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Trump is Nixon 2.0 – but like Watergate, his scandals offer an opportunity for radical change

It has now been two years since Donald Trump was elected as the 45th US president. So, amid numerous domestic scandals and growing international alienation, has anything good come out of his presidency so far.

Sympathetic observers might point to the resilient economy, particularly the soaring stock market and low unemployment numbers. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has climbed from just under 20,000 to 25,000, a record high, since Trump was inaugurated in January 2017. Meanwhile, roughly four million jobs have been created, and wages continue to rise.

The president’s supporters might also mention better relationships with traditional adversaries, such as China, Russia and North Korea, which could be seen as improving America’s national security.

One doesn’t have to look too carefully, however, to realise that these apparent successes are either difficult to attribute solely (if at all) to the Trump presidency, or have significant downsides.

Take the economy. Despite the president’s repeated efforts to claim credit for recent economic growth – 40 times in just three months – the causes of America’s growing prosperity are much more complicated. In general, presidents have only minimal influence over the economy – not just because it is vast and complicated, but also because they cannot set monetary policy and must rely on Congress for legislation that matches their priorities on taxes and spending.

Presidents themselves have acknowledged this limited role, such as when George W. Bush deflected responsibility for the housing market collapse and subsequent global financial crisis in 2007-2008. Trump is more familiar with these constraints than most: his first budget was not signed until February, fully 15 months after the election.

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President Trump has much greater freedom to effect change in foreign policy. Yet the outlook here is far less rosy than he would have us believe. Recent evidence of secret nuclear sites in North Korea have called into question whether Trump’s attempts to “make a deal” with the secretive state and its leader Kim Jong-un have yielded any tangible benefits.

What is clear is that the talks themselves have come at significant cost, particularly the surprising suspension of joint military exercises between the US and South Korea. For every bridge Trump has built between the US and its adversaries, he has burned another between the US and its allies.

A broken system

But there is one area where the Trump presidency has already been more successful than any in living memory: exposing the weaknesses of the American constitutional order.

The strength of US democracy lies in its institutions and, specifically, the Constitution’s mechanisms for spreading political power across America’s three branches of government. But these institutions are only effective when they are buttressed by the norms of restraint that govern politicians’ behaviour. When politicians lose sight of those norms, institutions cease functioning and become just another partisan battleground. When norms die, the foundation of American democracy crumbles.

The weakness of American democracy is, therefore, that its institutions depend on these shared norms of restraint. As James Madison, the Founding Father who later served as the fourth US president, wrote in 1788, “a mere demarcation on parchment … is not a sufficient guard against those encroachments which lead to a tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government”. When a president wilfully undermines these norms, he knowingly undermines America’s constitutional order.

One need not look far to find examples of this president flouting norms. He fired the nation’s top law enforcement official to undercut an investigation into his campaign. He has repeatedly hesitated or failed to condemn radical right-wing terrorists, many of whom support his presidency. And he has sided with hostile foreign powers over the consensus opinion of the US intelligence community. Democratic ideals – about the independence of law enforcement, peaceful civic engagement, and setting aside domestic politics in foreign policy – all fall victim to the Trump agenda.

These departures from long-cherished norms have led to frequent comparisons to the 37th US president, Richard Nixon. During his 1972 reelection campaign, Nixon’s staff broke into a Democratic Party office in the Watergate office complex in Washington DC, after which Nixon destroyed evidence to conceal the conspiracy. Nixon eventually resigned rather than face virtually certain impeachment.

Nixon in his post-White House years. Shutterstock

The similarities between Trump and Nixon are readily apparent: one recent poll puts Trump’s popularity in the same basement that Nixon’s was just before resigning. But on closer inspection, it seems that the comparison is unfair to Nixon.

Trump has already eclipsed Nixon’s legacy in a mere two years. His departures from established norms are more brash and more alarming than Nixon’s, as are his campaign’s alleged crimes. Trump is no doubt emboldened by continued Republican support in a way Nixon was not – a product of modern political polarisation. Yet his interpretation of this support as license to subvert democratic order to score minor political points, or just to land a zinger on Twitter, is beyond the pale even by Watergate standards. Nixon broke norms to preserve his presidency – Trump breaks norms just because he can.

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The Watergate scandal triggered a constitutional and political crisis from which America is still recovering. But it also brought about significant reforms that made American institutions more resilient. For instance, a 1978 ethics law made it more difficult for presidents to interfere with special prosecutors and gave Congress greater authority to appoint their own investigators.

Today’s constitutional crisis would seem insuperable. Given sharp partisan divides and Trump’s boundless energy for destroying democratic norms, it is unclear if this administration’s scandals will provoke the same sort of corrective measures that emerged after Watergate. But by exposing the importance of norms in the American constitutional order, Trump has created another opportunity for the US to strengthen its democracy. With any luck, Americans might be able to put in place the necessary safeguards to prevent a Trump 2.0.

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