NewsStreet Scribe

From Watergate to Jan. 6, America Is Edging Toward Authoritarianism Again

UGA alum Caroline Edwards, a Capitol Police officer, testifies at a June 9 congressional hearing. Screenshot via the January 6th Committee

It has been 50 years since a political crime dismissed at first as “a third-rate burglary” ballooned into a first-rate scandal known as the Watergate affair. When a crew of shady operatives broke into the Democratic Party headquarters at Washington’s posh Watergate apartments on June 17, 1972, their criminal caper left footprints and fingerprints that led all the way to the White House administration of President Richard Nixon. Though Nixon claimed to be a “law and order” president, he resigned the presidency in disgrace two years after the infamous break-in at the Watergate. The president who declared “I am not a crook” turned out to be exactly that.

Fast forward 50 years, and the echoes of Watergate still resound in Washington. When the first public congressional hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol Hill insurrection began earlier this month, American viewers saw and heard evidence of brutish behavior by President Donald Trump and his cultish cadre in the MAGA mob that stormed the Capitol in an effort to stop the certification of the electoral votes that gave Joe Biden the presidency. Just as millions of Americans viewed the Watergate hearings on TV five decades ago, so too did millions of Americans view the current hearings on Capitol Hill. Both Watergate and the present-day congressional hearings are cautionary tales for an America reeling ever closer to authoritarianism.

Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards, a cum laude graduate of the University of Georgia, gave compelling testimony on the first day of the public hearings. Describing the attack by the Trumpian mob as “a war scene,” she said of her fellow cops, “They were bleeding. They were throwing up. I saw friends with blood all over their faces. I was slipping in people’s blood. It was carnage. It was chaos.” 

Edwards was severely injured during the melee, as were nearly 150 of her fellow officers. Donald Trump and his supporters claim to support law and order, but beleaguered cops like Edwards battled lawless disorder when a sore loser MAGA mob of Trump’s chumps and grumps stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

Though former Trump administration Attorney General Bill Barr dismissed Trump’s claims of a stolen election as “bullshit” from a president who was “detached from reality” after his 2020 election loss, Trump continues to peddle his snake oil of a “stolen election” and millions of his sycophantic supporters continue to buy it.

Wyoming GOP congresswoman Liz Cheney, who serves on the Jan. 6 committee, has become a political pariah in the “Trumpublican Party” for defying the former president. She had trenchant words for Trump and his political supporters who downplay the seriousness of the Jan. 6 criminality: “I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump will be gone. Your dishonor will remain.”

America’s amnesia and indifference often blot out lessons that we should learn from our history, but we ignore such lessons at our own national peril. In 1973, when President Nixon visited Mercer University in Macon, I joined a crowd of protesters on the campus. The Watergate scandal was heating up, and we greeted the president with signs bearing such messages as “Make Georgia the Impeach State” and “The Emperor Has No Clothes.” When Nixon supporters shouted “Four more years,” protesters taunted “Five to life.” 

In 1974, I was in Washington with thousands of citizens who rallied outside the White House calling for an end to Nixon’s criminal regime. Longtime antiwar activist and Chicago 7 political show trial defendant Dave Dellinger told the crowd, “Nixon tried to introduce a modified form of fascism to this country.” 

Nixon and his henchmen flirted with fascism in America in the ‘70s. Trump and his MAGA minions seem to embrace an American style of fascism today, complete with right-wing street brawling brownshirts like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. As authoritarianism again threatens America and the world, we might consider the words of scientist and humanitarian Albert Einstein: “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”