Why the Trump era is worse than Nixon and Watergate

When the Watergate scandal drove Richard Nixon from the presidency 44 years ago, the Republican Party survived because its establishment leaders pushed back against his criminal behavior.

Sen. Barry Goldwater and others told him he lacked the voters to escape impeachment, and he resigned. His replacement, Vice President Gerald Ford, a decent and respected man, helped put the GOP back on course. In 1980, the party won the Oval Office again behind Ronald Regan and then the two George Bushes, and re-established itself as part of the nation’s historic framework.

But today, the old establishment has totally surrendered itself to the Party of Donald Trump, crumbling before the deliberate destruction of the ethical and moral standards of the Grand Old Party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan.

Of the 16 Republican presidential hopefuls who challenged Trump for the party nomination in 2016, only one, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, remains a viable party national figure standing up to the president as he distorts, disrupts and lies his way to otherwise unchallenged dominance in the ranks.

This overrated and hapless group of political weaklings, from Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Ted Cruz and former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas to former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, were mincemeat then to Trump’s steamroller of reality-TV celebrity.

Trump’s most conspicuous and most humiliated victim was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the early frontrunner and supposed political heir of the party’s family dynasty. Trump handily disposed of him as a “low-energy” coaster.

The other most prominent member of the party’s establishment to sharply criticize Trump, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, was reduced to seeking a U.S. Senate seat from Utah and a shadow of his former self as a governor of Massachusetts.

Trump’s personally constructed takeover of the party came out of the blue, transforming it from an advocate of small government and fierce foreign policy into a powerhouse of racial division and phony populism with white supremacist tinges. Huge political rallies, in which he played on the lowest herd biases of the time, churned existing prejudices to a fever pitch.

In the general election, he parlayed general and gender hostility toward former Democratic first lady Hillary Clinton to an Electoral College victory that shocked the country and beyond. However, it fell 2.8 million votes short in the popular count, to Trump’s lasting irritation.

In the process, he muscled his way to party dominance despite GOP majorities in both House and Senate that soon fell in line rather than defy his demonstrated political clout. Yet they were unable or unwilling to deliver much on his major legislative proposals in his first year in office.

Thus, the Grand Old Party, which had successfully survived the Watergate scandal that drove Nixon from the Oval Office in disgrace, finds itself now with another beleaguered president whose tenure is imperiled by various allegations of political and personal misconduct.

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Jules Witcover’s latest book is

“The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.