Donald Trump’s stunning decision to fire FBI Director James Comey brought inevitable comparisons to the “Saturday Night Massacre,” that evening in October 1973 when President Richard Nixon, enmeshed in the throes of Watergate, ordered independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox fired, and then accepted the resignations of both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus when they refused to carry out his instructions. With Nixon (and future Trump) henchman Roger Stone unavailable, Solicitor General Robert Bork was carted over to the White House by limousine to do Nixon’s wet work. But it was too late. The White House tapes that Nixon was trying to keep Cox from hearing would out, and the damning evidence on them would force the president from office.
Beyond the mechanics of the Saturday Night Massacre, though, is what Watergate tells us about what America was and is, then and now. The prevailing goal for congressional Democrats, over the nearly ten months it would take to expose Nixon’s crimes and drive him from office, was to bring the people with them. Their mantra, coined by Peter Rodino of the House Judiciary Committee, was simple: Impeachment “has to come out of the middle.” That is, Nixon would only be impelled to step down if enough moderate Republicans could be persuaded to support it. The articles of impeachment, when they came, were drawn up not by the committee’s liberals but by three conservative Democrats and four moderate Republicans. In the end, a remarkable seven out of 17 Republicans on the committee voted to impeach Nixon.
Such a scenario is unfathomable today. Seven Republicans on the Judiciary Committee voting for impeachment? A few days after Comey went down, only seven Republicans from both houses of Congress could be induced to join Democrats in calling for an independent investigation into the Russian influence on our government. “Not going to happen,” said Senator John Thune. “Suck it up and move on,” added Senator Chuck Grassley.
Today, with ideologues in the Tea Party and money men like the Koch brothers in control of the Republican Party, the center has fallen out of American politics. The political middle ground between the two parties, which was essential to stopping Nixon, no longer exists. What worked back in the 1970s to bring down a renegade president is unlikely to work today. It was the times that took down Nixon, perhaps even more than the crimes. The center still held, despite the roiling years of protest, war, and assassinations that preceded Watergate.
To understand what can happen when the country is too divided for any common sense of justice to prevail, we should look not to Nixon but to a president from a more divided and chaotic era. Like Trump, Andrew Jackson was a populist wrecking ball who set out to upend a Washington establishment that considered him a crude and inept barbarian. Before Steve Bannon superimposed Jackson on Trump’s psyche, it’s doubtful that our president could have picked Old Hickory out of a police lineup, even in full epaulets. But ever since he took office, Trump has been on a Jackson jag, hanging his newfound hero’s portrait in the Oval Office and even laying a wreath at the Hermitage, Jackson’s thousand-acre slave plantation in Tennessee.
Jackson was a very different man than Trump. A supremely talented individual, he was a United States senator by 30; a self-taught lawyer who became a state Supreme Court judge; and a general who, with no formal military training, conquered most of the southeastern United States and scored perhaps the single most lopsided victory in American history, over the British army at New Orleans. Ferocious, visionary, and almost insanely tenacious, Jackson headed a large and coherent political movement—one that, for all its faults, embraced despised immigrants and extended the vote to all white men, regardless of income.
Yet Trump’s similarities with Jackson—and the wider forces marshaled by both men—are more instructive than the comparisons to Nixon’s obstruction of justice. The constituency that brought Jackson to power consisted of working people and small farmers drawn predominantly from the West and the South. Much like today, these aggrieved white men found themselves increasingly anxious in a country that was rapidly industrializing. Everywhere, it seemed, new technologies were transforming how Americans lived and worked: cotton gins and textile mills, the rotary press and the telegraph, steamboats and railroads. Much as in today’s digital revolution, Americans could either adapt or be swept aside in the rushing onslaught of the future.
Unsurprisingly, many ordinary Americans came to see themselves as victims of perfidious conspiracies, channeling their energies into indignant rebellions like the Anti-Masonic Party. “It was a vague but widespread discontent,” explained Jackson’s vice president, John C. Calhoun, “caused by the disordered circumstances of individuals, but resulting in a general impression that there was something radically wrong in the administration of the Government.”
