From Watergate to Trump: Another Tipping Point for American Democracy

Meeting with Pres. Regan

In college, I experimented.

It was a period of protests, politics and pharmaceuticals.

I dabbled, attending protests and marches in Washington for peace and the environment, and in New Haven, protesting the trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale.

Little did I know that from that political awakening, I would wind up working in the White House for two Republican presidents. It was a straight yet circuitous route I took.

I entered Northeastern University in the fall of 1968 toward the end of a decade that saw our politics divided mostly by generation. Young people opposing the draft, getting high and taking on authority. Their parents not understanding.

Fifty years later, our politics and country are divided again. This time by partisan politics – by those on one side fearful that their place in society is eroding and being taken over by a browner, blacker and more female soon-to-be-majority – leaving them, in their minds, further behind.

That didn’t happen overnight, and I was witness up close to some of that change. I did my co-op mostly at my hometown newspaper in Connecticut and majored in journalism in what I think was the first year Northeastern gave such a degree. Then, all I wanted to be was a reporter. I loved being in the middle of the action and yet not truly responsible for any of it, just reporting on it. To me, there was no more fun and rewarding job.

That led to a friend asking me to join the local congressman’s campaign for governor. The candidate was a Republican, but a Republican vintage 1977 and a New Englander, thus a moderate, common-sense Republican. We lost that campaign. Big time.

B. Jay Cooper standing with President Ronald Reagan aboard Air Force One

Two years later, I was asked to join Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in Connecticut. We won, and that led me to think about what I could do in Washington. Which led to a job at the Commerce Department, which led to becoming deputy press secretary for Presidents Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush. I then served as communications director for the Republican National Committee (RNC) for four chairmen. That’s a lot of Republicanism for a guy who wasn’t a true Republican and whose political meetings in college started with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a national student activist organization and one of the main forces of the New Left. My first meeting was led by a self-described “outside agitator” from Boston University who was also an accused murderer.

Meeting with Pres. Regan

B. Jay Cooper (l) and Martin Fitzwater (center) meeting with Pres. Ronald Reagan

Moving ahead a bunch of years and further on my learning curve, I wasn’t a Reagan Republican when I started working Republican campaigns. In fact, I was registered as an unaffiliated voter because I was a reporter. And when I turned 18, I registered as a Democrat to vote against the mayor of my hometown twice — in the primary and in the election. Not because he was a Democrat, but because I thought he was a bad mayor.

I didn’t buy into the entire Reagan agenda. I was a liberal on social issues and a conservative on economic issues. In those days, that wasn’t a pure “Republican” view, nor was it unique.

Pres. George H. W. Bush and B. Jay Cooper

B. Jay Cooper meeting with President George H.W. Bush at the White House

I did, however, work with men and women who were true conservatives, who favored lower taxes, strong defense, small government, less regulation and conservative judges and would accept nothing less. That’s what a conservative was in those days. 

Reagan, while a scary political figure to some of the country, was a common-sense conservative. He bled conservative but governed trying to find compromises to move the country forward. Thanks to the same approach by the Democratic speaker of the House, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, they got things done together but were not always perfectly happy with the outcome — the way our government was designed.

First Lady Barbara Bush meeting B. Jay Cooper

True conservatives worked in the administration, of course. They bled conservative, and they liked to look good losing, falling on their swords and failing rather than moving an issue forward. That wasn’t Reagan’s governing approach.

Fifty years later, our country is again divided, but in a different way. Among the politicians, yes, there is a visceral approach to an issue. I’m for it, you’re against it and never the twain shall meet. Among voters, it’s different. Americans on one side are scared. They’ve felt like they’ve been ignored for years, and there is good reason for that feeling. They were.

Unfortunately, politicians overlooked these people, considering them rock solid for one party or the other but needing no special help. Meanwhile, their quality of life stagnated. And they felt it, big time.

Even more unfortunately, that feeling turned into belief in a false leader — Donald Trump — who used their fears to his advantage, dividing us even more.

I left the party the day Trump won the nomination in 2016.

Trump’s appointees appear largely to be believers in Trump, fearful of him, doing his bidding and afraid to speak out against him, even after he was defeated. In any event, those who have spoken against him since he left office have no credibility because of the support they voiced for him while he was in office.

And our politics are squeezed.

Can we work our way out of it? I’m not entirely sure. Trump at the moment still controls a big base of voters who will vote for him and follow him no matter what. He voiced their fears for five years. They didn’t fall in line with him; he jumped to the front of their parade.

The next few years will be key to the Republican Party’s future. Trump still controls about 30 percent of American voters. It is unlikely that any of them will split from him. 

And Trump seems to be trying to maintain a power position as he decides on candidates to oppose incumbent Republicans who, in his mind, were disloyal.

The question is, will that be enough to win party primaries and then general elections? His type of candidate certainly can win a primary but, as some in the party fear, they probably can’t gain seats in general elections.  

After Watergate, the previous true governing crisis, people wrung their hands and said the Republican Party might never return from what President Richard Nixon had done. They feared the two-party system was over. It survived, though, and thrived.

When I was at the RNC, we had an “outreach office” that worked to increase the number Black, brown, Asian and others registered as Republicans. It had little success. And there hasn’t been much success since then.

History often repeats itself. I’m not sure if that’s the case right now. In those days, the country wasn’t nearly as polarized as now, for one thing. For another, despite being warned for years that the GOP needed to diversify its ranks, it never really did. 

This is uncharted territory:  a former president who is not in line with the party while creating his own power center. 

The difference this time may be that the voters who support him support him despite anything, even encouraging an insurrection against our government. 

Fifty years ago, the populace could see that Nixon had done potentially illegal things. They did not support him. Now, Trump’s supporters, as he said during his 2016 campaign, could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. 

And while history can point to many men who changed their countries to the negative by lying to the people and other tactics used by Trump, today dozens of Republicans follow Trump’s lead. One hundred and twenty-six House Republicans, including the two leaders in their caucus, signed on to the Texas attorney general’s phony lawsuit to overturn election results in four key states where Biden won. And even after their lives were threatened by the rioters during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, six Republican senators and 121 House Republicans voted to decertify the November elections — actions based on lies.

A poll taken by Pew before the January 6th insurrection, but after the November election, showed that just 35 percent of the American people felt our democracy can survive without any tinkering or changes. Sixty-five percent said it needs major change or a complete overhaul. And that was before January 6th.

Our democracy was tested like never before during Trump’s years in office. And our institutions held, doing what the founders expected them to do.

Let’s hope our institutions continue to hold as they confront threats from Trump and his supporters.