But Nixon, unlike Trump, was an introspective man. In one particularly fascinating moment of self-reflection following his resignation, he described to a former aide the habits that had enabled him to rise to the top of Washington’s greasy pole. When you’re on your way, he explained, it pays to be crazy.
“In your own mind you have nothing to lose, so you take plenty of chances,” Nixon said. “It is then you understand, for the first time, that you have the advantage—because your competitors can’t risk what they have already.” That’s an insight that Trump put to good use during the Republican primaries, when he was willing to place high-stakes bets that his more experienced rivals were unwilling or unable to match.
But then you win, and your problems begin. “It’s a piece of cake until you get to the top,” Nixon confessed. “You find you can’t stop playing the game the way you’ve always played it, because it is a part of you and you need it as much as an arm and a leg. You continue to walk on the edge of the precipice, because over the years you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance.”
What Nixon was describing sounds like nothing so much as a seasoned heroin addict chasing the next high: It takes bigger and bigger doses to get there, until too much is not nearly enough. And a little thing like being elected the leader of the free world isn’t nearly enough to jolt a man like Nixon or Trump into rehab.
The ways Richard Nixon chased that high are now a matter of voluminous historical record. None is more harrowing than his exploitation of the vast powers of his office to spy on those he perceived as threats to his power, and then seek to use the results of that surveillance to neutralize or destroy them.
The first phone tap on one of his own officials came in the fourth month of his presidency. That same year, federal agents snared a gay, closeted antiwar organizer named David Mixner in a “honey trap,” and threatened to release photographs of his assignation unless he ratted out his comrades. By the second year, an entire unit of the Internal Revenue Service was chartered in a locked, soundproof room to harass a blacklist of antiwar activists. Nixon personally approved a plan to break into the offices of his opponents, even though the young White House staffer who devised the scheme described it as “clearly illegal.” The following year, Nixon ordered aides to come up with a plan to break into a safe in the Brookings Institution, which he imagined as a Kennedy government in exile. His enforcer, Chuck Colson, drew up “enemies lists” that included such fearsome figures as actress Carol Channing and Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton. The IRS was deployed to audit their taxes or take away the nonprofit status of their organizations. “What we cannot do in a courtroom via criminal prosecutions to curtail the activities of some of these groups,” a White House memo explained, “IRS could do by administrative action.”
All that, mind you, came before the simultaneous operations to bug George McGovern’s campaign headquarters and the Democratic National Committee’s suite at the Watergate hotel.
Donald Trump assembles enemies lists, too; his organs of cognition appear to be structured around the idea of revenge. There are Republicans who voted against him, like Senator Lindsey Graham. (“It’s so great our enemies are making themselves clear,” Trump surrogate Omarosa Manigault exulted, “so that when we get to the White House, we know where we stand.”) There are media organizations he claims have covered him unfairly, like The Washington Post. (Just as Nixon threatened to take away the broadcast licenses of television stations owned by the Post, Trump has vowed to prosecute Post owner Jeff Bezos for antitrust violations.) And it’s not hard to imagine that Trump’s list of targets will only grow longer as his power expands. Like Nixon, he has spent his entire life chasing the narcotic rush afforded by dominating others, the better to fill the void where a functioning soul ought to be.
But there are two key differences that set Trump apart from his predecessor in paranoia. First, his soul is sicker by miles than Nixon’s. And second, the surveillance apparatus he is about to inherit is far scarier than the one available to Nixon.
“Over the past two decades, we’ve witnessed the building of the greatest, most pervasive surveillance apparatus and security state that humanity has ever seen,” says Jon Stokes, co-founder of the news site Ars Technica and author of Inside the Machine. “Now we are about to hand over that entire apparatus to a paranoid, score-settling sociopath whose primary obsession seems to be with crushing his personal enemies.”
Today the government can monitor virtually every form of communication, including the contents of emails, phone calls, online searches, and a host of personal data. Barack Obama, of course, has the same tools at his disposal; indeed, he presided over their construction and expansion. Perhaps it’s no wonder that there’s been no public uprising against this new surveillance state; it’s been in the hands of a president who is about as far removed from obsessive score-settling as anyone could conceivably be. Besides, our system of constitutional checks and balances is supposed to prevent individual officials from going rogue. “If men were angels,” James Madison observed, “no government would be necessary.”
That’s not to say that Obama hasn’t abused his powers: Just ask the journalists at the Associated Press whose phone records were subpoenaed by the Justice Department. But had he wanted to go further in spying on his enemies, there are few checks in place to stop him. In the very first ruling on the National Security Administration’s sweeping collection of “bulk metadata,” federal judge Richard Leon blasted the surveillance as downright Orwellian. “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary’ invasion than this collection and retention of personal data,” he ruled. “Surely, such a program infringes on ‘that degree of privacy’ that the founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.”
But the judge’s outrage did nothing to stop the surveillance: In 2015, an appeals court remanded the case back to district court, and the NSA’s massive surveillance apparatus—soon to be under the command of President Trump—remains fully operational. The potential of the system, as former NSA official William Binney has described it, is nothing short of “turnkey totalitarianism.”
It’s not hard to imagine the kind of damage Trump could do with the powers of the NSA at his disposal. “Let’s say you become part of the Trump opposition,” says Jon Stokes. “It probably won’t be long before Trump knows what kind of porn you like. Sure, that’s against the law—but the government has been breaking those laws for 20 years. We’ve just been doing it for noble, Jack Bauer reasons, not petty Donald Trump reasons.”
Consider, too, all the federal officials beyond the director of national intelligence who will serve at the pleasure of Trump. There’s the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, whom the president could illegally order to target enemies with tax audits, like Nixon did. The head of the Small Business Administration, which could cut off loans to Trump’s rivals. The entire Cabinet, which oversees billions of dollars in federal research grants and defense contracts and construction jobs. The administrator of the General Services Administration, from which Trump leases the building he’s just turned into a luxury Washington hotel. And the head of military intelligence, who could use the Pentagon’s powers to spy on left-wing groups, as it did under Lyndon Johnson and to a vastly expanded degree under the paranoid auspices of Richard Nixon.
Another Nixon story, perhaps apocryphal. It was told to me by David Harris, an Illinois state assemblyman who served as a John Kasich delegate to last summer’s Republican National Convention. Nixon, just elected president, was flying over the National Mall on Marine 1 and spotted a particularly ugly grouping of Quonset huts. He ordered them removed. Upon leaving office, he discovered they were still there.
Harris told me the story by way of explaining why he wasn’t too worried about the abuse of power under a President Trump. “You can’t just issue an edict,” he laughed, “and expect it to happen overnight.”
I’m not so sure. To me, that Nixon legend is the opposite of reassuring. What will happen when President Trump orders some eyesore removed from his sight, only to discover the limits of presidential power? Revenge is a narcotic, and Trump of all people will be in need of a regular, ongoing fix. Ordering his people to abuse the surveillance state to harass and destroy his enemies will offer the quickest and most satisfying kick he can get. The tragedy, as James Madison could have told us, is that the good stuff is now lying around everywhere, just waiting for the next aspiring dictator to cop.
Author: Rick Perlstein