Richard Nixon would likely have gone down in history as one of America’s greatest presidents, if not for Watergate.
To my mind, his greatest successes were détente with China and the end of the convertibility of dollars into gold, but he also deserves kudos for ending the war in Vietnam, continuing the process of desegregation, establishing the EPA, and signing the anti-ballistic missile treaty.
Nixon was willing to try unconventional solutions and shake things up. He wasn’t satisfied with leaving things as they were. This is, in some sense, a violation of political norms.
When talking about political norms, it’s important to separate them into their two constituent parts.
First, there are the norms of policy. These are the standard terms of the debate. In some countries, they may look like a (semi-)durable centrist consensus. In others they may require accepting single-party rule as a given.
Second are the norms that constrain the behaviour of people within the political system. They may forbid bribery, or self-dealing, or assassinating your political opponents.
I believe that the first set of political norms are somewhat less important than the second. The terms of the debate can be wrong, or stuck in a local maximum, such that no simple tinkering can improve the situation. Having someone willing to change the terms of the debate and try out bold new ideas can be good.
On the other hand, it is rarely good to overturn existing norms of political behaviour. Many of them came about only through decades of careful struggle, as heroic activists have sought to place reasonable constraints on the behaviour of the powerful, lest they rule as tyrants or pillage as oligarchs.
The Nixon problem, as I’ve taken to describing it, is that it’s very, very hard to find a politician who can shake up the political debate without at the same time shaking up our much more important political norms.
Nixon didn’t have to cheat his way to re-election. He won the popular vote by the highest absolute margin ever, some 18 million votes. He carried 49 out of 50 states, losing only Massachusetts.
Now it is true that Nixon used dirty tricks to face McGovern instead of Muskie and perhaps his re-election fight would have been harder against Muskie.
Still, given Muskie’s campaign was so easily derailed by the letter Nixon’s “ratfuckers” forged, it’s unclear how well he would have done in the general election.
And if Muskie was the biggest threat to Nixon, there was no need to bug Watergate after his candidacy had been destroyed. Yet Nixon and his team still ordered this done.
I don’t think it’s possible to get the Nixon who was able to negotiate with China without the Nixon who violated political norms for no reason at all. They were part and parcel with an overriding belief that he knew better than everyone else and that all that mattered was power for himself. Regardless, it is clear from Watergate that his ability to think outside of the current consensus was not something he could just turn off. Nixon is not alone in this.
One could imagine a hypothetical Trump (perhaps a Trump that listened to Peter Thiel more) who engaged mostly in well considered but outside-of-the-political-consensus policies. This Trump would have loosened FDA policies that give big pharma an unfair advantage, ended the mortgage tax deduction, and followed up his pressure on North Korea with some sort of lasting peace deal, rather than ineffective admiration of a monster.
The key realization about this hypothetical Trump is that, other than his particular policy positions, he’d be no different. He’d still idolize authoritarian thugs, threaten to lock up his political opponents, ignore important government departments, and surround himself with frauds and grifters.
I believe that it’s important to think how the features of different governments encourage different people to rise to the top. If a system of government requires any leader to first be a general, then it will be cursed with rigid leaders who expect all orders to be followed to the letter. If it instead rewards lying, then it’ll be cursed with politicians who go back on every promise.
There’s an important corollary to this: if you want a specific person to rule because of something specific about their character, you should not expect them to be able to turn it off.
Justin Trudeau cannot stop with the platitudes, even when backed into a corner. Donald Trump cannot stop lying, even when the truth is known to everyone. Richard Nixon couldn’t stop ignoring the normal way things were done in Washington, even when the normal way existed for a damn good reason.
This, I think, is the biggest mistake people like Peter Thiel made when backing Trump. They saw a lot of problems in Washington and correctly concluded that no one who was steeped in the ways of Washington would correct them. They decided that the only way forward was to find someone brash, who wouldn’t care about how things were normally done.
But they didn’t stop and think how far that attitude would extend.
Whenever someone tells you that a bold outsider is just what a system needs, remember that a Nixon who never did Watergate couldn’t have gone to China. If you back a new Nixon, you better be willing for a reprise.