America is two nations barely on speaking terms

What should we make of the fact that American television stations have all broadcast live the jubilee festivities of an elderly monarch, but will part ways during this week’s hearings in an assault on American democracy? The light take is that the British crown is above politics, including in America. The darker interpretation is that the survival of American democracy itself is now a partisan issue.

The January 6 panel, which will be televised from Thursday, hopes to emulate the Watergate hearings that led to the downfall of Richard Nixon in 1974. So far, however, it is the differences that are stark. Every US network broadcast the Watergate hearings live. They lasted for months and were watched by nearly three-quarters of Americans. Fox News, which did not exist during the Nixon era, said this week it would not air the Jan. 6 hearings.

From Watergate, which took place 50 years ago next week, to January 6, this is the measure of a transformed society. Although Nixon had just won re-election by a landslide – the biggest Republican presidential victory in history, with 61% of the vote – the US Senate voted unanimously to open an investigation into the burglary. Watergate. Not a single Republican dissented. The allegation that the US president might be a con man was too serious to be treated as normal politics.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, had recently been beaten for re-election when all but two Republicans voted against a House of Representatives investigation into the storming of Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021. Both courageous profiles, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger now risk being finished Republicans. Their party succeeded in obstructing an attempt to create a Senate committee. It is an indicator of what has changed.

Here is another. Watergate was a burglary of Democratic Party offices. No one died. The violent assault on Capitol Hill ultimately claimed the lives of seven people. True, Nixon abused his powers to spy on opponents, steal their election plans, and ruin anyone who got in his way. But he did not plot to overturn an election. Part of Nixon’s fury likely stems from the claim that in 1960 his winning Democratic opponent, John F Kennedy, almost certainly benefited from stuffed ballot boxes in Chicago’s notorious Cook County. That same year, Nixon honorably conceded. He was never going to fall for the trap again.

Whatever Nixon’s psychology, exposing what he had done shocked the nation and changed tens of millions of minds, including loyalists. But it was the criminal methods he used to cover it up, rather than the underlying crime, that turned the public mood upside down. Trump, on the other hand, is an open book. He has publicly instigated attempts to nullify an election and has “Stop the Steal” as his rallying logo. Besides, this is not the America of 1973. Most of the decisions are already made. More than 40% of Americans agree with Trump.

Can the January 6 hearings change that? It seems very unlikely. Trump was the first U.S. president to be impeached twice, but neither of his Senate trials moved the needle. There’s no reason to think the next round of hearings will be much different. Even though Mike Pence, his former vice president and the unlikely hero of January 6, spilled the wick in prime time, Trump successfully branded him a traitor to the Maga mobs. In 1973, Howard Baker, the committee’s leading Republican, asked, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” In 2022, Republicans say the investigation is a witch hunt, show no interest in what Trump knew or when, and echo his assertion that Biden is an illegitimate president.

The ironic result is nostalgia for the Watergate era. Watergate proved that the American republic could withstand the onslaught of a popular and highly effective sitting president. The system worked. January 6 shows that an unpopular former president can exercise a veto over the fate of democracy. The irony is that the decline in trust in government started during Watergate and is now at rock bottom. Apart from a few interludes during the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and that of Bill Clinton in the 1990s, confidence in government to do the right thing has sometimes or always declined since Watergate. It is now at an all-time high of 20%.

Part of the remedy for today’s mutual partisan hatred would be a demonstration of the admirable objectivity shown by the Watergate committee. But the America that was stunned to force Nixon’s resignation seems almost as lost in time as the royal tyranny it ousted. The past is another country, as the saying goes. America’s present feels like two different nations barely talking to each other.

edward.luce@ft.com

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