On his very first day as President, Donald Trump stood on hallowed ground at the CIA and boasted of holding “the all-time record in the history of TIME magazine” for being on the cover. That record is actually held by Richard Nixon, the other modern President in competition for doing the most violence to values, norms, honor and decency undergirding American democracy.
In 2021, Trump arguably surpassed Nixon as a menace to the Constitution. American democracy catches its breath in between the lines of the founding text; it depends for its resilience and moral power on a shared commitment to both individual freedom and the common good. Trump’s only rule is ruthlessness; he sees norms as opportunities for vandalism, a window left open in our intricate constitutional structure that he can crash through.
Trump’s assault on the Justice Department, his extortion of foreign allies, his obsession with domestic enemies all rhyme with Nixonian villainy and go further. Nixon had his secret enemies list; Trump called for his congressional opponents to be arrested for treason. Nixon largely kept his bigotry private, coded in the language of the Silent Majority; Trump made his a slogan. And in 1960, despite actual evidence of election fraud in Illinois and Texas, Nixon did not summon his supporters to storm the Capitol. Trump celebrates participants in the Jan. 6 insurrection as patriots, and runs to get another can of gasoline. Although he has left office, he remains a magnetic force, propelling others who have taken up his antidemocratic mantle and challenged the validity of our elections.
Nixon still leads Trump, by a count of 55 to 35, in the TIME cover competition. But history will judge which President most disfigured our politics and polity; that’s a race Trump is well-positioned to win.
Gibbs is the director of the Shorenstein Center, the Edward R. Murrow Professor at Harvard Kennedy School and a former TIME editor in chief
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