These disillusioned Americans chose Jackson as their champion. Much as Trump’s supporters do, they loved the superlatives with which he described America, devoid of complications and doubt. “What a country God has given us!” Jackson once exclaimed, after an appearance before his adoring fans. “We have the best country, and the best institutions in the world. No people have so much to be grateful for as we.” He was only six characters over the limit for a tweet.
Jackson’s supporters gathered at riotous campaign barbecues and marched, singing, in huge torchlight parades designed—like Trump’s screaming, violent, media-penned rallies—to intimidate as much as to inspire. Jackson even showed up at the festivities from time to time, scandalizing the political sensibilities of the day every bit as much as Trump’s hectoring campaign screeds have. Like our current president, he told his supporters they were victims of a “corrupt bargain” swung by the political and financial elites, and they loved him for it.
If Jackson’s opponents could not fathom the nature of his appeal, his supporters—an unwashed, uncouth “King Mob”—tended to grossly overestimate just how interested their hero was in their welfare, as opposed to his own. Jackson, like Trump, always associated his own fortunes with the country’s, using his public service to carve out a personal empire of land, cotton, and slaves that likely made him the fourth richest man ever to hold the White House. He was not guided by “the norms of society,” as Steve Inskeep observes in his brilliant history, Jacksonland. “He took counsel of what he wanted, what his friends desired, and what he felt to be right.”
Like Trump, Jackson seemed to address his supporters in a shared, coded language. They loved him for saying what they were thinking: “What a country God has given us!”
Us. Not some foreign king, or the Mexican farmers who would soon be driven from the land like the British before them. Not African slaves, who were allowed to stay only as property, so their converted souls would go to heaven, out of the goodness of our white Christian hearts. Not Native Americans, even though they had been here for millennia. Us. It was clear enough who Jackson was talking about. And he didn’t mean a bunch of scheming Eastern bankers. They were another sort of alien influence, with their love of worthless, “shinplaster” paper money over “hard money”—good, solid coins—and the tangible things it could buy: a plot of land, a horse, a sharp-edged plough. A man.
Jackson took these grievances and assembled them into a potent agenda. A white supremacist, he sought to push America’s borders all the way to the Pacific, and to clear as much of the land as possible of Native Americans, whom he believed to be an inferior race. Like Trump, he did not seduce his followers into anything they did not already believe, or want. But the failures of his radical policies—and his refusal to submit to our constitutional system of checks and balances—would have terrible consequences, for his followers and the nation, long into the future.
By the time Jackson took office, there were 17,000 or so members of the Cherokee Nation who still resided in the East, clustered mostly in northern Georgia. They had become as “civilized” as George Washington had once urged them to be. They adopted Western modes of dress, agriculture, and commerce; invented a written language of their own; intermarried freely with whites; converted to Christianity in growing numbers; even wrote a constitution and instituted a system of government closely modeled on our own. A “Cherokee Regiment” had fought beside Jackson, at his request, in defeating the British and the Creek Nation, and been indispensable in his victory. They had even, under his bullying, sold off large chunks of the land they had been guaranteed by treaty—land Jackson used to personally enrich himself.
Yet Jackson wanted them gone, and he was willing to negotiate only the cost of their removal. The missionaries bringing them to Christ stood by the Cherokee, making their removal a cause célèbre in liberal circles throughout the Northeast. In a harbinger of the abolitionist movement, the likes of Catharine Beecher, William Lloyd Garrison, and Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke out for them, and deluged Jackson’s legislative allies with petitions—the congressional phone lines of the day—bearing thousands of names.
All to no avail. Jackson held enough votes in Congress to force a vote on removal of the Cherokee. Even moderates who acknowledged the overwhelming rightness of the Cherokee’s cause refused to cross the White House. “It is expected that men will vote by platoons, in regular rank and file, according to party drilling, on this question of public faith,” lamented Jeremiah Evarts, the missionary who battled most fervently and selflessly on behalf of the Cherokee. “I have never before seen such a commentary on human depravity.”
Evarts, described by historian Jon Meacham as “one of the great American moral figures” of his time, wore himself out in the Cherokee’s cause, dying of tuberculosis before their fate was decided. His willingness to champion justice in the face of power would later be picked up by his great-great-great-grandson, who also exited the stage before the dramatic conclusion: Archibald Cox.
