Then (1974) vs Now (2017)

Alan Zendell, August 18, 2017

My generation remembers the anxiety of the last months of the Nixon administration. Years of disillusionment over Vietnam, Nixon’s attempt to subvert the 1972 election process, the painful progression of Watergate, and the week by week unraveling of his political support combined to erode confidence in the future of the country. Living and working in the Washington area, I was probably more aware and over-sensitized to what was happening than most Americans. The result for many of us was the fear that our republic had been seriously wounded and the possibility that executive authority had been irrevocably undermined.

I believed that so strongly that my priority became finding a place far away from the toxicity of DC to raise my two young sons, preferably some place that would be relatively insulated from the shock waves that would follow a possible implosion of our central government. I know it sounds paranoid, and maybe it was, but it resulted in my kids growing up in the Pacific Northwest, not a bad outcome.

As it became clear that Nixon was melting down daily, complaining bitterly that the press was out to get him, two people stepped up to maintain stability. One was retired General Alexander Haig who signed on as Nixon’s Chief of Staff and famously announced that he was in charge and he intended to right the ship of state. Amid charges that he was overstepping, he did just what he promised, walling Nixon off and reassuring the country that there wasn’t a madman at the helm.

The other was Vice President Gerald Ford, a respected, soft-spoken intellectual Conservative with long experience in Congress. If Nixon was forced from office, Ford would replace him, so his steady personality and quiet strength resulted in a smooth transition. Our fears turned out to be unfounded, but we haven’t forgotten how they felt. And we may have been lucky too, as the mid-seventies, after our embarrassing withdrawal from Vietnam, were relatively free of international crises.

It goes without saying that those forty-year-old concerns were re-awakened when it became clear that Donald Trump might actually become president. Everything about his past screamed “No!” His entire campaign reinforced every negative impression of him that had been formed over several decades. He was intemperate, insensitive, profane, and often seemed quite unhinged in his rants. His campaign strategy seemed to be a combination of creating chaos and pandering to any group that was willing to support him. There seemed to be no limits to the depths he would stoop to energize the worst elements of human nature.

Many of us watched in horror as his campaign gained momentum, but unlike some previous elections, this wasn’t a left-right or red-blue thing. Trump had no political ideology or deeply rooted principles. It was clear to many of us that his main driving force was his narcissistic need for adulation. He masterfully stoked the emotions of the angry people that made up much of his base, and it didn’t matter what he said or whether what he said one day contradicted what he’d said last week. It also didn’t seem to matter whether anything he said was true. For people like me who were trained in scientific method, to whom facts mattered, that may have been the most disturbing thing of all.

Trump’s victory would never have occurred except for the level of disconnect between Hillary Clinton and millions of voters who I believe are the keys to whether this administration can survive. Many of those people either abstained or pulled the Trump lever in the voting booth, albeit while holding their noses and hoping they weren’t making a terrible error. I count many of them among my friends and family members.

After the election most of them adopted a wait and see attitude. “Give him a year and see what happens,” they said, and I responded, “I don’t think you’ll need a year.” The most telling sign that the Trump administration is in serious trouble is that those same people are starting to tell me they regret voting for him, and they’re as horrified by his behavior as I am.

Trump’s lack of a moral center, his instability which many see as a serious personality disorder, his tendency to lash out and scapegoat at will, and his disregard for the feelings of anyone who didn’t support him made this inevitable. And now disaffection has reached the point where his own party is finding the political courage to abandon him.

The erosion of the Trump administration is looking very much like what I remember from 1974, except that it’s happening at a very dangerous time in terms of world events. I hope General Kelly can hold things together the way Haig did. And I hope Vice President Pence can grow enough to take on the role Gerald Ford played. If not, we may all be in trouble.

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