Sometime early last fall, John Dean says he began having nightmares about a Trump presidency. He would wake in the middle of the night, agitated and alarmed, struggling to calm his nerves. “I’m not somebody who remembers the details of dreams,” he told me in a recent phone call from his home in Los Angeles. “I just know that they were so bad that I’d force myself awake and out of bed just to get away from them.”
Few people are more intimately acquainted than Dean with the consequences of an American presidency gone awry. As White House counsel under President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1973, he was a key figure in the Watergate saga—participating in, and then helping to expose, the most iconic political scandal in modern U.S. history. In the decades since then, Dean has parlayed that resume line into something of a franchise, penning several books and countless columns on the theme of presidential abuses of power.
These days, he’s finding his subject matter more distressing than usual.
“The American presidency has never been at the whims of an authoritarian personality like Donald Trump,” Dean, who is now 78, told me. “He is going to test our democracy as it has never been tested.”
With Trump preparing to take the oath of office this week, some of his more imaginative critics foresee a Nixonian demise on the horizon—the corrupt commander-in-chief felled by his own hubris, forced out of office. But if prophesies of impeachment seem a tad dramatic, Dean’s own forecast for the next four years is arguably much grimmer. He is not only convinced that Trump will be worse than Nixon in virtually every way—he thinks he’ll probably get away with it.
Dean’s near-panicked take on the incoming president is shaped in large part by his years in the Nixon White House. In Trump, Dean says he has observed many of his former boss’s most dangerous traits—obsessive vengefulness, reflexive dishonesty, all-consuming ambition—but none of Nixon’s redeeming qualities.
“I used to have one-on-one conversations with [Nixon] where I’d see him checking his more authoritarian tendencies,” Dean recalled. “He’d say, ‘This is something I can’t say out loud...’ or, ‘That is something the president can’t do.’” To Dean, these moments suggested a functioning sense of shame in Nixon, something he was forced to wrestle with in his quest for power. Trump, by contrast, appears to Dean unmolested by any such struggle.
Unchecked, Dean worries, these neo-Nixonian instincts will only grow stronger once Trump enters the Oval Office—a place where every occupant since Nixon has found new ways to expand his authority and further his reach. “Barack Obama, like most presidents, did not dispose of any of the executive powers he inherited,” Dean said. “Hang on when Trump and his crew fully appreciate the extraordinary powers they will have—it is not only going to be thrilling, but dangerous.” (Dean, who now considers himself an independent, was also strongly critical of George W. Bush’s presidency.)
Those hoping Trump’s presidency will end in a Watergate-style meltdown point to the litany of scandals-in-waiting that will follow him into office—from his alleged ties to Russia, to the potential conflicts of interest lurking in his vast business network. Dean agrees that “he’s carrying loads of potential problems into the White House with him,” and goes even further in his assessment: “I don’t think Richard Nixon even comes close to the level of corruption we already know about Trump.”
Yet, he’s profoundly pessimistic about the prospect of Trump facing any true accountability while in office. In the four decades since Nixon resigned, Dean says, the institutions that are meant to keep a president’s power in check—the press, Congress, even the courts—have been rendered increasingly weak and ineffectual by a sort of creeping partisan paralysis. (Imagine, if you dare, the Breitbart headlines that would follow Woodward and Bernstein’s first scoop if they were breaking their story today.)
More broadly, Dean believes the American electorate has become desensitized to political scandal. In the years immediately following Watergate, he said, politicians were on high alert, and so was the public. But since then, that culture of vigilance has so eroded that it’s nearly impossible now to envision a sin so grave, or a revelation so explosive, that it would lead to the ouster of a sitting president. “The Trump campaign is an interesting measure of how high the tolerance has gotten for a public figure’s misbehavior,” he said, citing the candidate’s now-infamous comments on the leaked Access Hollywood tape as just one example.
Add to all this the realities of the current political landscape, and Dean says Trump will almost certainly weather whatever storms he faces during his presidency. “Unless Trump is a such a disaster that the public rises up and changes control of Congress in the mid-term elections, he is very safe.”
Dean is less sure, however, of how the republic will look at the end of a Trump presidency. “By nature, I am an optimist,” he told me. “But Trump as president is going to be about surviving disaster.”
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