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Republicans Aren’t Investigating Democrats to Maintain Accountability. They’re Trying to Make You Afraid.

Image via Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

On June 17, 1972, in Washington, D.C., five men broke into the Democratic National Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. What seemed to be a simple burglary would become arguably the most consequential political scandal in American history. Before the break-in, both the public and the mainstream media tended to trust the president. Watergate, as it would come to be known, would transform how the American public viewed their government and the media’s role in Washington. 

It’s clear that the difference between the pre-Watergate United States and the post-Watergate landscape we know today is staggering. Changing perceptions of government, the evolving role of the media, and increased political polarization over the last 50 years have worked to create a social and political atmosphere that normalizes allegations of serious scandal. While it may be unfair to claim that Democrats have remained entirely apolitical in all of their investigations, Republican lawmakers have been all too eager to push this harmful transformation along. And now, it seems Donald Trump’s tendency to push for the investigation and imprisonment of his political enemies has triggered a tipping point in the GOP’s willingness to utilize investigations for political gain. As investigations mount against the incumbent Democratic president, we must call these probes out for what they are: not a means to hold government officials accountable, but a fear tactic intended to direct more resentment toward the opposition. 

What made Watergate so significant was not necessarily what the scheme itself entailed, but how it was ultimately revealed. Following the five burglars’ arrests in 1972, the White House engaged in an elaborate cover-up and did their best to both separate themselves from and minimize the break-in when facing the public. For a while, the White House’s efforts worked: just a few months after the arrests at Watergate Hotel, Nixon secured a second term in a landslide victory. But behind the scenes, two journalists at The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were about to spell the beginning of the end for the Nixon administration. 

Woodward and Bernstein, with the help of FBI whistleblower Mark Felt (whose anonymous codename at the time was “Deep Throat”), uncovered the president’s attempts to undermine democracy by spying on and sabotaging his rivals’ political campaigns. Their testimony, as well as the infamous tape recordings of Nixon’s Oval Office conversations, would eventually lead to the president’s unprecedented resignation. 

The fallout from Watergate permanently altered how we view the president. The trusting American public was horrified to discover that not only was their president willing to lie to them, but that he had almost gotten away with it. Legislatures on both the federal and state levels passed numerous bills on campaign finance, surveillance, and intelligence in an effort to reassure the shocked and anxious public. Woodward and Bernstein became media sensations, and the round-the-clock coverage of the investigation and its hearings turned a handful of politicians into celebrities. Suddenly, the idea of tougher congressional oversight—and even tougher journalists—became appealing to the American people.

Though new legislation and shifting expectations for political journalism would certainly have their impact, the distrust that resulted from the Watergate scandal would set the stage for an insidious political strategy. Fear can be an effective tool in politics for anyone willing to use it. And it just so happens that a rising Republican lawmaker would  capitalize off of the chaos caused by the Watergate investigations and Nixon’s resignation.

After Newt Gingrich was elected to the US Congress in 1978, he quickly gained a reputation for confrontation. He flamed his Republican colleagues for being too accommodating towards those across the aisle. Following his 1989 election to the House minority whip position, Gingrich released an infamous 1990 memo instructing House Republicans to utilize unabashedly inflammatory language against their Democratic opponents, suggesting they use terms like “anti-family,” “lie,” “sick,” “radical,” and “traitors.” 

Gingrich was adept at utilizing the legacy of Watergate to suit his needs. In the 1980s, Gingrich was frequently featured on C-SPAN as he spoke from the House floor. During his many tirades, he would attack specific Democrats, accusing them of being unpatriotic and corrupt. When the accused would remain silent, it made them appear guilty. What C-SPAN viewers didn’t know was that Gingrich was often speaking to an empty House floor, something he knew would not be apparent given the C-SPAN practice of only broadcasting from one camera that pointed exclusively at the person speaking. His nightly slanders, appearing uncontested, whipped the Republican base into a frenzy of anger and fear.

His incendiary rhetoric and skillful manipulation of the media rocketed Gingrich to Republican fame and eventually secured him the powerful position of Speaker of the House following the “Republican Revolution” of 1994. The newly empowered Republican House, now led by Gingrich, would stoke the fire of increasing political polarization as they frequently clashed with then-president Bill Clinton. 

Their battle would come to a head when House Republicans voted to impeach Clinton over his affair with White House aide Monica Lewinsky, an impeachment that many viewed as purely political. Though Clinton would walk away from his impeachment relatively unscathed, this moment in history signaled a turning point for the Grand Old Party: Republicans were willing to accuse, investigate, and even impeach their political rivals, including those who sat in the Oval Office. Weaponization of scandal was dangerous when wielded by Congress, but would be particularly perilous in the hands of a president. It was difficult to fathom what that would look like until Donald Trump.

Trump made it known from the beginning that he wanted his political opponents investigated and imprisoned. His 2016 campaign was filled with rallying cries to “lock her up,” in reference to his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton. Trump also demanded jail time for his critics, including former Secretary of State John Kerry and former National Security Advisor John Bolton. He repeatedly pressured the Department of Justice to investigate his enemies and pardon his friends. 

Trump’s allegations of corruption against his adversaries were completely baseless and clearly politically motivated, but this did not prevent them from doing real world harm. There was an investigation of Hillary Clinton by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The probe, of course, turned up nothing. Though Trump was not able to persecute any of his rivals in this instance, he came dangerously close to weaponizing the Justice Department for political gain, most notably during his attempt to overturn the 2020 election. The Department ultimately resisted his efforts. But his inflammatory accusations of a rigged election on their own were still enough to incite an attempted coup, demonstrating the danger and political power in simply alleging scandal. 

In the aftermath of the Trump presidency, the Republican Party is more emboldened than ever. Upon taking control of the house, the GOP immediately opened up a host of investigations into President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. They alleged anti-conservative bias in the government and media when their baseless allegations were not acted upon. 

This is not to say that the Democrats are not guilty of similar tactics: They also initiated several probes into the Trump administration following the “Blue Wave” of the 2018 midterm elections. However, the Democrats were motivated by a history of investigation into Trump and his business dealings. Their investigation uncovered evidence of wrongdoing, especially pertaining to Russian interference in the 2016 election. House Republicans, on the other hand, have not been able to pin anything to the current president. While many Republicans may claim that these investigations are critical for maintaining a corruption-free executive branch, as more days pass without evidence of actual corruption, these investigations appear to be political rather than necessary. 

Of course, the Republican Party is not purely to blame for the politicization of scandal and investigations. However, when the same party that keeps opening dead-end probes is also the only party to have incited an insurrection, it becomes clear that one party is more guilty of using this tactic than the other. People of all political leanings must recognize the risks in weaponizing the pursuit of criminal justice for political gain as it continues to open the door to corruption and fearmongering. Today’s Republicans may not be responsible for beginning this practice, but they are certainly responsible for allowing it to snowball to the extent that American citizens are willing to attack their own capitol. We cannot allow the GOP to continue to sow in us a misplaced distrust of our democratic institutions. If we cannot trust one another, then how are we expected to work together?