What History Tells Us About Trump’s Odds of Surviving His First Term

A lot of people have done the Trump/Nixon comparison over the last few months. But no one has done it better than Frank Rich. If you’re one of those people who think that the best way out of the mess we’re in right now is for our current president to go the way of our 37th, you’re going to want to read what he’s written.

Forty-four years ago this month, Rich describes the state of affairs in the country.

“Let others wallow in Watergate, we are going to do our job,” said Richard Nixon with typical unearned self-righteousness in July 1973. By then, more than a year had passed since a slapstick posse of five had been caught in a bungled burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex. It had been nine months since Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported in the Washington Post that the break-in was part of a “massive campaign of political spying and sabotage” conducted by all the president’s men against most of their political opponents. Now the nation was emerging from two solid months of Senate Watergate hearings, a riveting cavalcade of White House misfits and misdeeds viewed live by 71 percent of the public.

Even so, Nixon had some reason to hope that Americans would heed his admonition to change the channel. That summer, the Times reported that both Democratic and Republican congressmen back home for recess were finding “a certain numbness” about Watergate and no “public mandate for any action as bold as impeachment.”

One of the refrains we hear constantly about Trump is that his base of supporters will never abandon him.

For all the months of sensational revelations and criminal indictments (including of his campaign manager and former attorney general, John Mitchell), a Harris poll found that only 22 percent thought Nixon should leave office. Gallup put the president’s approval rating in the upper 30s, roughly where our current president stands now — lousy, but not apocalyptic. There had yet to be an impeachment resolution filed in Congress by even Nixon’s most partisan adversaries…

Nor did Nixon’s base ever desert him. At the nadir of Watergate, Nixon’s approval rating fell to 27 percent; by the time he resigned, that number had dropped to 24 percent. In other words, at least a quarter of the American populace had no problem telling pollsters that they were still behind a president who had lied repeatedly and engaged in unambiguously criminal conspiracies. They still saw Nixon as “one of us,” as he billed himself on posters in his first House run in 1946, and as a fighter who took on “them” — essentially the same elites that Trump inveighs against today.

In other words, even without Fox News, Breitbart and the Drudge Report, Nixon supporters hung in with “their guy.” That part resonates with me because one of the memories that stands out for me from the Watergate era is that my father, a staunch fundamentalist Christian Republican, defended Nixon until after his resignation. In a way that seems quaint given Trump’s support from evangelicals, what finally tipped the scales for my dad was when the written transcripts of the White House tapes were released and he was offended by how profusely Nixon swore. Write that one off to, “it takes all kinds in America.”

Another piece of history that Rich recounts has been overlooked as we assume that Trump will not face the same end as Nixon because of who controls the majorities in Congress.

That his demise was not primarily a consequence of the Democrats’ control of Congress is due to the fact that some of his most reliable and powerful allies in both chambers were Democrats. Even as Nixon’s race-baiting “southern strategy” was hastening the realignment of the GOP as a new home for conservative southern Democrats (like the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, who had defected to the Republicans in 1964), most in Congress had yet to transition, as typified by the segregationist Mississippi senators James Eastland and John Stennis, both Democrats and firm Nixon supporters. Even Sam Ervin, the North Carolina Democrat who presided over the 1973 Watergate hearings, was a segregationist and Vietnam War hawk who, as the historian Rick Perlstein has pointed out, was “one of the most loyal votes for Nixon in the Senate” and had initially declared that it was “simply inconceivable that Nixon might have been involved” in the White House horrors.

While Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate during Watergate, it is important to remember that the Republican’s Southern Strategy was launched under Nixon and white Southern Democrats were in the beginning stages of switching parties after various civil rights victories occurred under the leadership of LBJ. Party loyalty was in flux at the time.

Rich provides a lot of other comparisons that are food for thought. But ultimately he makes an excellent point about what tipped the balance against Nixon.

What finally did in Nixon — besides himself — is what will do in Trump: not the Democrats, or a turncoat base, or brave GOP leaders…With the midterms growing ever nearer, garden-variety GOP officeholders, most of them as cowardly as today’s, started to flee…

As Buchanan and Nixon’s speechwriter Raymond Price (in his 1977 memoir, With Nixon) attested, the president’s resignation speech was already in hand by the time Goldwater & Co. visited the White House on August 7. Rather than the importuning of noble Republican elders, it was the stampede of defections that followed the revelation of the smoking gun that finally convinced him he could not numerically survive a trial in the Senate.

To demonstrate that the future is always full of unknowns, Rich recounts what happened between this date in 1973 and Nixon’s resignation.

In the 13 months that fell between our comparable point in the electoral cycle — the Fourth of July, 1973, when Nixon was still safely riding out the storm — and his resignation in August 1974, as the midterms loomed, the following happened: He was hospitalized with pneumonia; the White House taping system was revealed, and Nixon refused to release the tapes; a first impeachment resolution was introduced in the House by a liberal antiwar Massachusetts Democrat widely dismissed as an outlier; Agnew resigned; a special election to fill the House seat of Agnew’s successor, Ford, yielded a Democrat in what had been a safe Republican district; Nixon fired the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, and abolished his office, forcing out both the attorney general and deputy attorney general in the “Saturday Night Massacre”; a crucial White House tape was revealed to have an unexplained 18-and-a-half-minute “gap”; seven former administration officials were indicted by a grand jury; and the president appeared at a press event at Disney World where he declared, “I am not a crook.”

There are 16 months between now and the 2018 midterms, with an awful lot of unknowns to come. But there are two things we can know with an extremely high degree of certainty: (1) Donald Trump is not going to become “more presidential” over time. As a matter of fact, his behavior shows signs of deteriorating, and (2) Donald Trump will continue to be his own worst enemy, as we witnessed with his handling of the firing of James Comey.

If you were a betting person, where would you place Trump’s odds of surviving his first term?

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .