On December 22, 1973, an embattled President Richard Nixon met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces. It was a ceremonial meeting, not the sort where important decisions are supposed to get made. But one of the generals realized something was deeply off. Nixon was agitated. “He kept on referring to the fact that he [Nixon] may be the last hope, the eastern elite was out to get him,” the four-star general later said. It seemed the president was “trying to sound us out”—to see if, “in a crunch,” the generals would overthrow Congress and the judiciary, and keep the criminal president in power.
The general went to the Pentagon to tell Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger what had happened. Schlesinger shared his concern but seemed “noncommittal.”
What the general didn’t know was that Schlesinger was building his own mental list of Nixon’s threatening moves. He’d seen the CIA and National Security Agency get pulled into the Watergate coverup. He knew the president was getting more and more erratic as the hearings got more damning and Congress closed in. Could the president start a new war to distract from his career-ending crisis? Launch a nuclear strike to stay out of prison? Roll tanks into Washington, D.C.?
In late July 1974, Schlesinger finally sounded the alarm. He called the chairman of the Joint Chiefs into his office, and asked for an extraordinary agreement: that the military would refuse any orders from the White House unless they were countersigned by the secretary himself.
There are a lot of disturbing parts of that story, but I’ll tell you the one that sets me most on edge. Though it later turned out that a LOT of people in Washington had credible fears that the president would go rogue, the public didn’t learn about Schlesinger’s request until a month later, after Nixon resigned. Even then, it was packaged in the New York Times with a denial from Henry Kissinger. The full story I gleaned from above was finally reported by Seymour M. Hersh, in an article that ran in The Atlantic in 1983.
Though millions of Americans were glued to their TV sets during that Watergate Summer, they did not really know the extent of what was going on at the White House—that the Pentagon itself believed a criminal president had become so unstable that it feared he would launch a nuclear strike or coup—for a decade.
That’s often how it goes. Which should be especially disturbing right now.
Mucking around the Ash Heap
One of the things I’ve marveled at while working on a largely historical book is how much more we learn after people leave power or die than we ever can know in real time.
There are the physical secrets, like Kennedy’s addiction to pills, Reagan’s diminishing capacity, or two years when a concealed presidential stroke left First Lady Edith Wilson more or less in charge of the country.
There are postmortem scandals, like Teapot Dome. There are the crimes, like Iran-Contra, whose contours and details become clearer once the political utility of the coverup as passed. And there are the long-buried secrets, like Nixon’s treason in 1968, when he scuttled Lyndon Johnson’s peace process in Vietnam—consigning perhaps millions more people to their deaths so he could have a better shot at his first election.
Even what we now know as the scandal broadly summarized as “Watergate” turned out to be just scratching the surface of the old bastard’s corruption—a pervasive culture of illegality that extended into personal tax fraud, bribery, intimidation, and colossal abuses of government, military, and spy power, to name a few. (To understand the fuller scope, I recommend Nightmare by the late, great J. Anthony Lukas.)
Now, in light of that, think about what we know, right now, about President Trump.
The incredible levels of surface-level corruption. The self-dealing. The open criminality. The corruption of his associates. More corruption among his associates. The indictments and convictions in his inner circle. Corruption among his kids. More corruption among his associates.
His misogyny and credible rape accusations. His racism, Islamophobia, and antisemitism. His encouragement of violence. His support for genocidal white supremacists. His incompetence. His dictatorial “understanding” of the Constitution:
The crimes during the 2016 election. The crimes since the election. The Mueller Report—677 pages in my Washington Post/Scribner edition!—which some fools jumped to conclusions about but most people will never read and the rest of us will take years to fully understand and contextualize.
The questions about his mental fitness:
The … steadily more obvious questions about his mental fitness:
The … uh …
Now, think about all of that as a small percentage of what’s actually happening at the highest level of power right now. Think about what people will know about this president—his finances, his taxes, and what really went on in his administration—in five years. In ten.
In a hundred.
History Will Not Be Kind
Trump, like Nixon, came to power stoking crises for political gain. Those gains could be even more temporary than his Republican predecessor’s.
Trump’s mismanagement may have us headed for another recession—perhaps even intentionally. He’s still fighting the wars he promised to end. He flirts constantly with starting new ones. His approval rate, never been higher than the 45% he entered with, just slid to 36%. Two-thirds of the country thinks he’s doing a lousy job. If he resigned tomorrow, it would be like Mardi Gras in most of America.
By contrast, Nixon had started 1973 on top of the world. He was fresh off a historic landslide, had a strong economy, a peace accord to end the Vietnam War, and seemed (unbeknownst to the nation) to be getting away with Watergate. His approval rating was nearly 70%. It was only when the economy stalled and the war didn’t end, and Congress began hearings that revealed to the nation just the start of the White House’s criminal behavior, that his support cratered to Trump-like levels, then kept falling.
If Nixon had Trump’s levels of (non) support going into his reelection bid, he might not have even had a second term to resign from. If Trump’s do what Nixon’s did in the face of crisis, we might have to figure out how to invent negative approval ratings.
However, history is not a prediction kit; it’s more like a thumbed-through, out-of-date Lonely Planet for the country next door. Nixon didn’t have a propaganda network salting the fields with disinformation as his crimes started coming to light. He faced an opposition Congress at a time when parties were not as monolithic. And while Nixon famously used racism and electoral crimes to secure power, Trump has already made clear his track record of even more blatant election thievery and unrepentant demagoguery, and his intention for more and more.
The stakes also may be higher. Trump is governing in the middle of an existential global crisis like none anyone in historical memory has seen. He shows clear animosity toward addressing the climate crisis, uses his power to make it worse, and favors fellow authoritarians, like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who seem intent on literally seeing the world burn.
Imagine what we’ll learn a decade from now about what Trump has been doing to the environment alone. Imagine what the world will be like when we’re learning about it.
In the end, Schlesinger’s gambit seems not to have been necessary. For all Nixon’s narcissism, criminality, and paranoia, he proved unwilling to burn the republic down. Because brave people acted and removed him before he could do more harm, the nation avoided catastrophe—though the underlying problems that made his presidency possible remained.
I don’t know if we’ll be able to say the same about Trump someday. If we do, it will be because today’s generations stood up and made the necessary moves before the known unknowns spiraled out of control. Better now to share the caution that those with a sense of things had half a century ago: “Not until we saw the final helicopter lift off from the White House garden,” the journalist and novelist Vance Bourjally later wrote, “could we really relax and enjoy it all.”
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Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist, author, and national fellow at New America. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, will trace the origins and contradictions of American empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth