clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A forgotten lesson of Watergate: conservatives may rally around Trump

Watergate led conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr. — the two are shown together in 1969 — to rally behind Nixon.
Watergate led conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr. — the two are shown together in 1969 — to rally behind Nixon.
Bettman / Getty

For Americans worried about the state of our republic, Watergate analogies can be a comforting salve. If FBI Director James Comey’s firing is President Donald Trump’s Saturday Night Massacre, then impeachment hearings should be coming down the road — perhaps soon. But even if Comey’s firing leads to a widening scandal, some of the lessons of Watergate should worry Trump opponents more than soothe them.

That’s because the Watergate affair turned conservative skeptics of Richard Nixon into hardcore supporters, drawing out the immediate crisis and deepening divisions in the long term. Conservatives at the time refashioned the scandal into a tale of Democratic hypocrisy and media hostility — a narrative that many Republicans have adopted once again to explain away the emerging Trump scandals.

In perhaps the boldest stroke of all, when the evidence of Nixon’s wrongdoing became undeniable, the right attributed the president’s crimes to the growing institutional power of the presidency — making Watergate, in a sense, a “liberal” scandal after all.

Until the very end, Watergate gave Nixon a stature on the right that he had previously lacked. And even after Nixon’s resignation, the right never quite accepted the liberal narrative of the impeachment as a heroic moment for investigative journalism and a cleansing moment for American politics. All of which suggests that, at least for now, the Comey firing could help Trump consolidate his support among conservatives and Republicans, the very people who have the power to hold him accountable.

From a betrayer of the right to a victim of the left: conservatives’ shifting view of Nixon

The first thing to understand about conservatives and Watergate is just how deeply many on the right disliked Nixon before the investigations began. Like Trump, he was viewed with deep suspicion. That may seem counterintuitive today, given how, as a young Congress member in the late 1940s, Nixon had been an aggressive red-hunter who broke the Alger Hiss spy case, a cause celebré for conservatives in the early years of the Cold War.

In fact, he was a darling of the right during that episode. But then Nixon became Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate — and most conservatives loathed Ike, believing he had stolen the 1952 nomination from the staunchly conservative Robert Taft, and that as president, he charted a course toward New Deal Republicanism and a soft-on-communism foreign policy. Those criticisms implicated Nixon as well. By the time Nixon decided to run for president in 1968, the old conservative affection for him was long gone.

So, as the election neared, Nixon had his work cut out for him. He successfully wooed a few conservative leaders, like William F. Buckley Jr. at National Review. But other leading media figures, including National Review’s publisher Bill Rusher, were unmoved. After Nixon eked out a victory over Hubert Humphrey (and the independent George Wallace), the publisher of the conservative newsweekly Human Events tweaked National Review for its endless search for “The Secret Conservatism of Richard Nixon.” (Rusher quickly distanced himself from his own magazine’s editorial line, saying of Nixon, in a letter to the publisher of Human Events, “That tired, tergiversating tramp never impressed me for a moment as a conceivable instrument for any useful end.”)

If conservative leaders were divided on Nixon in 1968, three years later they were united against him. They saw Nixon’s decision that year to open relations with communist China as the ultimate betrayal, a capitulation in the existential struggle between the free and unfree world. Immediately after the announcement of the landmark trip to Beijing, 12 conservative leaders — among them, editors for National Review and Human Events (including Bill Buckley), and the executive directors of the American Conservative Union and Young Americans for Freedom —issued a statement suspending their support of Nixon.

When that failed to move the president to reconsider his overture, they threw their political efforts behind Congress member John Ashbrook’s quixotic challenge to Nixon in the 1972 Republican primaries.

Ashbrook’s challenge failed. The right was stuck with Nixon, and they were none too happy about it.

Conservatives did not see Watergate as a triumph of the independent press

Watergate, of all things, brought conservatives back into the fold. The emerging scandal absorbed the administration not long after Nixon’s second term began. For a generation of mainstream journalists, the scandal would confirm the power of the press to serve as a check on corruption, no matter how powerful the perpetrator. For conservatives, however, the scandal and the press’s role in prosecuting it looked much different. They saw the press as trying to undo the decisive results of the 1972 election. And if the media was so terrified of Nixon, then maybe there was something to the man after all.

Consider how conservative radio host Clarence Manion framed the role of the media in the early days of the Watergate hearings. In an interview with Dan Lyons, an anticommunist Catholic writer, Manion directly attacked the freedom of the press. That noble-sounding phrase, he argued, was something journalists hid behind to appear uniquely vulnerable to government overreach; in fact, the media held the cards.

“The result,” he told his listeners, “is that a gullible public is caught in the talons of a power that ironically disguises itself as freedom.” Lyons echoed the charge, arguing that Watergate had indeed exposed a dangerous concentration of power — but in the press, not the executive branch.

As the rest of the nation followed the unfolding story of corruption and cover-ups, the Watergate-as-liberal-conspiracy narrative quickly took hold in conservative media. After listening to the Lyons interview, Paul Harvey, the radio personality, repeated the attack in his nationally syndicated broadcast. How, he wondered, could the American people accept an all-powerful media capable of turning “a prosecution into a persecution”? And when Sen. Jesse Helms appeared on Manion’s show, he railed against “the incredible New York Times-Washington Post syndicate, which controls to a large degree what the American people will read and learn.”

This attempt to spin Watergate as “persecution” obviously required downplaying the underlying crimes. This, too, was done easily enough. Nixon himself called the Watergate break-in “a crappy little thing” in a private Oval Office conversation in early 1973, and there was some of that in the conservative media as well. Publisher Henry Regnery greeted the accusations by observing: “I can see no grounds for impeachment, or even to get worked up about.”

Why would Democrats and the media take the extraordinary step of colluding to take down the president, given that they hadn’t tried to take down Eisenhower nor gone after Nixon so intensely in his first term? Conservatives became convinced that liberals were alarmed about the realignment of American politics that Nixon seemed to represent — distressed by the decline of what had seemed like liberal cultural and political hegemony during the post-war period, extending through the ‘60s (despite the rift over Vietnam).

“Indeed,” the editors at National Review wrote, in July 1973 “the target is really not Nixon himself or this or that aide, but, rather, the ‘new majority’ threatening to break the liberal hold on political power. Sen. Helms echoed the charge. “Watergate,” he told Manion in the fall of 1974, “by a process of selective indignation, became the lever by which embittered liberal pundits have sought to reverse the 1972 conservative judgment of the people.”

And that extended to more than just getting Nixon (and his vice president, Spiro Agnew) out of office. Many on the right believed the Watergate investigations were part of an effort to get Nixon to govern as a liberal. He had gestured in that direction in his first term, before shifting rightward.

In 1973, Nixon returned to the liberal policies he had abandoned. He committed himself even more strongly to policies like the Family Assistance Plan (a form of guaranteed income for families making less than $25,000 in today’s dollar), signed a new act that limited the president’s ability to control spending, and forged new arms-control agreements. But conservatives began to interpret these policies in a new light. They saw them as moves forced upon Nixon by the nefarious liberal forces that were making such a big deal of Watergate.

No longer was he an opportunist tacking in whichever direction led to power, but rather a president whom elites were driving to the left, against his will. As Manion put it, “The deafening decibels of the Watergate fall-out have driven our harassed President of the United States far off of his original, carefully charted course of official action.” From the outbreak of the scandal until the resignation, conservatives became Nixon’s most ardent supporters.

There was a further shift in conservatives’ views of Nixon after the release of the infamous tapes, when the evidence of misconduct simply grew too great to ignore. Concerns about liberal bias persisted, of course. (Regnery wrote a friend, “The most ominous thing about Watergate … is that it clearly demonstrates that the press and the bureaucracy, working together, can destroy the president, and from now on, every president is going to have to take this fact into account.”)

But there was a bigger lesson to draw from the scandal, one that dovetailed beautifully with conservative ideology. Watergate, they argued, was what happened when government, including the presidency, grew too big. When National Review did a final rundown of Watergate after the resignation, publisher Bill Rusher concluded that the main cause of the crisis was “a presidency whose steadily growing power has for 40 years been the most serious danger facing the American society.”

With Nixon out of the way, conservatives were able to forge an argument about politics, and political power, that contended conservative values had been right all along — a remarkable feat of rationalization.

Trump’s argument that the scandal is a Democratic attempt to undo the election results may resonate

The response of conservatives to Watergate echoes, and therefore helps clarify, something that confounds contemporary political observers: why the right continues to support Trump in remarkably high numbers — seeing anti-Trump conspiracy where others see incompetence and scandal.

Since the election, there’s been a sharp disjuncture between conservatives on the one hand, and liberals and moderates on the other. Usually independents’ opinion hovers somewhere between Democrats and Republicans. But Democrats and independents cluster together in their disapproval of Trump, while Republicans still hold him in high esteem. (Some recent polls do finally show their approval weakening.)

Those same partisan and ideological dynamics were in play during Watergate; indeed, Watergate helped to sharpen such divisions.

Today, with a much more powerful conservative media aggressively defending the president, and with even more rigid partisanship and polarization (Republicans today are far conservative than Republicans in Nixon’s era), it could take a truly dramatic revelation to cause Republicans to abandon Trump.

So put aside fantasies of impeachment, which the Watergate parallels help to nourish. The degree to which conservatives will rally around even a suspect Republican president is a Watergate lesson Americans would do well to heed.

Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.

The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at