How can we reconcile the conviction that Donald Trump’s presidency is a singular abomination with the sense that we’ve seen all this play out before?
For months, countless commentaries have warned us — or, depending on your perspective, reassured us — that this administration may be heading toward the same conclusion as Richard Nixon’s. In May, after the firing of FBI Director James Comey, Nixon chronicler Elizabeth Drew wrote in Politico: “While Watergate was sui generis and is likely to remain so, Trump’s metastasizing crisis, and Washington’s reaction to it, make for a discomfiting reminder of that period. And suddenly it seems increasingly possible it could end the same way.” A few weeks later, New York magazine’s Frank Rich wrote that there is “reason to hope that the 45th president’s path through scandal may wind up at the same destination as the 37th’s — a premature exit from the White House in disgrace — on a comparable timeline.”
That comparison has persisted, or even deepened, as Robert Mueller’s investigation has expanded. Noah Feldman and Jacob Weisberg began an essay last month in the New York Review of Books by arguing, “As more and more evidence of collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia has come to light, the analogy to Watergate has grown ever stronger.”
There are strengths and weaknesses to the Watergate comparison, but our fascination with it is, perhaps more than anything, a product of our visceral discomfort with uncertainty. At the mercy of a president whose stock in trade is unpredictability, and amid a presidency that has provided more surprises than most, Americans crave foresight. We want to know how this story ends. Analogy provides a seductive answer, cloaking the cold ambiguity of the future in the blanket of the past: If today looks like yesterday, we reason, our tomorrow will look like yesterday’s tomorrow.
But relying so heavily on this heuristic may actually make it more difficult to anticipate what’s coming. Analogy encourages us to see the past as static, when it was in fact a dynamic collection of possible futures that just happened to gel into the present we know. That mistake blinds us to our own potential futures — and what we might learn from them. In trying to reduce uncertainty, we may have ensured that Trump will surprise us even more than he already has.
We take our experience of time for granted. Scholars Allen Bluedorn and Robert Denhardt put it this way: “As a society, we tend to agree on an objective concept of time, one that is unitary (subject to only one interpretation), linear (progressing steadily forward from past to present to future), and mechanical (containing discrete moments subject to precise measurement).”