Watergate + 50 years = Trumpgate

From left: Margaret Chase Smith, Lowell Weicker, Liz Cheney

Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and professor there until retirement in 2004. He was executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 to 2000.

In an odd—even terrifying—way to respond to threats to our democracy, The Republican/MAGA Party will offer Donald Trump as its presidential nominee in 2024, the golden anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Nixon left office in disgrace on August 9, 1974, in the wake of Watergate disclosures that would likely have led to his impeachment and removal.

The Republican Party will formally endorse Trump as its presidential candidate at its national convention in Milwaukee in July—despite Trump’s disgraceful behavior before, during, and after his one term as president. He won the electoral college in 2016 while trailing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by more than 2.8 million popular votes. Trump lost both the electoral college and the popular vote to Joe Biden in 2020—by more than 7 million votes this time—yet he continues to spread his Big Lie about the supposedly rigged election.

The GOP will nominate him again, not heeding the prescient warning Republican U.S. Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine delivered in 1950:

Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who by our own words and acts ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism:

The right to criticize,

The right to hold unpopular beliefs,

The right to protest,

The right to independent thought….

I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.

Smith, who was dubbed the conscience of the Senate, was speaking about her Republican colleague from Wisconsin, Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Senator Smith’s concerns were echoed by former U.S. Representative Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, who spoke in Des Moines on March 27 as part of Drake University’s Bucksbaum Lectureship Series.

Cheney said the Republican Party suffered a “plague of cowardice” in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the nation’s capitol. The party refused to hold Trump accountable for egging on violent protesters who swallowed Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. Further, she warned, our democracy cannot survive with a president as disdainful of the courts and the rule of law as Trump.

Back in 1950, however, conscience was in short supply. McCarthy was just coming into power, and he was not censured by the Senate until more than four years later, on December 2, 1954. As a history website notes, “The word McCarthyism has become synonymous with the practice of publicizing accusations of treason and disloyalty with insufficient evidence.”

As the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1974, some Republicans damned their GOP colleagues for holding Nixon accountable for his disgraceful actions.

When accused of being disloyal to his party, U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, a member of the Watergate committee, responded: “Republicans do not cover up. Republicans do not … threaten. Republicans do not commit illegal acts. And, God knows, Republicans don’t view fellow Americans as enemies to be harassed.”

U.S. Senator Howard Baker, a Republican from Tennessee, also was among those on the Watergate Committee who came to understand why Nixon should be impeached.

Half a century later, the Republican Party is again saddling up those “four horsemen of… fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear” for Trump’s ride at the presidency.

A prime example of those who refuse to speak out against the former president is Iowa’s U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley.

Because of his silence, despite his supposed leadership in his 44 years in the U.S. Senate, I’ve occasionally emailed Grassley regarding Trump’s troubling public statements and behavior. I’ve noted a quote attributed to Edmund Burke (1729-1797), a member of the British Parliament and a philosopher: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Grassley responded to one of my emails on January 7, 2022, writing that there were more pressing matters to deal with and, after all, “President Trump has been out of office for about a year.”

In May 2023—six months after Trump launched his current presidential campaign—I again asked Grassley about Burke’s admonition.

His email response was oblivious to the front-runner’s new candidacy. Rather, he said he had regularly responded to questions about Trump, but “Donald Trump is no longer president. He is now a private citizen so I do not interact with him on a regular basis.”

Happy anniversary to all of us with the hope Liz Cheney expressed—that come late summer and fall, Americans will become more involved, take more interest in the election campaigns, and rightly conclude Trump is a menace to democracy. The audience of thousands at Drake University reinforced that hope by interrupting Cheney with applause many times.

Editor’s note from Laura Belin: Richard Gilbert, Pat Kinney, and Kyle Munson offered other perspectives on Liz Cheney’s talk in Des Moines.

About the Author(s)

Herb Strentz

  • I give up

    remind me what was her vote in the first impeachment hearing that would have avoided all of this? Wasn’t it enough that he paraded the military into American streets to break up civil rights protest, banned Muslim travel, separate kids from parents, etc, weren’t; the facist signs on the walls?
    And speaking of learning the wrong lessons from Watergate and the Nixon forever crew what about some accountability for the likes of her father and Donald Rumsfeld who became devotees of the “Unitary” Executive nonsense that lied us into war, tortured people, and gave us traitors like AG Barr that also lied to protect Trump and encourage him to amp up his attacks on our Democracy?
    This aging Dem nostalgia for the good old days of war, corruption,labor exploration, and institutionalized racism/misogyny/LGBT+bashing is so dangerous and apparently untreatable.

  • civil rights champion

    Sherrilyn Ifill spells out the gist of this:
    Undoing the Civil Rights Movement is a common goal of MAGA and many traditional Republicans and conservatives. The “reverse racism” crowd has been a core part of the Republican Party for 40 years. This is how Trump could infiltrate & take over the party. He’s cruder & uglier, but on voting rights, affirmative action, criminal justice, policing, housing, environmental justice, schools, the core of the Republican Party has been MAGA.
    And that’s the part the Never Trumpers never talk about.
    The proof is in the fact that this venture could not be contemplated w/o the assurance that a majority of the SCOTUS would uphold these challenges. And a majority of the SCOTUS are justices developed, elevated & lionized by the traditional Republican Party. They are the insurance policy for the agenda of rolling back civil rights gains.
    Not Cannon or Kacsmaryk. But Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Roberts, Kavanaugh. Supreme Court justices advanced & revered by the traditional Republican Party.

  • Cheney

    What I heard Cheney say is that we need to do what’s necessary to make sure Trump never enters the Oval Office. Simply stated, progressives win when they get more votes than the opposition. Every Democratic voter needs to become an organizer. Even in increasingly red bastions like Iowa. If
    John Dillinger had become the bank manager, the employees and patrons would have called the cops. People are calling for John Dillinger (aka DJT) to be president because he’s a great entertainer and slick conman. He wants to be president so he can avoid the wages of his own sins by (in Christ-like fashion) forgiving himself. This essay and respondents explain the dangers, and remind us that there have been fair-minded Republicans in the past, all good. But bottom link: beat Trump at the ballot box.