If Jackson’s allies were no more interested in standing up for the Cherokee than congressional Republicans are in investigating Trump’s ties to Russia, the judiciary stepped in to uphold the law. The Supreme Court ruled 6–1 in favor of the Cherokee, effectively ordering Jackson to cease and desist with his plans to remove them from their land. “The acts of Georgia are repugnant to the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States,” declared John Marshall, the chief justice who had first established the court’s power. “They interfere forcibly with the relations established between the United States and the Cherokee Nation, the regulation of which, according to the settled principles of our Constitution, are committed exclusively to the government of the Union.”
The Cherokee, in other words, were answerable only to the federal government, which in turn must honor its treaties with the Native Americans and protect them on their lands. That, in our constitutional system, was supposed to be that. But then, as now, the political center no longer existed. In an America consumed by the anxieties of its white working classes, there was no longer any commonly accepted idea of democracy abroad in the land—and Jackson knew it.
“John Marshall has made his decision,” the president was said to have responded. “Now let him enforce it.”
In direct defiance of the court, Jackson forcibly transferred the Cherokee from Georgia to what is now Oklahoma. In the process, they were robbed of most of the wealth they had accumulated. During the journey, some 4,000 to 8,000 died of disease and exposure along what became known as the Trail of Tears, one of the most reprehensible episodes in our history. Jackson, by then retired, commented only to complain about how much money it cost to remove the Cherokee.
Jackson’s other victory over the political establishment of his era wound up hurting his own supporters. In 1832, playing on his constituency’s widespread fury at Eastern bankers, Jackson killed the Second Bank of the United States—the country’s primitive central bank of the time. Both Congress and the Supreme Court had affirmed the constitutionality of the bank, which played a pivotal role in installing a stable national currency. But in what became known as the Bank War, Jackson mobilized his base, vetoed the bank’s charter, and breezed to reelection. When supporters of the bank tried to keep it alive, Jackson destroyed it by decree, issuing an executive order to remove its federal deposits and transfer them into private banks favorable to his cause.
The move proved to be a disaster. Two months after Jackson left office, the economy collapsed in the Panic of 1837, setting off the worst and most sustained depression the country had ever suffered. Jackson, who knew of finance only what it suited him to know, had in the course of his career created and burst a land bubble, and destabilized the nation’s currency. While he retired in comfort on his enormous plantation, his own followers suffered the brunt of the depression. Their idol had destroyed the only government institution that might have been able to restore confidence to the markets, just as he had steadfastly opposed any “internal improvements”—large infrastructure projects like building roads and digging canals that would benefit the public.
Andrew Jackson may not have personally blocked investigations into his own crimes, as Richard Nixon did, and as some now believe Donald Trump has. But in his defiance of the Supreme Court and Congress, he was guilty of something far worse than mere obstruction of justice. Jackson, like Trump, held our entire system of checks and balances in contempt. Swept into office by a populist rebellion that he stoked to a fever pitch, he ruled more as a monarch than an elected executive. If he wanted to build a geographic wall between white America and people of color, or rearrange the nation’s financial system to his personal liking, there was no one to stop him. He had helped to destroy the political center, deepening the partisan divides that would eventually erupt into civil war.
Donald Trump operates in a political landscape that is far more similar to Andrew Jackson’s than to Richard Nixon’s. Like Jackson, he is a wealthy Washington outsider posing as a champion of the people. He does not recognize the legitimacy of the political system, as Nixon did, because he is not a creature of it. He will not go quietly, if it comes to that. We may be fast approaching another “question of public faith,” in the words of Archibald Cox’s great-great-great grandfather. But as in Jackson’s time, there is no political center to curb the power of the president. There is only extremism and chaos.
During Watergate, to their lasting credit, conservatives in both the legislative and judicial branches of our government, loyal to something greater than the whims of their president, wielded their constitutional power to preserve the rule of law in America. When the final “smoking gun” tape emerged, it was three leading Republicans—the minority leaders of the Senate and the House, Hugh Scott and John Rhodes, and Barry Goldwater, tribune of the modern conservative movement—who went to the Oval Office and told Richard Nixon that it was over. Who in today’s Republican majority would have the integrity to make that walk? Whose sense of decency, whose belief in patriotism over politics, could we count on? And what calamities will befall us if there is no one?