Trump's America: What Watergate and Nixon's Downfall Can Teach Us 45 Years Later

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President Donald Trump delivers remarks at Cincinnati Municipal Lunken Airport in Ohio on June 7. Watergate, the political scandal that brought down former President Richard Nixon, offers some lessons for Trump's America. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Every so-called scandal these days is a "-gate."

Some footballs lost air? Boom: Deflategate. Some wholly unproven, made-up theory about child-trafficking in a pizza shop? Boom: Pizzagate. Some British spy's explosive dossier details a purported incident involving a man who would become president of the United States and Russian prostitutes urinating on a hotel bed? Boom: GoldenShowergate.

Of course, the original -gate from which all these titles stem is Watergate, the political scandal that brought down former President Richard Nixon. A very quick and dirty refresher: Exactly 45 years ago this Saturday, Nixon aides broke into the Democratic National Committee offices (in the Watergate Hotel), aiming to get information. A cover-up ensued, and secret tapes eventually revealed that the president, at a minimum, knew about that effort to keep it under wraps. It all began in June 1972, and Nixon resigned in August 1974.

The point is: A lot of things have been compared to Watergate, but few things are really comparable to Watergate. That is, until Donald Trump became president, experts told Newsweek. There's quite a bit that the ground-shaking scandal from 45 years ago Saturday can teach us about how things stand in 2017—chiefly centered on the slowly unfurling investigation into the president and his campaign's potential ties with Russia, the country that worked to subvert the 2016 election in favor of Trump.

"I think there are a lot of parallels, and I'm one who kind of dismisses parallels to Watergate," said David Greenberg, a Rutgers University history professor who has written often on Watergate. "You start with the facts of the wrongdoing: There were illegal crimes committed…in order to subvert the election. In both cases, there were suspicions it implicated the president."

A few other similarities pointed out to Newsweek by experts: 

  • The presidents themselves were similar: both cursed with a paranoid streak, an inflated belief in their authority and a penchant for dressing down subordinates.
  • The suggestion of possible secret tapes.
  • Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox, while Trump fired FBI Director James Comey (and is reportedly considering the same fate for the Russia investigation's special counsel, Robert Mueller).
  • Questions were raised in both situations about presidential power and where exactly the man in the Oval Office should be restrained. 

There are, of course, myriad differences as well, if for no other reason than because 45 years have passed and the world looks very different. That doesn't mean there aren't lessons Trump's America can learn from the Watergate years. We can start with the old adage borne out of Watergate: It's not the crime, it's the cover-up.

This hints at something bigger: that investigations, at least those in which there is something nefarious to uncover, snowball in ways folks hardly ever foresee.

"Small incidents can blow up into much bigger scandals and lead to the revelation of bigger problems that exist with a president. The break-in was a small incident, relative to everything," said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton history professor who has written frequently about Nixon. "The response to the initial story became the big story. At the end, it was the obstruction that brought him down. We're dealing with a similar phenomenon right now, at least on the surface."

(If obstruction sounds familiar, it's because it should if you've read any news, watched any news or have been in the same room as a newspaper.)

Zelizer also noted, however, that the snowball effect is a slow-moving phenomenon and that we could learn from Watergate by realizing such investigations take time. Again: The break-in happened in '72, and Nixon didn't resign until '74. And the potential hurdles for any result involving Trump—the oft-talked-about impeachment chief among them—are far higher than with Nixon. Republicans now control the entire government, and even though that wasn't the case when Nixon left office, it still took a number of GOP politicians breaking from the party for his resignation to become inevitable.

"It really took a lot of time," Zelizer said of the Watergate investigation. "It's going to take a lot of evidence to turn Republicans from being critical of [Trump] to impeachment."

And if Republicans make any real progress on landmark legislation, if the near-constant public relations disaster becomes, perhaps, just a spotty crisis, then the task will become even more difficult.

The world is also more divided these days, especially the media universe. Once-trusted newspapers are now bashed as Fake News, and Trump has at his fingertips an apparatus that allows him to blast out 140-character missives that keep his base devoted. Meanwhile, the right-wing media apparatus—Fox News and Breitbart especially—is a much more formidable force than it was in 1974.

"The number of people who swear by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh or even Alex Jones is much greater than the number of people who would only believe, say, the National Review. And the National Review turned on [Nixon]," Greenberg said. "People are getting their news from these partisan sources. [It] has made it harder for objective evidence to get through to people."

That, paired with the polarized political parties, makes the work of an impeachment investigation much more difficult. This hints at perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Watergate: Because the route of history is winding and doesn't follow an inevitable course, fighting for what's right is gritty, tedious work.

Watergate began with a burglary in 1972 and unfurled because people cared enough to do the unfurling—and Republicans saw criminality in the Oval Office and didn't look away even though it came from one of their own. 

"We often say about Watergate: The system worked. Which is true, but the corollary is the system almost didn't work," Greenberg said. "If we hadn't had Nixon's tapes, if we hadn't had a few key witnesses...who were willing to speak the truth and expose the cover-up, if we hadn't had a few key things happen, it's quite possible Nixon wouldn't have been forced to resign."

He added: "There's always an element of what historians call contingency. Contingency just means it didn't have to turn out this way."