The Era of American Numbness

Graphic by Kapp Singer

Watergate, once America’s most scandalous political affair, has got nothing on 2020. In fact, America’s pain tolerance for corruption has increased exponentially since Nixon’s resignation. The past few years have made us immune to words and phrases like “impeachment,” “abuse of power,” and “deception” as they cycle through every headline non-stop. But up until this point, Watergate was the scandal of all scandals, which set America on the path to conspiracy and coup d’etat. Even so, the landmark prosecution and resignation of President Nixon has faded into the history books for anyone who’s just trying to get through the front page of The New York Times every morning. What happened at the Watergate Hotel? What led President Nixon to resign? And what set the stage for the massive cover-up, and all the similarly massive cover-ups since?

For Nixon, the beginning of the end was the 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers. He had inherited a geopolitical disaster from the Johnson administration; the United States’ involvement in the destabilization of Southeast Asia paved his way to electoral victory. His campaign harnessed the American public’s opposition to the war in Vietnam, promising “peace with honor.” But the release of classified military documents in The New York Times complicated the narrative. The contents of the papers detail the previously unreported extent to which the US had contributed personnel, weaponry, and capital to undermining democracy in North Vietnam. 

Despite not pertaining to his presidential administration, the breach of security terrified Nixon. 

It set the stage for a new era of antipathy towards the press and the anti-war movement, undertones of which followed Nixon to his eventual resignation. The actual Watergate break-in took place as the President was running for reelection, which he was almost guaranteed to win. He was overwhelmingly favored in the polls and on track to secure four more years in office. His massive favorability came as a result of meddling in the Democratic primaries, where Nixon’s reelection team had defamed and derailed the leading Democractic candidate to the point of resignation, ensuring an easy path to victory. Despite this, paranoia overtook Nixon and in June of 1972, a few of his men broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters with phone-tapping equipment, hundreds of dollars, and the intent to sabotage the Democrats. They were caught. Local law enforcement didn’t connect the dots, seeing it as a small scale break-in and burying the story. Nixon proceeded to win reelection in a landslide. His administration went to unbelievable lengths to keep Watergate covered up and to keep Nixon’s name as far away from the crime as possible. They interfered in various investigations, bribing, blackmailing, and plotting at the highest levels. It took obsessively dedicated journalists, knowledgeable whistleblowers, and indisputable audio recordings to uncover the corruption of the President. Nixon tried everything,—claiming presidential privilege, firing investigators, and throwing just about all of his subordinates under the bus. His efforts were coup-like, overreaching and abusing every power afforded to him to undermine the investigations. As mentions of impeachment began to circulate, Nixon resigned and received a pardon from vice president Ford, his successor in the Oval Office. 

Half a century later, it’s clear that the presidency is still ripe for abuse of power—just a glance at the Mueller report, Zelensky phone call transcripts, or banned Twitter account can prove that. Each of these flash-in-the-pan political scandals seems to be forgotten as soon as the next one comes around. 

Even the storming of the Capitol on January 6th and Donald Trump’s historic second impeachment faded out of popular consciousness almost immediately once Biden took office. Our collective inability to process scandal as additive and evolving, rather than as discrete short-term fixations, is as much on display in 2021 as it was in 1972. Nixon and Trump raise many of the same questions about American democracy and its relationship to truth, trust, and popular media. 

***

Richard Nixon came from a relatively poor family and rose through the ranks. He was a fierce and brilliant man who harnessed America’s angst about the Vietnam War to sweep the electoral college. His persona was genuine but spiteful: most notably, Nixon hated the elites. His paranoia about wealthy Democrats, liberal news networks, and the well-educated became his downfall. But his terrors, destructive as they were, came from a place of legitimate isolation and exclusion from the high-society world of Washington. 

