As public hearings begin from the Select House Committee probing the Capitol Riot on Jan. 6, 2021, I realize that the treasonous actions by Donald Trump and his cult are the second serious assault on our government, our democracy, and our way of life I have witnessed and reported on during my nearly 60 years as a newspaperman.
The first came s half-century ago when another corrupt president, Richard Nixon, tried to subvert democracy and the Constitution in the Watergate scandal.
Uncovering that scandal turned Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into journalism heroes, and they combined again this past weekend in a detailed analysis that compared the actions of Nixon and Trump.
“Woodward thought and Bernstein thought Nixon defined corruption,” read the headline in Sunday’s post. “Then came Trump.”
President George Washington, in his celebrated 1796 Farewell Address, cautioned that American democracy was fragile. “Cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government,” he warned.
Two of his successors — Richard Nixon and Donald Trump — demonstrate the shocking genius of our first president’s foresight.
As reporters, we had studied Nixon and written about him for nearly half a century, during which we believed with great conviction that never again would America have a president who would trample the national interest and undermine democracy through the audacious pursuit of personal and political self-interest.
And then along came Trump.
During Watergate, I was a reporter and columnist for The Telegraph in Alton, IL, a then-afternoon daily newspaper in the St. Louis metropolitan area. I traveled to Washington several times, mostly at my own cost, to interview principals in the scandal. I met with Woodward and Bernstein, and they offered invaluable suggestions on threads to follow.
The heart of Nixon’s criminality was his successful subversion of the electoral process — the most fundamental element of American democracy. He accomplished it through a massive campaign of political espionage, sabotage and disinformation that enabled him to literally determine who his opponent would be in the presidential election of 1972.
Donald Trump not only sought to destroy the electoral system through false claims of voter fraud and unprecedented public intimidation of state election officials, but he also then attempted to prevent the peaceful transfer of power to his duly elected successor, for the first time in American history.
In a deception that exceeded even Nixon’s imagination, Trump and a group of lawyers, loyalists and White House aides devised a strategy to bombard the country with false assertions that the 2020 election was rigged and that Trump had really won. They zeroed in on the Jan. 6 session as the opportunity to overturn the election’s result. Leading up to that crucial date, Trump’s lawyers circulated memos with manufactured claims of voter fraud that had counted the dead, underage citizens, prisoners and out-of-state residents.
Nixon was brought down with the threat of impeachment, with Republican leaders voting to bring him to trial and convict. Trump had more control over a GOP leadership that was as corrupt as he and unwilling to take him on, except for a few, most of whom have decided not to run again or who lost in primaries to opponents who backed the criminal president without question.
We watched in utter dismay as Trump persistently claimed that he was really the winner. “We won,” he said in a speech on Jan. 6 at the Ellipse. “We won in a landslide. This was a landslide.” He publicly and relentlessly pressured Pence to make him the victor on Jan. 6.
On that day, driven by Trump’s rhetoric and his obvious approval, a mob descended on the Capitol and, in a stunning act of collective violence, broke through doors and windows and ransacked the House chamber, where the electoral votes were to be counted. The mob then went in search of Pence — all to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. Trump did nothing to restrain them.
By legal definition this is clearly sedition — conduct, speech or organizing that incites people to rebel against the governing authority of the state. Thus, Trump became the first seditious president in our history.
Seditious. Treasonous. A traitor to our country. Donald Trump is all of that and more. He is a constant liar, a con artist who cheats, steals, and embezzled millions from the United States Treasury.
When Nixon resigned in disgrace, I wrote a column urging that he never, ever, be pardoned for his crimes. Instead, I said, he should be “trampled into the dirt as the dog he is.”:
Incredibly, the chairman of the Republican Party in Alton wrote a letter to the editor claiming Nixon should be remembered as “a great man” and asked, “what we could do to allow the man to return to public service.”
“You might try leaving his bowl on the back porch,” I wrote in a follow-up column.
More than a year after Joe Biden’s inauguration, polling shows that only 21 percent of Republicans say they believe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States.
Their reasoning shows how the Trump rhetoric and playbook have convinced them. Between 74 and 83 percent of the Republicans who denied Biden’s victory were swayed by Trump’s false claims of massive voter fraud.
Trump’s claims have always been presented with unwavering, emotional consistency, revealing little or no self-doubt. As the 2024 election approaches, Trump seems on the verge of once again seeking the presidency.
Both Nixon and Trump have been willing prisoners of their compulsions to dominate, and to gain and hold political power through virtually any means. In leaning so heavily on these dark impulses, they defined two of the most dangerous and troubling eras in American history.
As Washington warned in his Farewell Address more than 225 years ago, unprincipled leaders could create “permanent despotism,” “the ruins of public liberty,” and “riot and insurrection.”
Our first president warned us about despots like Donald Trump. Today, 225 years later, is anyone paying attention?
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