After the Senate’s vote to keep Donald Trump from the Oval Office, House Judiciary Committee chair Jerrold Nadler told The New Yorker, “It never occurred to me that an American political party would degrade itself to an authoritarian political party where anything goes, no matter what…. I never thought an American political party could get as bad as now, where they completely don’t care how bad the crimes are.”
Nadler should have been paying more attention. Like him, many liberals, moderates, and of course, never-Trumpers continue to invest themselves in a narrative that posits that a once patriotic party dedicated to conservative principles and the rule of law was just recently corrupted by its fealty to the lies, lawlessness, and racism of its pathological president. Unfortunately, that’s a fiction. Yes, Trump is the most openly dishonest person ever to occupy the White House. But as far as modern Republicans go, he is, in some ways, the most honest. He says and does in public what Republican presidents have been doing in secret for more than half a century.
Many of us are shocked by the brazenness with which Trump and company sought to enlist foreign powers—Russia in 2016, Ukraine this past summer—to undermine our democracy to help with his campaign. But this is basically what Richard Nixon did in 1968. Armed with Henry Kissinger’s secret leaks from the Paris peace talks, Nixon urged South Vietnam, through a surrogate, to refuse any peace offerings negotiated by Lyndon Johnson’s administration because he would give the country a better deal if he was elected president. (He didn’t.) Johnson knew this in real time but, like Barack Obama regarding Trump and the Russians, decided to keep quiet about it. And so Nixon won, and American soldiers and the Vietnamese paid the price.
Later, Nixon behaved with similar cynicism, putting on hold his plan to withdraw all US troops from Vietnam until 1972. Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, had told him, “If any bad results follow, they will be too late to affect the election.” The president needed, as Kissinger explained to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, “a fairly reasonable interval” between the United States pulling out its troops and the North Vietnamese marching into Saigon. As presidential biographer Robert Dallek noted, Kissinger “had nothing to say about the American lives that would be lost in the service of Nixon’s reelection” or about the American prisoners of war who would continue their needless suffering if the administration prolonged the war. Nixon, meanwhile, bragged of the “brilliant game we are playing,” as “Henry really bamboozled the bastards.”
We still don’t know for certain if Ronald Reagan carried out a similar scheme. There is considerable but not dispositive evidence, according to Gary Sick—a National Security Council staffer in the Ford, Carter, and (briefly) Reagan administrations and author of October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan—that “individuals associated with the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1980 met secretly with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages until after the Presidential election. For this favor, Iran was rewarded with a substantial supply of arms from Israel.”
George H.W. Bush is today remembered by many people as a man of honor who restored the Republicans’ reputation for sanity and decency after the lies of the Iran-contra scandal. These folks forget not only that he lied about his (and Reagan’s) role in the scandal but also that he passed out pardons to the likes of the genocide enabler Elliott Abrams and other officials under investigation by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. When revelations in former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger’s diaries appeared to implicate Bush, Weinberger received a pardon before a jury could decide on his guilt or innocence. This marked, as a furious Walsh later noted, “the first time a president ever pardoned someone in whose trial he might have been called as a witness.” (It goes without saying that like Trump today, Reagan and Bush rarely told the truth about anything related to the scandal.)
Then there’s the racism. Here again, Trump is operating within a time-honored Republican tradition—just doing so more openly. Nixon and Reagan merely hinted at their racism in public. In private, they gave voice to it with pride. For instance, after watching a UN vote in October 1971 in which a few African nations opposed the United States’ preferred outcome, Reagan, then governor of California, called Nixon to express his exasperation about having “to see those, those monkeys from those African countries.” Reagan continued, “Damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes.” Nixon was so impressed with the future president’s cleverness that he later shared the “joke” with his secretary of state, William Rogers. Nixon explained that Reagan said he saw “these, uh, these cannibals on television last night, and he says, ‘Christ, they weren’t even wearing shoes.’” Two hours later, Nixon called Rogers again to repeat the story. The exchange, which didn’t become public until 2019, provides “a stark reminder,” said Timothy Naftali, a former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, “of the racism that often lay behind the public rhetoric of American presidents.” (He might have specified American Republican presidents.)
So when Republican Senator Lamar Alexander admitted that he and his colleagues decided to acquit Trump despite the “mountain of overwhelming evidence,” that was predictable. (A congressional aide quoted in The New Yorker described the Republican inaction as “heartbreaking,” because “it’s, like, ‘You’re absolutely right, but I’m not going to do anything about it.’”) For their part, Democrats would do well to remember philosopher George Santayana’s adage about those who cannot remember the past being condemned to repeat it.