The Atlantic

Containing Trump

He may well try to govern as an authoritarian. Whether he succeeds depends less on what he does than on how civil society responds.
Source: Jeffrey Smith

Whatever his intellectual and political gifts, Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, was a cunning and dangerous criminal. For him, issuing illegal orders was literally just another day at the office.

One such day, in July of 1971 (nearly a year before the Watergate break-in), found him ordering his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, to execute a burglary. The president was exercised about politically damaging documents that he imagined were possessed by scholars at the Brookings Institution, a respected Washington think tank, where I now work. “We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy,” Nixon railed, banging on the desk for emphasis. “They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? Did they get the Brookings Institute raided last night?”

Haldeman: “No, sir, they didn’t.”

Nixon: “No. Get it done. I want it done! I want the Brookings Institute safe cleaned out!”

Anyone who wants to hear the president of the United States sounding like a B-movie mobster will find dozens of examples on the Nixon presidential library’s website. Nixon compiled lists of enemies, tried to suborn the IRS and the CIA, demanded that Jews be investigated and fired (“You can’t trust the bastards”), created a personal black-ops team (the Plumbers), raised hush money and established slush funds, suggested engaging thugs to beat up protesters, proposed selling ambassadorships, spied on political activists, and orchestrated cover-ups. He remained in office for nearly six years, ultimately being forced out only because he made the astonishing mistake of recording himself breaking the law. Until the Supreme Court ordered the tapes turned over to a special prosecutor in July of 1974, Nixon still had enough support to survive a removal vote in the Senate.

The 45th president, Donald Trump, might pose the gravest threat to the constitutional order since the 37th. Of course, he might not. Perhaps we’ll get Grown-up Trump, an unorthodox and controversial president who, whatever one may think of his policies and personality, proves to be responsible and effective as a chief executive. But we might get Infantile Trump, an undisciplined narcissist who throws tantrums and governs haphazardly. Or perhaps, worse yet, we’ll

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic3 min read
Burger King’s Dystopian Student-Debt Sweepstakes
The restaurant’s contest to pay off student loans is the latest offer to treat the idea of debt relief as a sweepstakes that only a lucky few can win.
The Atlantic4 min readPolitics
For Nancy Pelosi, This Is All Just Déjà Vu
The doctored videos shared by President Trump and Rudy Giuliani are merely a new twist on a very old line of attack from Republicans.
The Atlantic4 min readSociety
War-Crime Pardons Dishonor Fallen Heroes
After three decades in the Marine Corps, I know how important it is to hold service members accountable.