Trump, too, felt excluded from the elite and academic world of politics, but his middle-school, you-can’t-sit-with-us-at-lunch insecurity was rooted in a different form of isolation: being a flashy, famous, rich reality TV star. He had safety net upon safety net; there was no mistake Trump couldn’t recover from. He wasn’t a politician for most of his life, instead dedicating his career to “building a brand” in industries such as golf, steak, educational administration, beauty pageants, and bottled spring water. His scandals were messy and glamorous, from his divorces and drama with his wives to his authoritarian affection for Russia. Somehow, though, he played upon the same anti-establishment angst that Nixon did. Their narratives were similar: the only honest man amongst crooks, in spite of the pervasively different contexts of their upbringings.The drastically different circumstances of  their lives, despite the near-identical narrative they were able to use as fodder for political projects, evidences how divorced rhetoric has become from reality and how susceptible the American public is to narratives like the American dream. 

Nixon’s relationship with the media was always shaky at best. No other president had ever entered office with such an antagonistic and hostile relationship to the press, which operated as a critical organ of the state. His combativeness immediately created an environment of animosity at the White House. Veteran analyst John A. Farrell of Politico wrote, “He was finding enemies everywhere: among liberals, the bureaucracy, on Capitol Hill and in the press.” The president’s path to power was paved by a feeling of otherness, of being a man of the people amongst wealthy, divorced-from-the-real-world intellectuals, which eventually spiralled into resentment and paranoia. Nixon felt as though the walls of his White House were being invaded. Tapes that were released from his office revealed hours and hours of him complaining about reporters and news outlets and plotting to take them down. He regularly recited to his staff, “The press is the enemy.” In this, Nixon pioneered a new style of politician, one with an adversarial relationship to the press. He was terrified that he was going to be misconstrued by his enemies, the news media. Whether Trump actually believed the same is unclear, but he has certainly carried through his term a similar sentiment: the news seeks to destroy. Nixon antagonized the news and Trump weaponized it, the foundations of White House investigations and media exposés serving as Trump’s stepping stone to massive public manipulation. Each story brings the president’s supporters closer—a unique characteristic of this style of politician as they paint the press as bitter and vendetta-driven, as opposed to serving the public and presenting the truth.  

So Trump has sought and found success with alternative channels, ones which were never available to Nixon, like Twitter. Social media serves as a direct line from the president to the people, without any pesky interference from fact-checkers. It’s certainly a tool that Trump has taken advantage of. More significant, though, is his ability to sow the seeds of distrust about the news into the minds of his constituents. By legitimizing only complimentary news outlets, like Fox, and leveraging his social media accounts to disseminate “alternative facts,” Trump has been able to attack the very notion of truth. 

In Nixon’s era, the press were viewed as the arbiters of accuracy and honesty. But when a single individual has the power to shift what the public views as truth, they have the power to do anything. Nixon was able to do a great deal to prevent himself from being criminally prosecuted. But in this process he alienated his allies on the Hill, and turned the entire nation against him. Impeachment was on the horizon and the country was roaring for him to step down. 

This is not Trump’s story. Trump has yet to truly make himself an enemy of the people. His power came from a fanatical and loyal base, as well as his ability to leverage the belief that the government was out to get them. Up until the very end, he had millions of die-hard supporters who worshipped him like a god. Even high-ranking members of his party hung onto him through illegitimacy, insurrections, and impeachments. Trump’s ability to maintain support throughout some of the worst scandals in American history is a true testament to the tolerance America has developed for corruption. Nixon vs. the people set the stage for Trump and his people vs. the other people. 

Nixon attacked democracy by attacking the truth, ushering in a new age in the relationship between the people and their government. That relationship hasn’t always been perfect, but Watergate shattered the mold in terms of how the president was expected to pander to the press. The press had historically served as the president’s mouthpiece; with Watergate, Nixon cut out the middleman by propagating a new (and newly false) narrative. He did something unthinkable: he indulged the wildest of conspiracy dreams. He attacked elections, plotted to destroy political enemies, and covered up his tracks. It may not have been immediately apparent, but Nixon’s behavior shook the public in a way they had never been shaken before. It verified the possibility that elected officials could be crooked in no uncertain terms. From this point forward, conspiracy theories didn’t sound so crazy. Once-outlandish perspectives sounded a little less outlandish. 

