executive theory works in support of the administrative presidential strategy by providing a foundation of accountability to the president within the executive branch that allows him to promote loyalty over capability. In doing so, the president and his administration are able to use methods like executive orders, executive privilege, and avoidance of the legislative process—all of which we are able to identify as presently in use by the Trump administration—to reach their policy objectives and carry forward the expansion of executive power.
The Trump administration and Nixon administration are inherently different by way of their unique places in history, and the nature of their individual characters. Their respective achievements, for example, are of a notably different nature. During the first term of his presidency, Richard Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency (January 1970), ended school segregation (Fall 1970), repaired relations with China (July 1971), passed Title IX ending sex discrimination in education (June 1972), ended the draft (July 1973), and during his second term signed a prevention of nuclear war agreement (June 1973). He was an overwhelmingly popular president after his first term, and won the 1973 election by a landslide. Trump, on the other hand, won the 2017 election by a narrow margin and lost the popular vote. Unlike Nixon, his political career has not so far been accompanied by significant achievements. Before his inauguration as president he was a wealthy businessman, known for hosting The Apprentice, making deals, and periodically filing for bankruptcy.
Even so, the similarities in their actions, approaches, and resulting challenges are strikingly similar. The argument posed by the unitary executive theory in conjunction with the administrative presidency strategy may provide an explanation for why those similarities exist. Perhaps Trump, like Nixon, will be mired in a scandal that consumes his presidency. Perhaps not.
Of greater concern is that this explanation suggests that this pattern will persist. If each presidential term continues the expansion of power implied by this theory, the test of strength of our checks and balances is far from over. With Trump, we have come full circle to the problems we had with Nixon.
The views reflected in this piece do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Image sources in order of appearance:
Photo by Gary Smith
Photo by Dan Luzadder
Photo by Gary Smith
Screenshot from Twitter