by Bob Cesca
They called it the Saturday Night Massacre.
Deep into the earth-shattering Watergate fiasco, and long after end-stage cancer, as then-White House counsel John Dean called it, had already infected the Richard Nixon administration, an event occurred which, today, would've literally made the internet explode.
Months earlier, roughly a year since Nixon's "plumbers" broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate hotel, the president's freshly confirmed attorney general, Elliot Richardson, promised Congress that he wouldn't fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox other than for gross malfeasance and the like.
Meanwhile, as Nixon crashed and burned, John Dean and another White House official confirmed to Congress the existence of a secret recording system used by Nixon and previous administrations, and, therefore, the existence of tapes that could prove whether Nixon authorized the Watergate break-in, as well as the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. Consequently, special prosecutor Cox subpoenaed the tapes, prompting Nixon to engage in an obvious de facto admission of guilt by refusing to release the tapes, knowing the damning nature of what was on them.
On Saturday, October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to summarily fire the special prosecutor. Imagine, for a moment, if Bill Clinton had ordered the firing of Ken Starr during the most harrowing stages of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
That's exactly what Nixon did. Only much, much worse.
Instead of firing Cox, Richardson resigned in protest. Replacing Richardson as acting attorney general was his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. So, then, Nixon ordered Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. He refused and then resigned. That's two attorneys general in a single day. Ruckelshaus was subsequently replaced by solicitor general, and future Reagan Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork. Nixon ordered Bork to fire Cox and, finally, Bork complied, then appointed Leon Jaworski who more or less carried on where Cox left off.
And it all happened in a single day. I can't even imagine the seismic repercussions if this had occurred today. We'll circle back to this.
Nixon continued to stonewall Jaworski for another 10 months before famously resigning the presidency in disgrace just before being inevitably impeached and removed from office by Congress.
Until Watergate, the American presidency allowed for all sorts of political latitude potentially exploited by anyone unethical enough to abuse the secrecy of the office. Many presidents had pushed the envelope, but few if any were as flagrant and notorious about it as Nixon. A deeply paranoid and disturbed man, Nixon is kind of a miracle of American politics -- a personally unlikable man who stumbled into almost universally accepted successes in his first term, and a record-smashing landslide victory in 1972, but he was ultimately haunted by his insecurities and other nagging demons. So, in order to compensate, Nixon took advantage of his executive power, and that's putting it mildly.
The Saturday Night Massacre was just one example of how Nixon believed the president had tremendous extra-legal powers, and so Nixon relentlessly abused those powers in order to secure his legacy. Dirty tricks only scratched the surface. Many of Nixon's closest allies and hit-men would gather in the basement of the White House and, according to accounts by convicted Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, they'd get drunk on their own power, leading them to unquestioningly carry out Nixon's ordered with (temporary) impunity.
Nixon was, by most reasonable accounts, a tyrant. But at the end of the day, even he knew when enough was enough and finally resigned -- only after he completely demystified the presidency, which, in and of itself, had a both positive and negative impact. Positively speaking, the consequences are obvious: increased transparency and an entire roster of new regulations on wiretaps and the like. Negatively speaking, it's culminated 40 years later in the perception that any deeply flawed human being can be president. George W. Bush and players like Sarah Palin have flourished on this demystified playing field.
The same goes for Trump.
Fast forwarding to 2016, it's really easy to compare the Republican presumptive nominee with characters like Hitler or Mussolini. But it's really the Nixon comparison that's the most applicable and, indeed, possible. It's not a stretch to imagine Trump pursuing his presidential goals by any means necessary. He's absolutely narcissistic and power-hungry enough to top Nixon's behavior. In fact, his disciples are sending him to the GOP convention primarily because he's not an establishment Republican. He's a true maverick who will do whatever the hell he wants. That's why his people love him so much. (It also helps that they hate Obama, too.)
When Trump sits up at 3 a.m. scouring Twitter for political enemies to troll, or when we hear about Trump clandestinely planting favorable stories about himself in the press via various lame pseudonyms, anyone who knows his or her history can't help but to think of Nixon circa 1973-74, holed up in the Oval Office or dark vestibule somewhere in the West Wing, compiling his Enemies List and deleting incriminating sections of the Nixon Tapes (otherwise known as destroying evidence and obstructing justice). When we review what happened on October 20, 1973, it's not difficult to envision Trump engaging in the same chicanery. The Saturday Night Massacre? Trump would easily do the same thing in his first 100 days, and it'd barely dent his approval ratings.
Better yet, his voters would adore him for it. Adore. Him.
That's the real danger here. In the early-to-middle 1970s, the public wasn't nearly as cynical as it is today, nor was the political landscape as divided. True, Nixon had his supporters until the very end. When he resigned, he still enjoyed the support of one-in-four Americans in spite of his array of nefarious actions. Today, however, we have a news media that's predisposed to downplaying such a scandal as de rigueur -- both sides do it, so whatever. We have an entire television network built around backstopping GOP leadership. The entire AM radio dial, too. Most, if not all, Republicans would deflect to Benghazi or Fast & Furious or whatever conservative shibboleth is popular at the time, and the charges would totally fail to stick to the wall. Remember, George W. Bush was re-elected in spite of presiding over 9/11, the failed Iraq War and Herculean levels of professional incompetence.
And then there's the internet.
While, yes, the internet would've exploded, a leader like Trump would be sufficiently propped up by artificially-induced reasonable doubt, not to mention legions of screechy fanboys. Trump probably wouldn't be able to get away with implementing a Hitler or Mussolini regime, but in today's climate? Nixon-style behavior would almost certainly fail to impact the Trump administration in the same way it ruined Nixon himself. And there's not a chance in hell Trump would ever resign from office under similar circumstances.
Yeah, I get the Hitler crap, and I'm not downplaying the threat. But knowing what's possible here, the real danger we face is Trump as Nixon. The only difference? Nixon, in spite of his fatal flaws, knew what he was doing on policy. Trump isn't even a fraction as engaged, as evidenced by every single time he opens his mouth about anything substantive.