David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Reflections on Watergate, Nixon and Trump

Brandon Sun, November 13, 2017 – David McConkey

The first indictments have been handed down in the Robert Mueller inquiry into the Trump-Russia connection. My mind is wandering back to Watergate. And there are interesting comparisons. But then a friend forwards me a commentary from Australia reminding me of another point. We shouldn’t just be watching – or laughing at – the Americans. We should also be asking ourselves: what if a Trump happened here?

Let’s look at Watergate comparisons first. Both are bring-down-a-president sized scandals. And in looking at the past, the present comes into sharper focus. One theme that emerges: how much the United States has changed – for the worse – since the 1970s.

Compare Nixon and Trump. Nixon came into office in 1969 well qualified for the job. He was a Second World War veteran; he had served as a congressman, senator and vice-president. In contrast, Trump mocks military service, war heroes and their families. Trump flaunts his lack of government experience and his ignorance of thought-out policies.

When the White House audio tapes of Nixon were released, the American public was shocked at how crass their president was behind closed doors. But the public heard the Trump “Access Hollywood” tape beforehand. The public already knew how crass Trump was. Americans elected Trump at least partly because he was a boor!

Roots of the Trump phenomenon were growing in the 1970s. Like Trump was to do later, Nixon practised a divisive brand of politics, appealed to white racial anxiety and attacked the elites and the mainstream media.

There are a couple of actual links between Nixon and Trump. One is Roger Stone, who started his shadowy career of political dirty tricks during the Watergate era. Stone still sports a tattoo on his back of Nixon’s face! The role Stone played in creating Trump is the subject of a revealing new documentary on Netflix, Get Me Roger Stone.

I found the documentary fascinating. And as Variety magazine says, the film tells the “larger story of how the Republican party made itself over from an organization of gentlemen into a slash-and-burn cult.”  

Another Nixon-Trump link is Roger Ailes. He began his political media career advising Nixon and went on to create Fox News and to advise Trump. Ailes was central in changing the whole political discourse of the U.S. Ailes died earlier this year; in 2016, he was forced out of Fox by allegations of sexual harassment.

“Roger Ailes was One of the Worst Americans Ever,” is the headline of Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article marking the death of Ailes. “Fox News founder made this the hate-filled, moronic country it is today.”

We Canadians are spellbound as we watch the Trump show next door. But the Australian independent news website, Crikey, asks a critical question. What if a Trump happened in our own country?   

Pointing out the effectiveness of the Mueller investigation in the U.S., Crikey warns that Australia is not prepared for their own Trump.

“We might think a Trump could never happen here,” Crikey says, “but if he did, we lack the institutional framework to deal with him.”

Good point, and one that applies to other parliamentary democracies like Canada.

What if Russia helped a charismatic, social-media-adept leader take over a political party here? What if that leader enjoyed a religious cult-like obedience that stifled criticism within his own party? What if that leader became prime minister? We might then wish for the institutions that the Americans have.

We should start thinking about such scenarios now. We are witnessing a massive disruption everywhere by a new media landscape and an evil Russia let loose on the world. We may need new ways to deal with new dangers.

Everything should be on the table for discussion. We can share ideas with countries – like Australia – with a similar government. How vulnerable are we because our executive and legislative branches of government are combined, giving our prime minster much power?
Here is one idea: we might want to bolster the profile of the governor general. This could be another advantage of abolishing the monarchy.

Citizens! Let the conversations begin. We do not know how our society and government could be tested in the future.

“We may laugh at the extraordinary pickle the U.S. has got itself into with Trump,” Crikey concludes, “but at least it has some institutional capacity to deal with him.”

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See also: 

Reflections on the Queen's Diamond Jubilee

Sometimes PMs, Presidents Can Make All The Difference

Is Donald Trump the New Joseph Smith?

We Must Resist the Trump Culture – Here's How

Takeaways From Trump’s Unbelievable Victory

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David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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