Nixon Could Ruin His Enemies. Trump Can’t

The enemies list is a distraction that could solidify a Democratic corruption narrative.

Nixon giving his “I’m not a crook” speech. Source: New York Daily News

The recent revocation of former CIA director John Brennan’s security clearance has caused a considerable amount of consternation among pundits. Brennan himself does not frequently use or need his security clearance. The real problem, according to numerous writers, was what Trump threatened to do next. Trump’s announcement about Brennan came with a warning that nine other Obama-era security officials (and one current Department of Justice employee) would be stripped of their security clearances at a future date. This action would restrict the ability of these officials to review classified information and use their clearances to secure contractor jobs after their time in government.

There were two responses to the story. The first was speculation about the reasons for the revocation. Was it simply an effort to distract from Omarosa and the Russia investigation? Was it an attempt to create a “goon squad” in the Department of Justice, as New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait claimed? Or was the effort simply a tantrum, an outburst against critics by a president who could do nothing more to stop the Russia investigation?

The other response focused on the list of Trump critics who may lose their clearances in the near future. Writers immediately branded the list an “enemies list,” referring to Richard Nixon’s list in the early 1970s. Julian Zelizer of The Atlantic made the connection and its implications clear. Nixon used his enemies list as a list of targets for both official and unofficial retribution, from unwarranted IRS audits to illegal surveillance and outright theft. Trump is trying to replicate the effect of the list, to “create the same kind of toxic atmosphere that Nixon produced” in order “to silence opponents and to discredit them in the public eye.” Zelizer added a downbeat note about the possible repercussions of the enemies list story:

We are a nation so jaded by decades of scandal, and numbed by Trump’s endless violations of norms, that this story might be old news within a few days. The bar has been lowered so far under this president that revoking security clearances for partisan purposes could become another normalized part of Oval Office politics.

What is the true significance of Trump’s enemies list? Could it eventually sink the Russia investigation? Or could it even help the Resistance?

Trump’s version of the enemies list is much less damaging than Nixon’s earlier list. While many pundits have been shocked that Trump decided to make his list public, its public nature actually reveals it to be benign. Nixon had a sophisticated team of advisers and former FBI agents working to fulfill his schemes. Their fabrication of the Canuck Letter that attacked Edmund Muskie was part of one of the most successful sabotage campaigns in American political history. In contrast, Trump is too weak and disorganized to launch a coordinated attack on the personal and professional lives of his strongest critics. Several of his most loyal confederates have already turned on him, and those remaining are divided by infighting and frustration over the president’s mercurial nature.

The true significance of the enemies list lies in the political and electoral spheres. Democrats are constructing a narrative about Republican corruption. Every news story that supports that narrative, such as Chris Collins’ arrest for insider trading or Michael Cohen’s bank fraud charges, contributes to Democratic campaign ads. With the enemies list, Trump is fueling this Democratic campaign. He is engaging in behavior directly correlated in the minds of many Americans with the most corrupt president and presidential administration in modern history. This particular act may carry more weight than the countless myriad of scandals that have already befallen Trump, mainly due to its simplicity. While the concept of emoluments is foreign to many Americans, and the Mueller investigation still appears labyrinthine, nearly everyone knows what an enemies list is for.

The idea of an enemies list may not drive millions of voters to the polls. However, it is yet another example of the corruption at the heart of the Republican Party, and Trump does not have the political acumen to use it to materially harm the lives of Americans. All he can do is continue complaining about Brennan and claiming new powers for himself that he has no intention of exercising. Meanwhile, the Democrats will continue focusing on November 6th.

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.

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