15 Aug 2017

'Most Republicans would consider me a progressive today'

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:07 pm on 15 August 2017

John Dean knows what it looks like when a President of the United States becomes unhinged over leaks and special investigations.

He was Richard Nixon's White House counsel during Watergate.

John Dean and Donald Trump.

John Dean and Donald Trump. Photo: Supplied

Dean pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and gave evidence against some of Nixon aides who were later convicted of conspiracy. 

The US is living through Watergate 2.0 according to some pundits, who see parallels with the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and President Trump suggesting he might fire key personnel connected to the investigation or leakers. 

Dean says American democracy is being tested like it never has been before.

He says the current administration have clearly not learned from history.

“It’s very difficult to believe that we wrote the book of what not to do, but Mr Trump and his team have never read that book.”

He says he barely recognises the Republican Party these days.

“I don’t think Richard Nixon could get membership in the Republican Party today.

“I’ve pretty much stayed where I was all these years in my thinking about issues and policy and I find myself well to the left of the centre. Most Republicans would consider me a progressive today.”

Trump’s tardiness in condemning the neo-Nazi murder of a woman in Charlottesville could only mean one thing, Dean says.

“It took him 48 hours to come out and condemn white racists that killed a young woman in Charlottesville, Virginia.”

Dean says Trump must consider such people his own.

“He thinks they’re part of his constituency. It took a lot of prodding from other Republicans to get him to come out [and condemn] I think he thinks these [white supremacists] are his voters.”

The American political system relies as much on norms as it does on laws, and these norms are being routinely breached, Dean says.

“All societies have norms, expected and anticipated behaviour, often it’s just common civility.”

Among many political norms the Trump administration has breached so far, Dean points to appointments and travel.

“When as president you bring your family with absolutely zero qualifications into the White House, and give them top foreign policy and domestic assignments for which they’re totally unqualified that’s breaking the norm.”

Dean calls these customs the “guard rails” of US democracy and just common sense.

“This president has spent almost as much in his first 7 months on travel as Obama spent in 8 years, but he hasn’t gone anywhere other than his own resorts.”

There are other norms Americans have become accustomed to that may not endure under Trump. The State of the Union address and presidential press conferences among them, he says.

John Dean in 1973

John Dean in 1973 Photo: wikipedia

“It’s the informal rules that Trump is violating it’s a very small step from violating all these norms to violating the laws.”

Dean has made a study of authoritarianism among conservative leaders and voters.

Both Nixon and Trump share authoritarian personalities, but with a difference, he says.

“Nixon was an introvert, Trump is clearly an extrovert.”

Both played the crowd. Nixon skilfully played into the anti-war movement of the early 70s; Trump into anxieties among workers about globalisation, Dean says.

“Trump had a nationalist policy, all though he’s got nothing enacted. He’s actually accomplished almost nothing as president.” 

Dean believes if Trump is faced with a similar situation to the one Nixon faced in 1974, he might react differently, and spark a crisis. Nixon chose to resign when the Supreme Court demanded his secret tapes which would prove he knew about Watergate.

“If Trump were in a parallel situation, say he had a ruling against him to turn over his tax returns I’m not sure he would do it.

“One of the reasons I have a knot in my stomach is he’s the kind of president that could provoke that kind of constitutional stand-off.”

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