Henningsen: Nixonian?

May 10, 2017

Richard Nixon has long been regarded as the Dracula of American politics: regularly re-appearing no matter how often his political obituary had been written. And, apparently, here he is again: this time thinly disguised as President Donald Trump, whose recent firing of FBI Director James Comey has been compared to the 1973 Watergate Saturday Night Massacre when Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox and in the process forced the resignations of his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General.

Actually, bad as Watergate was, the comparison isn’t fair to Nixon who, despite some obvious failings, was in many ways an astute politician and an effective chief executive - while our current situation is both more complex and unsettling.

Some observers warn that since the late 1970’s, the United States has been turning into an oligarchy, masked by a democratic façade concealing the reality that today most Americans have little ability to influence political outcomes.

Recent events suggest it’s true that, in many respects, we’re living in a banana republic in which a small group of wealthy individuals and organizations rule over a vast and growing underclass.

And perhaps, with its strong dependence on family ties and personal loyalty, and its sharp competition among staffers for influence with the president, this administration may have more in common with the Renaissance courts of the Borgias or the intrigues of Richard III than it does with the Nixon White House.

Those who pursue the presidency for its access to the levers of power may instead discover a system of very real shackles of power. In that sense, we might argue that the framers of the Constitution, however imperfect their system of checks and balances, saw these days coming. And we’re now seeing a collision between 21st century aspirations for power and 18th century cautions about the exercise of power.

But witnesses to history also share the experience – which is perhaps why so many of us seem torn between seeking shelter in the nearest cave from the avalanche of change roaring down upon us or holding on for dear life as we sweep along with it.

Not so much Nixonian perhaps - as Shakespearean.