Nixon opened a portal, allowing Trump to exist in an entirely new multiverse. Pre-Nixon presidents spun news in their favor; Nixon waged an entire war against the media. This is the battleground Trump inherited, one littered with lies upon contradictions upon lies. Richard Nixon permanently and fundamentally altered the relationship that the American public has with its government, and in doing so, enabled Trump to capitalize on their fear and mistrust. 

Yet the way we interact with political scandals doesn’t feel like a deep betrayal or erosion of truth. Instead, it feels like a joke. A form of entertainment, of excitement, a new episode of a TV show. 

The dawn of this new era in political scandal brought about a new kind of public obsession. Nixon’s tapes were transcribed and sold like comic books. The soap-opera excitement of his trials invigorated the public. People fell in love with the drama. It’s an odd and dangerous way to interact with our government. 

What happens when you finish an exciting episode of TV? You watch the next one. You don’t process or analyze what happened in the episode. You are supposed to lean back and watch, with glassy eyes and feet propped up. It is designed to disengage the viewer, to leave behind critical thinking in favor of a flashy world of chaos. 

This fast-moving, obsessive relationship Americans have developed with political scandals removes any space for reflection or analysis. It divorces people from the material reality of policymaking, moving them farther away from the interactive and fluid parts of government.  We no longer see corruption as a political error, but instead as the fodder for the joke of the day. This means the solution to political scandals is just to create more. We’ve allowed monumental betrayals of public trust to become SNL skits without processing the implications for our democracy. We see it, we think about it, we forget about it. Next episode. 

Nixon and Trump presented the same fundamental threats to our democracy: the erosion of truth and honesty that has and will surely continue to haunt politics. Despite the differences in their circumstances, they exist as entities of the same body. Nixon introduced mass corruption and election fraud to people; Trump took the foundation and ran with it. They both relentlessly attacked the United States’ electoral process, attempting to shake one of the most crucial checks on the American presidency. Their paranoia about the liberal news and its potential to misrepresent or unite against them was overpowering, though their ability to manage its reach differed. Though using different means, it is commonly accepted that both President Nixon and President Trump attempted a coup: Nixon through his constant interference with the justice system, and Trump with his supporters pounding at the doors of the Capitol.

Ultimately, public engagement and attentiveness are the most powerful accountability mechanisms in our system. When a population is informed about their government, when they feel connected and empowered to participate in its operations, the worst forces of evil are easily kept at bay. But Nixon, Trump, and many more to come attacked more than just truth. They attacked the very notion of truth and degraded the American public’s trust in the democratic systems that uphold it. They instilled antagonism, skepticism, and a collective exhaustion so the public felt isolated and unable to bring about meaningful change. This culminates in an attack on citizens’ feelings of agency, disincentivizing public participation in politics. They created a culture in which Americans must choose between reductive retribution or total disengagement, a public that can only either cyclically berate Trump for his misdemeanors or entirely ignore Biden as he perpetuates some of the very same errors. Nixon paved the way for an American government that cannot be accountable to its people, and a people incapable of parsing politics as anything other than serialized scandal.

Entertainment isn’t engagement, and consumption isn’t critical thinking.  Neither intentional ignorance nor antagonism sets up the conditions for effective organizing at scale. Watching CNN until your eyes bleed is not the solution to decades of political abuses, nor does it fuel the clarity and empowerment necessary for the public to check such abuses in the future. 

Think critically, be connected to your communities, and organize locally. Most importantly, maintain stamina. We need to build infrastructure that sustains movements into the long-term—that comes from believing in truth, trusting one another, and acting with intention to effect change. After spending years staring at the TV, watching pixelated politics pull policy farther away from us, the greatest act of resistance is to put your feet back on the ground and look at the world around you.

Leave a Reply