Comment: Trump’s acts, like Nixon’s, more tantrum than coup

As they had during Nixon’s last days, the Constitution and the rule of law held against his desires.

By David Greenberg / Special to The Washington Post

Since Election Day, President Trump has done everything in his power to discredit the election results and secure a second term for himself. Yet his efforts have failed completely, absolutely and spectacularly.

Judges, election overseers, state officials and news organizations — Republican as well as Democratic, conservative as well as liberal — showed fealty to the Constitution and the rule of law over a willful president. Despite Trump’s rout, however, many Trump-haters are still freaking out about a possible “coup.” Like the “raskall many” in Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” who can’t quite believe St. George has finally slain the dragon that has menaced them, they remain afraid their nemesis will magically roar back to life.

Trump, of course, will continue to deny his defeat; even tweeting “Fraud!” as he boards his helicopter to Mar-a-Lago. But his thorough discomfiture should dispel everyone’s anxiety. Trump has been stripped of the presidency, and whatever challenges lie ahead, that’s a historic achievement.

In short: The system worked.

That phrase comes from the Nixon Era, of course; and the parallels with Nixon’s demise are instructive. After all, even more than Trump’s erratic and destructive White House sojourn, Watergate represented the historic zenith of presidential lawlessness. Nonetheless, over two years, Congress, the justice system, the news media and civil society came together to send Nixon packing and shore up democracy. Watergate even became a textbook civics lesson, a model of how our well-wrought system and democratic mores could ensure not even an “imperial president” was above the law.

What’s sometimes forgotten, though, is how precarious American democracy seemed then; exactly as it has during the past four years. Today’s understandable but misplaced fears that Trump “won’t leave” the White House on Jan. 20 have a perfect precedent in identical anxieties about Nixon at the peak of Watergate. As the vise tightened in July and August 1974, Nixon appeared to many ready and willing to defy even an impeachment conviction.

For many months, Nixon had given Americans every reason to doubt he would go gently. He had stiffed investigators, spurned congressional subpoenas, ordered the firing of the Watergate special prosecutor, destroyed evidence and paid hush money to conceal his multitudinous crimes. During the summer of 1974, as the end drew near, rumors swirled that he would call out the 82nd Airborne to keep himself in the Oval Office. These rumors enjoyed credence from no less than Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, who told his generals to ignore orders from the commander in chief, since they were likely to be issued for unconstitutional purposes.

On one occasion that summer, Secret Service agents even locked the White House press corps in its basement press room, ignoring, with the studied stoicism common to low-level employees who revel in exercising what power they have, the panicked reporters pounding the doors. In a classic article a quarter century later, journalist Ron Rosenbaum — one of those imprisoned at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — recalled “the most tense half-hour of my life up to that point, maybe ever” ending abruptly when someone unlocked the door, explaining innocently that Nixon had simply wanted to take a walk without fear of stumbling on an inquisitive reporter.

Only in retrospect was it clear, Rosenbaum noted, that Nixon never intended to do “what we feared in our dark fantasies he’d do. He didn’t bring in the generals, call up the troops, start a war, launch a missile or a coup. He didn’t defy the Supreme Court and Congress, or rip up the Constitution (well, not after he got caught trying). He didn’t live up to the paranoid vision of Richard Nixon we, some of us, were guilty of holding, or hoping he’d fulfill. He went quietly.”

Nixon was no less an egomaniac than Trump, no less keen on hoarding power, no less convinced that he was entitled to rule. But he had come to realize he was checkmated; he had no moves left to play. Resigning would leave him some shred of dignity and the trappings afforded to former presidents.

It cannot be said Trump will go quietly; it’s too late for that. But the same institutional and cultural constraints that forced Nixon to yield have also stymied Trump at every turn this fall; even as many of his detractors indulged paranoid fantasies that he would, like a Latin American strongman, override the election results by deviousness, support from the army or sheer force of will.

For some Democrats, it has been as if the nightmare of 2016 — when Trump shockingly upset Hillary Clinton — were replaying itself. Past trauma has warped many people’s perception of present reality. As Trump began crying fraud, pundits warned hysterically that MAGA types would resort to insurrectionist violence, but no large-scale uprising materialized. Others shouted Trump’s firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper portended an armed seizure of power, but none came.

More panic greeted Trump’s White House confab in late November with Republican lawmakers from Michigan, whom, it was feared, he would bully into surrendering their state’s electors. But after bidding Trump adieu, the Michiganders said that Biden had won their state, full stop. A similar nonevent occurred in Georgia where, despite liberals’ fears of an overturned victory, the governor, secretary of state and chief of voting operations — all Republicans — sided with reality over the president’s wishes.

Democrats found still more grounds for alarm with each of the 60-plus meritless lawsuits that Trump and his allies brought. Election experts told us the cases were tissue-thin, and all but one of them flopped; in some instances with Trump-appointed judges presiding, in another with an essentially unanimous Supreme Court slamming the door in Trump’s face (two justices would have let him in the door only to then send him away).

Even after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other leading Republican officeholders finally acknowledged Biden’s victory, the doomsday scenarios have continued to flourish, especially on Twitter. The latest fears have centered on a suggestion that the government seize voting machines, which Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, summarily rebuffed. Others stem from a last-ditch strategy meeting Trump held with his most conspiratorially minded allies: former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, retired general Michael Flynn and lawyer Sidney Powell. But on this occasion, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows nixed Trump’s outlandish ideas.

These seemingly endless schemes add up not to a “coup” but a “temper tantrum.” No doubt the president would have liked to reverse Biden’s win. But a wish – even a wish coupled with Twitter rampages and the browbeating of state officials – doesn’t amount to a coup. The word coup implies that our constitutional rules and democratic institutions are perilously frail and vulnerable to one strongman’s whims. They’re not.

Since Election Day, in every instance in which they have been tested, America’s democratic institutions have held up extremely well. Yes, it’s important to be cognizant of the weak spots in our democracy and be vigilant against corruption. But it’s essential to recognize, too, that the United States, with its 231-year-old constitutional order, is a far cry from Belarus or Bolivia. Our second-most Nixonian president has met a Nixonian fate.

None of this should be read as minimizing the dangers of what Trump attempted. Abetted by leading Republicans, he has primed his die-hard followers to brand Biden an illegitimate president, an act that will make the already-hard task of governing much harder. He has also encouraged his base to believe falsehoods, indulge conspiracy theories and distrust credible journalism. And, as he has throughout his presidency, he is again violating solemn taboos; and once a taboo is broken, it becomes easier to break again. Harsh criticism and concern are definitely warranted.

Alarmism, however, is a mistake. Shrill or overwrought rhetoric or a needless escalation of the mood of crisis plays into the hands of extremists on both sides, who want to use the occasion of a supposed emergency to justify outlandish behavior of their own. It also deafens us to the sounding of genuine alarms, which could prove detrimental in the long run.

Joe Biden ran for the presidency on a promise that he could help us get back to conducting our politics with some semblance of normalcy. He won, and we can rest easy knowing that.

Our long national nightmare is over.

David Greenberg is a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.” He is working on a biography of John Lewis.

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