Donald Trump
Credit: Jamelle Bouie/Flickr

History is more an art than a science which becomes clear when you realize that it rhymes without ever quite repeating itself. We can read some strikingly similar stanzas when we go back to a rough time period in Richard Nixon’s second term and compare it to what Donald Trump is currently careening through in his first.

The following is from Hunter S. Thompson’s September 1973 feature for Rolling Stone entitled Fear and Loathing at the Watergate: Nixon Has Cashed His Check.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the Watergate story has been the way the press has handled it: What began in the summer of 1972 as one of the great media-bungles of the century has developed, by now, into what is probably the most thoroughly and most professionally covered story in the history of American journalism.

When I boomed into Washington last month to meet Steadman and set up the National Affairs Desk once again, I expected — or in retrospect I think I expected — to find the high-rolling newsmeisters of the capital press corps jabbering blindly among themselves, once again, in some stylish sector of reality far-removed from the Main Nerve of “the story” … like climbing aboard Ed Muskie’s Sunshine Special in the Florida primary and finding every media star in the nation sipping Bloody Marys and convinced they were riding the rails to Miami with “the candidate” … or sitting down to lunch at the Sioux Falls Holiday Inn on election day with a half-dozen of the heaviest press wizards and coming away convinced that McGovern couldn’t possibly lose by more than ten points.

My experience on the campaign trail in 1972 had not filled me with a real sense of awe, vis-a-vis the wisdom of the national press corps … so I was seriously jolted, when I arrived in Washington, to find that the bastards had this Watergate story nailed up and bleeding from every extremity — from “Watergate” and all its twisted details, to ITT, the Vesco case, Nixon’s lies about the financing for his San Clemente beach-mansion, and even the long-dormant “Agnew Scandal.”

I’m still fairly frustrated with the superficial understanding of the Russia scandal displayed by a lot of commentators and even some decent reporters, but there’s no doubt that the media has picked up their game since they largely dropped the ball during the election year. The president is truly bleeding from every extremity at this point and the FBI and Justice Department are considerably more dedicated to getting to the rotten bottom of things than they were during Watergate.

You can hear an echo of House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes in Thompson’s description of Florida Senator Edward Gurney, a freshman in 1973 who would barely outlast Nixon before resigning in the face of a seven-count indictment for influence peddling. In this excerpt, he’s trying to impugn the credibility of Watergate witness and former White House counsel John Dean:

Jesus, this waterhead Gurney again! You’d think the poor bugger would have the sense to not talk anymore … but no, Gurney is still blundering along, still hammering blindly at the receding edges of Dean’s “credibility” in his now-obvious role as what Frank Reynolds and Sam Donaldson on ABC-TV both described as “the waterboy for the White House.”

Gurney appears to be deaf; he has a brain like a cow’s udder. He asks his questions — off the typed list apparently furnished him by Minority (GOP) counsel, Fred J. Thompson — then his mind seems to wander, his eyes roam lazily around the room while Thompson whispers industriously in his ear, his hands shuffle papers distractedly on the table in front of his microphone … and meanwhile, Dean meticulously chews up his questions and hands them back to him in shreds; so publicly mangled that their fate might badly embarrass a man with good sense …

But Gurney seems not to notice: His only job on this committee is to Defend the Presidency, according to his instructions from the White House — or at least whatever third-string hangerson might still be working there — and what we tend to forget, here, is that it’s totally impossible to understand Gurney’s real motives without remembering that he’s the Republican Senator from Florida, a state where George Wallace swept the Democratic primary in 1972 with 78% of the vote, and which went 72% for Nixon in November.

In a state where even Hubert Humphrey is considered a dangerous radical, Ed Gurney’s decision to make an ignorant yahoo of himself on national TV makes excellent sense — at least to his own constituency. They are watching TV down in Florida today, along with the rest of the country, and we want to remember that if Gurney appears in Detroit and Sacramento as a hideous caricature of the imbecilic Senator Cornpone — that’s not necessarily the way he appears to the voters around Tallahassee and St. Petersburg.

Everything about that rings true from the impossibility of understanding the behavior of Republican members of Congress without realizing that a white nationalist carried their state or district (often in a landslide) to the fact that no one is left in the White House but “third-string hangerson” to that bit about having a brain like a cow’s udder.

It was clear by the summer of 1973 that Nixon’s chances of surviving were becoming very sketchy indeed, and likewise Trump is starting to look truly vulnerable for the first time.

Cazart! The fat is approaching the fire — very slowly, and in very cautious hands, but there is no ignoring the general drift of things. Sometime between now and the end of 1973, Richard Nixon may have to bite that bullet he’s talked about for so long. Seven is a lucky number for gamblers, but not for fixers, and Nixon’s seventh crisis is beginning to put his first six in very deep shade. Even the most conservative betting in Washington, these days, has Nixon either resigning or being impeached by the autumn of ’74 — if not for reasons directly connected to the “Watergate scandal,” then because of his inability to explain how he paid for his beach-mansion at San Clemente, or why Vice President Agnew — along with most of Nixon’s original White House command staff — is under indictment for felonies ranging from Extortion and Perjury to Burglary and Obstruction of Justice.

Things are coming at Trump fast now, with emoluments reaching the charts for the first time yesterday, his former fixer looking to reprise John Dean’s role, his former campaign manager about to begin the first of two doomed trials, and the Southern District of New York hauling his finance chief before a grand jury. He’s getting caught in his big lies on an almost daily basis now, with his feigned ignorance of hush payments to ex-girlfriends and foreknowledge of collusion-rich meetings with Kremlin emissaries turning to ash in his mouth.

At least when Nixon went to China he didn’t tell the world that all our differences were due to stupid Americans and that Mao Zedong was far more credible than CIA director Richard Helms and the rest of the Deep State goons working in our intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Tricky Dick was a paranoid thug but half the country wasn’t convinced with good reason that he was a helpless agent of a foreign power.

Deep Throat aside, most of the establishment was reluctant to think the worst of Nixon. At this point, you can almost pick any former high-ranking intelligence officer you want and find them quoted as suspecting Trump of treason. Even Fox News generals are quitting while accusing the president of being “a slave to Putin.”

So, no, things are not exactly the same as they were in 1973. Back then, the country was watching Congress hold hearings and steadily losing faith in the administration. If we have hearings this time, they’ll probably have to wait until next year.  But in every other way, Trump is in a weaker position than Nixon was a year before he was forced to resign. Nixon had just won by one the biggest margins in American history, while Trump lost the popular vote and is still arguing about the size of his minuscule inaugural crowd. Nixon had showed competence and even excellence in several areas during his administration, while Trump stumbles from one self-inflicted disaster to another. Nixon had loyal soldiers lining up to take a bullet for him, but Trump is now virtually alone.

What Trump has that Nixon did not is Republican majorities in Congress. That is the only thing propping him up. If he loses that advantage (and maybe even if he doesn’t), he’ll be cashing his check.

His roots are thoroughly rotted out and all that should be required now is the strong breeze provided by Manafort’s trial, Cohen’s evidence, Mueller’s report, and some Democratic committee chairs to help make sense of it all.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at