With the House of Representatives formally commencing an impeachment inquiry into the actions of President Trump, America faces a moment of truth: Will the system work?
Obviously this doesn’t mean a system of basic, small-“d” democratic accountability. We don’t have anything like that. We’re less than a fifth of the way through the 21st century, and already U.S. elites have started one gigantic fraudulent war in the Middle East and nearly conjured a second Great Depression, with zero consequences for themselves.
What we do have is another kind of system, one that the right wing in the U.S. has been constructing since Watergate: a system to make sure no Republican president is ever forced from office again, no matter what they do — even if they shoot someone on 5th Avenue. The right has devoted decades of careful, patient investment to creating this system, which has three main arms.
First, there’s a gigantic media ecosystem, with Fox News at the apex and innumerable smaller creatures. Second, there’s an intelligentsia based in think tanks and Ivy League professorships funded by conservative foundations. Third, there’s a legion of right-wing judges carefully selected for monomaniacal partisan loyalty.
Together they’ve created what Bruce Bartlett, a Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush staffer turned apostate, called “self-brainwashing.” “Conservatives now refuse to even listen to any news or opinion not vetted through Fox, and to believe whatever appears on it as the gospel truth,” Bartlett wrote in 2015. Nothing is true for Republicans unless the system says it is. If this system had been in place in 1974, Bartlett believes, “Nixon would have finished his term.”
The right has been constructing a system to make sure no Republican president is ever forced from office again, no matter what he does.
Understanding the significance of today’s GOP establishment requires an understanding of what actually happened during Watergate. In standard U.S. mythology, Watergate was a triumph of American politics, in which bipartisan men of principle joined hands across party lines to protect the Constitution; the entire political spectrum agreed, the logic goes, that what Richard Nixon did was indefensible. In reality, the GOP of the time wasn’t that different from the GOP of 2019, and things could easily have gone the other way. Moreover, since then, much of the Republican Party has believed that Nixon was the victim of a monstrous injustice that must never be repeated.
Gerald Ford, then a congressman from Michigan, blocked the first congressional investigation, apparently on Nixon’s orders. When Republican Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee asked, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” he was actually trying to protect Nixon. Almost everything about the Watergate debate could be repeated today with a few names changed.
During the 1972 presidential race, Nixon’s press secretary declared the Washington Post’s reporting was “shoddy journalism, shabby journalism.” It was “a political effort, well-conceived and coordinated” — that is, coordinated with the Democratic nominee George McGovern. After the election, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms explained that the congressional investigations were “the lever by which embittered liberal pundits have sought to reverse the 1972 conservative judgment of the people.” The real villains, according to Helms, were the Democrats, who were guilty of crimes that “make Watergate look like a Sunday school picnic.”
Whatever Nixon had done, said the conservative publisher Henry Regnery, “I can see no grounds for impeachment, or even to get worked up about.” According to Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, it was especially unfortunate to see all this fuss when Nixon was responsible for “the most brilliant accomplishment of any president of this century.” New York Magazine went on a safari to Queens in 1973 and discovered that Nixon’s supporters supported him.
As late as July 1974, when the House Judiciary Committee passed three articles of impeachment, Nixon still had a chance to brazen it out. It was true that the Democrats controlled both the House and Senate, and impeachment — akin to an indictment — only needed a majority vote in the House. But to convict Nixon and remove him from office would require two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 votes. There were just 55 Democratic senators, and only a third of the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee had voted for the articles.
Then came United States v. Nixon. The National Constitution Center calls it “the Supreme Court decision that ended Nixon’s presidency.” The unanimous ruling forced Nixon to turn over the tapes of his Oval Office conversations to the House Judiciary Committee. One recording revealed him discussing plans to thwart the FBI’s investigation of the break-in at the Watergate.
It was now politically impossible for Republicans to protect Nixon. Barry Goldwater and the top GOP members of the House and Senate went to the White House to tell him this. Nixon resigned the next day.
So Nixon was never in fact impeached by the House, much less formally convicted in the Senate. What forced him out of office was not a vote by Democrats, but defections by Republicans.
But what would have happened if Republicans had hung tough?
A huge swath of GOP elites thought that they should have. Rather than seeing Nixon as a sinner, they thought he had been sinned against. William Simon, Nixon’s treasury secretary, wrote in a 1978 book called “A Time for Truth” that what Nixon had done was “a trivial matter” and his resignation was an “incredible political calamity that had struck the nation.” Alexander Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff and later Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, felt the whole thing was illegitimate because the Democrats had been “out to jail everybody” for partisan gain. According to Nixon speechwriter and eventual presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, “Watergate was a coup d’état that overturned the largest landslide in American history and destroyed a president who had humiliated the liberal establishment.”
