Remember when the press stood up to despotism in America?
I have been thinking a lot about Watergate lately, partly because I just finished the Slow Burn podcast about it, and partly because we are mired in a similar presidential scandal. In retrospect, Watergate ended up being a case where conservatives lost the battle, but won the war.
Sure, Richard Nixon was removed from office, but that was done with the cooperation of other Republicans, who could then wash their hands of his crimes.Watergate added to the thinking after Vietnam and the actions of police and law enforcement in the 1960s that "the government can't be trusted." Conservatives then used this impulse to attack liberalism, which used the government as an instrument to enact social legislation. For those in the middle, who rarely think very deeply about politics, it was easy to translate Watergate into being pro-tax cuts and deregulation. (Of course, using cloaked racism a la Lee Atwater was also crucial to this.)
Soon in popular culture the government became a force of evil, even in family films like E.T.. Who's the biggest human villain in Ghostbusters? An EPA regulator. Later years saw much more explicit connections, such as in films as Enemy of the State and Absolute Power. This all perhaps culminated in the execrable House of Cards, which feeds every mediocre Beltway apparatchik's fantasy that they are genius, behind the scenes masterminds.
Folks on the left and the right distrust different parts of the government, from the left's skepticism of the military and CIA to the right's constant calls to end the Department of Education. Again, for the vast American middle of political ignorance (you know, the kinda people who say "I'm socially liberal and fiscally conservative), all they hear is "don't trust the government." After forty years, that message might be the one general political statement with broad support in America.
Republicans and Donald Trump are currently using it to their advantage. The whole Nunes memo and rhetoric about the "deep state" keys into this notion that government institutions simply can't be trusted. While the left is right to be skeptical of the FBI (hell, I am for sure) that skepticism has also been manipulated into a Glenn Greenwald-ian obtuse moral stance that says "As bad as Trump is, I refuse to defend the FBI." (Greenwald is not a good influence. Go ahead, fight me.)
This is why the White House's cynical strategy to undermine the investigation will work. A lot of folks on the left won't fight it, conservatives will believe a conspiracy if Fox says it's so, and those in the middle will default to their usual "well, you can't trust the government."
One fact that has been chilling me for years is that the military and police are our most trusted government institutions. We now have a wannabe despot in charge of the military and federal police power who has been rhetorically attacking other government and public institutions. In typical despotic language, he is fond of saying "I alone" can solve the problems that face the country. This means we are heading into some dangerous territory, folks. We've been sleepwalking through history, unaware that our post-Watergate path has been leading us to this point all along.