Before a loose consensus formed that President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon was the right thing to do for a deeply divided nation, Ford was pilloried in the press and vilified in Congress. He then proceeded to lose his election for a full term as president to Georgia governor and peanut farmer Jimmy Carter.
America’s initial reaction to the pardon was the right one.
As America’s anger about Watergate faded and people in both parties moved on to other things, many of us reached the conclusion that sparing the nation the collective shame of trying an already humbled former president was key to healing deep wounds.
That collective view has largely held up, even leading to some discussion about President Joe Biden pardoning Donald Trump. A key aspect of Ford’s decision to pardon his predecessor reportedly involved the legal principle that accepting a pardon is an admission of guilt.
As Americans reflect on the past 50 years, we collectively see Watergate and the pardon through a new lens tinted by Trump, America’s first president to be impeached twice. Thus seen, Ford’s pardon was the huge error his early critics argued because it led directly, albeit not immediately, to Trump.
The tattoo of Richard Nixon between the shoulder blades of Trump confidant and Nixon advisor Roger Stone provides the clearest connection but not the only tether between the two most corrupt presidents of the past 60 years — if not all of U.S. history.
Ford’s pardon established a precedent: The worst fate an American president can face is removal from office. While I was among those who believed for nearly 50 years that it was a sufficient punishment for Nixon’s high crimes and misdemeanors, I failed to conceive of a president who would be undeterred by shame, truth or even democracy.
Trump has exploited that precedent. By concluding that the only thing that could happen to him would be to lose the White House and return to his jet-setting lifestyle atop his self-branded business empire, he was emboldened to exceed all the norms established by his predecessors.
This tendency became clear following the 2016 election — which he won — when he falsely and without basis decried the millions of fraudulent votes cast. This off-the-rails behavior even before taking office now has a more sinister implication as it appears to have been part of a larger strategy to allow him to declare victory in 2020 if, as it turned out in fact, he lost the election.
His effort even included, if one is inclined to believe the Article of Impeachment approved by the U.S. House of Representatives — or one’s own eyes and ears — inciting violent insurrection.
As new chapters are written, history puts the past in new context. Trump’s legacy reframes Ford’s pardon as the poor decision it was viewed as being in 1974.
This week, the United States Senate will conduct a second impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump. Let us hope it learns from Ford’s lesson. America’s democracy won’t survive an even worse president.
Devin Thorpe ran for Congress in 2020 in Utah as a Democrat. Previously he was a regular Forbes contributor and worked for then-U.S. Sen. Jake Garn.