What If Nixon’s Demise Was a Right-Wing Coup
Since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 and re-election in 1984, it’s obvious that American politics has had a decidedly right-wing tone and substance. But what if it hasn’t been recognized the degree to which the rise of right-wing politics in the US was facilitated by left-wing politicians and players participating in the overthrow of Richard Nixon? That is, what if Nixon’s overthrow was engineered by conservatives who hated both his domestic and his foreign policies and that they were successful because they had left-wing allies who, for various reasons, also hated Nixon? And what if these left-wingers didn’t understand that they were actually undermining the possibility of a left-wing politics arising in the United States, a possibility that seems until this day impossible?
To understand this, it is necessary to also understand that the conventional narrative regarding the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s demise is more or less a fairy tale. While Nixon was guilty of obstructing justice in trying to cover up the burglary at the Watergate, the motivations that led to those burglaries were nothing like those attributed to the Nixon administration. Moreover, what Nixon and his supporters did regarding the 1972 presidential election had been done quite often and was anything but unique. The motivations of Nixon’s enemies, his right-wing enemies, were political while they knew or didn’t care that the burglary itself was not political. These right-wingers were out to get Nixon because he was willing to betray South Vietnam by seeking “peace with honor” [but not with victory], because he went to mainland China wanting to make China a legitimate member of the international community, and because he sought détente with the Soviet Union. He was willing, therefore, to bargain with “evil Communist empires.” From the outset of his administration, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been spying on Nixon and Kissinger, which led to the creation of “the Plumbers,” Nixon’s way of trying to keep control of his agenda. When Nixon learned of this spying, he refused to hold those responsible accountable, in large part because he feared how the military would respond were he to do so. And even to the end of his administration, Nixon seemed unaware of just who his enemies were, e.g., Alexander Hair, Howard Hunt, and John McCord.
As the right-wing opposition to Nixon grew and gained strength, they managed to ally themselves with left-wingers who hated Nixon for his past sins, his earlier anti-Communism, his take down of Alger Hiss, his “dog whistle” politics, and his rejection of their bona fides as proper elites. The Watergate burglary was like a gift to right-wingers because they could use it to draw left-wingers into their opposition to Nixon and to use them to ensure his demise, even his removal from the presidency. Thus, although the Watergate burglary had very little to do with electoral politics, it could be used as the centerpiece of what was said to be Nixon’s attack on American democracy. In fact, Nixon and his minions did very little that was unusual with regard to “dirty tricks.” Nonetheless, the left-wingers were only too happy to go after “Tricky Dick,” even to the point of not considering what the broader political implications would be of his demise. They didn’t seem to realize what was actually going on, that by undoing Nixon, who was not a right-wing Republican, they would be contributing to a right-wing coup so that anyone following Nixon in the presidency would have to embrace right-wing causes, like ending détente with the Soviet Union or rejecting a broader rapprochement with mainland China. Not surprisingly, when Ford and Carter tried to continue some of Nixon’s policies, both failed because of right-wing resistance, as was to be expected.
By successfully removing Nixon from the presidency, the right-wingers then took center-stage, so to speak, in the drama of American politics. And along with Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972, which destroyed the legitimacy of the McGovern alternative in the Democratic Party, once Nixon was gone, driven from office by both right-wingers and left-wingers, the strongest forces in American politics was right-wing forces. So, by allowing themselves to be blinded by their hatred of Richard Nixon, the left-wingers undermined themselves and the possibility of a left-wing politics in the United States. The best they could do was to rally around “New Democrats,” like Bill Clinton; that is, around Democrats who seemed like “right-wingers lite.” And, of course, Clinton did little more than continue what was called “the Reagan Revolution,” while trying to disguise this fact with such meaningless programs as “Reinventing Government.”
So, it would seem that the left-wingers did not recognize the political implications of Nixon’s demise; that is, the implications for the character of American politics broadly understood. And whatever the cause of this phenomenon, by participating in the overthrow of Nixon, the left-wingers had sealed their own fate. Henceforth, they would not, could not be a powerful political force or play a central role in the American political drama.