I was 6 years old when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency on a sweltering August day. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the back of my mother’s Volkswagen Bug, listening to her and my grandmother discuss Nixon’s almost certain impeachment.
What I mostly remember of that time, though, and I stipulate that this may come as much from the books I read later as it did from my own foggy experience, is an overwhelming sense of relief. Technically, Nixon’s crime had to do with plotting against his enemies and lying about it. But his unforgivable transgression lay in squandering the emotional energy of a country, dragging the electorate through an exhausting ordeal that seemed, increasingly, to be about nothing but his own survival.
This is why the most resonant line from that period came not from Nixon or his accusers, but from the man who mercifully pardoned him. “Our long national nightmare is over,” Gerald Ford said, eliciting a national sigh.
In effect, he was giving grateful Americans permission to finally leave politics in the 6 o’clock news, where it belonged, and go back to their bowling nights and disaster movies.
I’m reminded of this now not because I think there’s some perfect parallel between Donald Trump’s firing of the FBI director and Nixon’s savaging of his own Justice Department (which, by the way, I recounted in this January column, before Trump started firing everyone who was investigating him). We’re a long way from impeachment proceedings, and Trump’s latest move strikes me more as the imperious instinct of a tycoon than as the desperate lunge of a guilty man.
No, I go back to 1974 because, more and more, it seems to me that Trump is headed down the same broad path as Nixon, whether it ends in evidence of wrongdoing or merely in political paralysis. His undoing probably won’t be abuse of power or a cover-up, but rather our own inevitable, creeping fatigue.
In a sense, it was this same kind of national weariness that helped propel Trump to where he is in the first place. What so many voters didn’t like about the prospect of another Clinton presidency, aside from the whiny self-absorption of the candidate and her surrounding cast, was the near certainty of more never-ending drama.
After all the years of Whitewater and Ken Starr and a longer list of “gates” than you could find at O’Hare, even Democrats had little enthusiasm, understandably, for a Clinton spinoff.
This was the main effect of James Comey’s intervention during the fall campaign. It reminded everybody that this cyclical business about the email server — self-righteous allegations, breathless coverage, clueless nondenials and insincere apologies — would just never go away.
You can understand why a lot of Americans decided it was better to sit through a movie they hadn’t seen before, even if the reviews were dreadful and their expectations low, than to see the plodding, predictable show that would just go on and on until you decided to suffocate yourself in the popcorn bucket.
But if what we wanted was less of the unrelenting drama, then Trump Tower was pretty much the worst place we could have looked. It’s not just that Trump’s constantly bumbling into ethical dilemmas, or lashing out at critics and ratings competitors, or tweeting yet again about an election that’s now six months behind us.
It’s not simply that this whole fiasco involving Russian hackers and Trump campaign aides has already spawned multiple investigations and isn’t going away anytime soon, especially since Trump seems bent on sidelining anyone who gets a foothold into the evidence.
It’s that Trump can’t stand to simply exist for five minutes. His need is overpowering, his insecurity limitless.
Do I think Trump fired Comey because he hadn’t managed to create some all-consuming controversy in a week? No. Clearly Comey wasn’t hearing the order to stand down, and Trump isn’t used to being challenged by people he employs.
But do I think he pulled the trigger when he did because he wasn’t dominating the narrative? Yes. If Trump isn’t holding an audience, dread envelops him.
Trump became president — in large part, I think — because his staff shoved him into a closet for the last few weeks of the campaign, forcing voters to focus more on his opponent than on whatever insane impulse floated into his sleepless brain. But that’s over. No one keeps a lid on Trump now.
For the first few months, this constant provocation was simply disorienting, like getting hit by a flying brick every morning. For the past few months, it’s been sort of engrossing, in the same way that “24” kept you wondering which of the odious bureaucrats was about to be unmasked as a spy.
But “24” had its run, and so will Trump. You can resuscitate the lifeless hero only so many times before people tune out.
Americans really do want a radical reordering of the political system. But after a time, we appreciate normalcy, too. As Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, put it when I talked to him last week (echoing a line President Obama used to use): “At some point, the fever will break.”
Jimmy Carter surfed into Washington on a tsunami of popular revolt. But after a few years of gas shortages and nuclear crises and satellites falling from the skies, voters were more than ready for a little stability. It felt too much like a mirror image of the Nixon years — an unceasing cascade of headlines and controversies, one on top of the other, crowding out the space for everyday life.
The society is different now, of course. The partisan tribes who live on the plains of social media will beat their drums daily until the herds disappear. Bored and angry at the world, they crave the constant hum of existentialism.
But that’s not where the vast majority of Americans live. They want change, but not chaos exploding daily all around them. They’ll take a strong, entertaining personality, all right, but not if it means that politics has to become the subtext for every conversation at family dinners and Little League games.
I once heard a criminologist suggest that, in a way, methamphetamine was a less harmful drug than heroin. That’s because a person can exist on heroin for a long time, just sort of lolling around, but meth brings you to the bottom in a hurry. The addiction is shorter, the collapse and recovery unavoidable.
Maybe that’s where we are with Trump. Maybe he’s our political meth. The egomania, the rashness, the multi-front war on everyone in his way and some who aren’t — this is not sustainable in a country that cares about other things.
So if you believe, as I do, that Trump is unlikely to govern well in any event, you should be glad to see him fire Comey. You should hope he digs in, antagonizes Congress and law enforcement, tries to shut down the media, or whatever other kind of crazy compels him.
Because the more he flails at enemies and flexes the muscle of his office, the more Americans will seek shelter from the raining blows. And the further his approval ratings drop, the further members of his own party will run in the other direction, leaving Trump isolated and diminished.
And the sooner, perhaps, this particular nightmare will abate.
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