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31 March 2023

Donald Trump’s indictment is unprecedented. It shouldn’t be

Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon ingrained a flawed view of rule of law in the minds of many Americans.

By Charlotte Kilpatrick

In the words of American humorist Mark Twain, history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes. On 8 August 1974 Richard Nixon made what was surely the most difficult speech of his political career. After two years of investigation into the Watergate scandal the US president addressed the nation to say he could no longer perform the duties of his office and that he must “put the interest of America first” by resigning.

His decision was largely supported not only by the American people but also by his Republican Party and the right-wing pundits at the time. In the last Gallup poll taken before he left office, only half of Republicans gave him a positive approval rating and 31 per cent favoured his resignation. Writing in the National Review, a conservative newspaper, the Republican senator James Buckley advocated for Nixon to resign, arguing that his low approval ratings proved a “cumulative loss of faith that has eroded his credibility and moral authority”.

The decision whether or not to indict Nixon on charges of abuse of power, corruption and contempt of Congress fell on Gerald Ford, who subsequently assumed the presidency. Ford thought that the country had been through enough and that a long trial would sow further divisions. He preemptively pardoned Nixon before any charges were made and the country moved on. Ford thought he was doing the right thing, but by pardoning Nixon he set a precedent that led many to believe that American presidents shouldn’t be charged with a crime. That belief has led us to this particularly dangerous political moment.

[See also: Donald Trump tried to turn his first 2024 campaign rally into a religious experience]

Because that was 1974 and Nixon gave up on holding onto power once he realised he had lost all his friends in Congress and much of the support of his base. The same does not hold for Donald Trump. On Thursday 30 March he became the first former president in US history to be indicted on criminal charges. Though some of the details of the charges are still unclear – the indictment is currently sealed – the case hinges on whether Trump violated New York campaign finance laws when he allegedly instructed his former lawyer to pay “hush money” to an adult film actress during the 2016 election. (Trump is also under investigation for election-law tampering and in connection with the 6 January riot at the US Capitol.) For the moment it appears most Americans support the investigations. According to a recent NPR poll, 56 per cent of respondents said the investigations were fair.

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Republicans, however, have a different point of view. According to NPR, eight in ten call the investigations a “witch hunt”. Trump has experienced consistent levels of support ever since he first declared his political candidacy. This devotion from his base can be explained by the socio-economic differences in the US that have evolved since Nixon left office. In 1974 a white non-college educated American man could earn a decent enough living to support a family. Although America had just been through two decades of a civil rights movement, white people still dominated business, government and the media. 

The same does not hold true today. Today less educated whites have little chance of earning enough to make ends meet for themselves, let alone a family. So-called deaths of despair – by suicide and deaths from drugs and alcohol – have increased mortality rates and left millions in physical pain. Trump speaks to his base in an emotional language that alleviates this pain and makes them feel like winners after decades of feeling abandoned by coastal liberal elites. When Trump goes on trial, so too does the political identity and self-worth of millions of his followers. The test now is whether this devotion will hold when presented with viable alternative candidates who aren’t accused of committing adultery with a porn star.

Trump can take some solace in the knowledge that his base has forgiven him before. Whether it was “pussy grabbing”, refusing to share his tax records or fomenting a riot on 6 January, every allegation seems to stroke his supporters’ victimhood complex. The Republicans can also look to history for clues that even if Trump is brought down by the charges, there is still hope for the party. After all, once Nixon left office a new moral crusader emerged in the form of one of the most influential Republicans of all time: Ronald Reagan.

[See also: The chaotic return of the Trump circus, and why Americans can’t see the point of King Charles III]

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