On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on student protesters, killing four. The 50th anniversary of the Kent State massacre passed with little notice in a nation preoccupied with COVID-19 — but now, suddenly, echoes of the Nixon era are everywhere. And Donald Trump seems to be deliberately invoking Richard Nixon’s legacy, tweeting out “LAW & ORDER!” in the apparent hope that it will magically rescue his political fortunes.
And given Trump’s determination to put troops in the streets of America’s cities, it’s quite likely that innocent civilians will be shot at some point.
But Trump isn’t Nixon — he’s much, much worse. And America 2020 isn’t America 1970: We’re a better nation in many ways, but our democracy is far more fragile, thanks to the utter corruption of the Republican Party.
The Trump-Nixon comparisons are obvious. Like Nixon, Trump has exploited white backlash for political gain. Like Nixon, Trump evidently believes that laws apply only to the little people.
Nixon, however, doesn’t seem to have been a coward. Amid mass demonstrations, he didn’t cower in the MAGAbunker, venturing out only after his minions had gassed peaceful protesters and driven them out of Lafayette Park. Instead, he went out to talk to protesters at the Lincoln Memorial. His behavior was a bit weird, but it wasn’t craven.
And while his political strategy was cynical and ruthless, Nixon was a smart, hardworking man who took the job of being president seriously.
His policy legacy was surprisingly positive; in particular, he did more than any other president, before or since, to protect the environment. Before Watergate took him down, he was working on a plan to expand health insurance coverage that in many ways anticipated Obamacare.
Trump, by contrast, appears to spend his days tweeting and watching Fox News. His administration’s only major policy achievement so far has been the 2017 tax cut, which was supposed to lead to surging business investment but didn’t.
He responded to the COVID-19 threat first with denial, then with frantic efforts — not to control the pandemic, but to shift the blame for shambolic, ineffective policies to other people.
So Trump is no Nixon. And the country he’s trying to dominate — his favorite word — is very different, too.
The good news is that America is a far less racist, far more tolerant nation today than it was in 1970. Remarkably, multiple polls show a majority of Americans approving of the protests inspired by George Floyd’s death, and strong disapproval of Trump’s response.
This doesn’t mean that systemic racism is gone — far from it. But a majority of Americans are willing to acknowledge that racism is real and see it as a problem, which represents huge moral progress. Nixon’s “silent majority” is now a noisy minority.
But it’s a very dangerous minority. While we are, as I said, in many ways a better nation than we were, we’re also a nation in which the rule of law and democratic values are very much under siege.
At this point it’s alarmingly easy to see how the United States could follow the path already taken by Hungary, becoming a democracy on paper but an authoritarian one-party state in practice. And I’m not talking about the distant future: It could happen this year, if Trump wins reelection — or even, potentially, if he loses but refuses to accept the results.
And the reason democracy is threatened in a way it never was under Nixon is not simply that Trump is a worse human being than Nixon ever was; it is the fact that he has so many enablers.
Trump’s authoritarian instincts, his admiration for and envy of foreign strongmen, and his desire to militarize law enforcement have long been obvious. These things wouldn’t matter so much, however, if the Republican Party were still the institution it was in the 1970s: a big tent with room for a variety of views, represented in the Senate by many people with real principles. These were people willing to remove a president, even if he was a Republican, when he betrayed his oath of office.
The modern GOP, however, is nothing like that. Many of its leading figures — people like Sen. Tom Cotton — are every bit as authoritarian and anti-democratic as Trump himself.
The rest, with hardly any exceptions, are loyal apparatchiks, intimidated into obedience by an angry base. This base gets its information from Fox and Facebook and basically lives in an alternate reality in which protesters demonstrating peacefully against police brutality are actually a radical horde that will begin a violent insurrection any minute now.
The point is that today’s Republican Party wouldn’t object to a Trumpian power grab, even if it amounted to a military coup. On the contrary, the party would cheer it on.
The bottom line is that while parallels with the Nixon era are very real, there are important differences between now and then — and the differences aren’t reassuring. In many ways we’re a better country than we used to be, but we’re in dire political straits because one of our two major parties no longer believes in the American idea.
Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.