Alexander Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff and later Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, felt the whole thing was illegitimate because the Democrats had been “out to jail everybody” for partisan gain.
Things had gone terribly wrong, they felt, because of this liberal establishment. The liberal media, liberal professors, and liberal judges had knifed Nixon. The liberal influence was so powerful that the GOP couldn’t even trust its own judges. Five of the justices in U.S. v. Nixon had been appointed by Republican presidents. Three of those had been chosen by Nixon himself! The liberal establishment, Simon wrote, was “a new despotism” that was “as stubborn and ruthless a ruling elite as any in history.”
Their response, GOP elites believed, should be to fulfill the vision of Nixon himself.
At the beginning of Nixon’s second term in 1973, he told his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman that they needed to create “a new establishment.” This would first involve creating “our own news,” which would engage in “a brutal, vicious attack on the opposition.” The Nixon administration asked outside supporters to “buy a television network.” TV was perfect, according to an earlier White House memo titled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News.” Why? Because “People are lazy. With television you just sit — watch — listen. The thinking is done for you.” Roger Ailes, then an outside adviser to the Nixon administration, responded that this concept was an “excellent idea” that “should be expanded.”
Over the next several decades, Nixon’s dream became a reality, led by Ailes and Simon. Ailes’s story is well known.
Post-Nixon, Ailes soon became news director of “Television News Incorporated” with funding from ultra-conservative beer magnate Joseph Coors. He later worked for Reagan, and then founded Fox News with Rupert Murdoch.
Simon’s efforts are less recognized but equally significant. After Nixon’s ouster, Simon became a leveraged buyout specialist on Wall Street while also serving as president of the conservative Olin Foundation from 1977 until his death in 2000. “The only thing that can save the Republican Party,” Simon stated, “is a counter-intelligentsia.” So he set about creating one.
“Funds generated by business,” Simon said in 1978, “must rush by the multimillions … to scholars, social scientists, writers and journalists.” With his help, they did: Simon organized the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars out of Olin and other conservative foundations.
The National Review later described the Olin Foundation “as a source of venture capital for the vast right-wing conspiracy.” It helped support what became marquee names on the right: Linda Chavez, Irving Kristol, Charles Murray, and Dinesh D’Souza, as well as numerous professors, and think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute.
Most significantly, Olin helped nurture the Federalist Society, which grew out of a 1982 conference of conservative law students and professors. As Fox News is to milquetoast corporate news outlets, the Federalist Society is to the American Bar Association. Membership in the Federalist Society demonstrates, as Politico puts it, that if nominated for a judgeship, a Republican lawyer will not “‘drift’ to the left” once seated. It is now close to a litmus test for judicial appointments by Republican presidents. Five justices on the current Supreme Court, including Trump nominees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, are current or past members. At last count, the same was true for 25 of Trump’s 30 appointees to the federal appeals courts.
The power of this counter-establishment was notable even when it was in its embryonic stages during the Iran-contra scandal in the late 1980s. Reagan had almost certainly committed impeachable offenses by engaging in a byzantine scheme to secretly sell arms to Iran in hopes of using the proceeds to fund the Nicaraguan contras.
The special prosecutor appointed to look into this, Lawrence Walsh, was a Republican, and conservative enough that 15 years previously, Nixon had hoped Walsh might be chosen to investigate Watergate. But now there was Rush Limbaugh and the Washington Times, which relentlessly attacked Walsh as the second coming of Alger Hiss. Without the instructions from Limbaugh and the Washington Times, the Republican grassroots might have grown confused and disheartened, knuckling under to whatever the Democrats wanted. With them, Republican politicians heard constantly that they had to stop this liberal zealot from impeaching Reagan or Bush.
The right’s judicial push bore fruit as well. Walsh secured convictions of Oliver North and John Poindexter. However, Walsh later wrote, “a powerful band of Republican appointees waited like the strategic reserves of an embattled army.” The convictions were overturned with key votes from three judges on the D.C. appellate court — all appointed by Reagan, all members of the Federalist Society.
Thus thanks to the new counter-establishment, what could have been a mortal threat to Reagan and Bush became merely an inconvenience. And that was 30 years ago. Like a small amount of bacteria exploding exponentially in a patient with a weakened immune system, the conservative counter-establishment has taken over the host organism and become the establishment itself. Millions of Republican voters are told in loving detail why all the accusations made against Trump are damnable Democratic lies. There may be, as former Arizona GOP senator Jeff Flake claims, 35 Republican senators who’d vote to impeach Trump if they could do so in secret. But they can’t. It’s difficult to imagine any will fear being primaried for being insufficiently supportive of Trump less than the consequences of sticking with him.
So Nixon might have lost 45 years ago. But Nixon’s vision has almost certainly won, all to the benefit of a president even more venal than he was.