The Sunday Magazine

What Watergate can teach us about the Trump impeachment inquiry

What can history tell us about a president who is utterly unprecedented? As Donald Trump flails and blusters his way toward possible impeachment, Beverly Gage — a professor of 20th Century American politics at Yale University — compares the ignoble end of Richard Nixon's presidency to Trump’s conduct and discusses whether history can help predict the fate of the Trump presidency.
Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal in 1974. U.S. historian Beverly Gage spoke to Michael Enright about whether Nixon's resignation is a useful parable for our times. (Molly Riley/Str Old/Reuters)

When U.S. President Richard Nixon first faced the threat of impeachment, he was defiant, and his party stood by their man. 

But when a "smoking gun" recording of Nixon ordering a cover-up of the 1972 burglary at the Watergate Hotel emerged, many Republicans decided they could no longer support his presidency. Nixon realized he had no future and resigned before he could be impeached, sparing the country an even uglier political drama. 

One of the things we can learn from Watergate is just how flexible, changeable, surprising this whole process may be.- Beverly Gage

No one knows exactly what the Trump impeachment inquiry will lead to, but things are likely to be far messier this time around. 

Beverly Gage is professor of 20th-century American history who has written extensively on Watergate, the Nixon impeachment process, and presidential corruption. The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright spoke to Gage about whether Watergate is a useful political parable for our times. 

Here is part of their conversation. 

What parallels do you see between Donald Trump and Richard Nixon?

Even before impeachment, Trump really was the heir to a lot of Nixon's political rhetoric, political mindset and political style. He was, from the first moment he was in office, really controversial, and I think that that moment was one of the last moments in American politics that parallels this moment. If you voted for Richard Nixon [or] you didn't vote for Richard Nixon, people did not think they could sit down at the dinner table over that question.

Nixon didn't have Twitter, but he nonetheless had some of Trump's sense that he was embattled, he was a victim of an elite conspiracy, a conspiracy of the liberal media and the intelligentsia and the Democratic Party and the deep state.

He didn't have Twitter, but he had Roger Ailes on his staff advising him about television.

He did. He had a lot of people who went on to be quite influential strategists within the Republican Party. That moment was also the birth of the idea of the Southern Strategy and the kind of political coalition that moved the white South from the Democrats to the Republicans. That remains so critical to Republican power today and to Trump's base.

Beverly Gage is a professor of history at Yale University. She is the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror. (Kathleen Cei)

A lot of Republicans ended up turning on on Richard Nixon supporting impeachment. Could that happen today do you think given the makeup of the Senate and the character of the majority leader, Mitch McConnell? 

Well, I think it's important to remember that [Watergate] was a long story. The burglary was in the summer of 1972. Richard Nixon didn't resign office until August of 1974. In the middle of that process, he won a smashing re-election victory in 49 states. The Republican leadership did finally in 1974 go to Richard Nixon and say, 'This is the moment where we can no longer support you,' but you wouldn't necessarily have predicted that three months or six months earlier, much less when it all got started.

There's a startling difference, though, between the two episodes. Richard Nixon denied he had done anything wrong and tried to cover it up. Donald Trump goes in front of the cameras on the South Lawn and says 'I did it. So what?'

That's a fascinating difference. What really got Nixon in the end was the disclosure that he had asked the CIA to interfere and stop the FBI investigation into the Watergate burglary. Nixon had been denying that the whole time. Trump is taking a very, very different tactic. It's sort of a sowing chaos tactic. It's a defiance tactic. And we'll see how it plays out. 

Let's assume that the House will vote the articles of impeachment, because the Democrats have the majority. Obviously the Senate would not convict. Doesn't that render the whole process kind of meaningless?

Well, I think we actually don't know what's going to happen on any of these fronts. I think one of the things we can learn from Watergate is just how flexible, changeable, surprising this whole process may be. When that inquiry started during the Nixon years, we didn't even know that there were White House tapes. That actually came out almost accidentally in the course of a hearing, and that really became the thing that proved to be so key in the end. 

One of the things that does seem to have changed is the partisanship within the Republican Party itself. Back in the 60s and 70s, you had people like Charles Percy and Everett Dirksen and  Republicans who I guess you could call moderate. How different is the GOP today?

I think you're right that we have a fundamentally different party structure [today]. I think often we point to statesmen of the past and say, "They must have been better people in office, who were more thoughtful or moderate or able to talk to each other." That's less the issue than the fact that at the time, the two parties actually had an enormous amount of ideological overlap. There were a lot of liberal Republicans. There were a lot of conservative Democrats.

As a result of that, there was a pretty well-honed and substantial history of bipartisan action. Each of the parties was actually pretty divided internally in some sense at that moment, as much as they were pitted against each other, whereas today we really have two extremely polarized parties. The mechanisms that would bring some set of compromise initiatives, they're not there in the same way structurally that they were half a century ago.

You argue that a lot of good actually came out of the Watergate process. Help me with that. What good do you see?

When we talk about Watergate, we tend to talk about the thing itself — the burglary, the drama, the national trauma. We end the story with Nixon's resignation, or maybe with Ford's pardon. 

Richard Nixon, seen in 1973, remained popular with a segment of the U.S. population even after resigning in the face of impeachment. (Charles Tasnadi/The Associated Press)

But one of the most interesting pieces about Watergate was that people wanted to try and make sure that that kind of thing didn't happen again, in a couple of ways. There was an enormous burst in the 70s of initiatives for transparency. One analysis of Watergate was there had been all of this secret backroom dealing, and we needed more sunshine in the process. One of those reforms was actually the creation of the intelligence committees, which didn't exist before that moment.

But despite that reform ... what damage did Watergate do to Americans and their trust in the political process? 

I think it did enormous damage on that front. It wasn't just Watergate alone, but it was Watergate in the context of everything that had happened over the previous decade — especially Lyndon Johnson, the Vietnam War. This final trauma of Watergate I think for many people produced a kind of anti-government, anti-politics sentiment. 

In some ways that actually served the Republican Party better than it served the Democratic Party. In 1974, when Nixon resigned, there were all of these declarations that the Republican Party is just done for a generation. But of course, that's not what happened. By 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected … in part riding a wave of anti-government sentiment that Watergate had a lot to do with.

Chris Hedges argues that even if Trump was to be removed from office that it wouldn't restore the rule of law, wouldn't reform democratic institutions. It wouldn't address corruption, and so on. Is he right, or is there some long-term benefit that could come from this whole fiasco?

I certainly don't think that Trump's removal from office is sufficient to do all of those things … There's no way in which simply removing a president, even as significant as that might be, is going to take us back to some earlier political moment.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.