How democracy gets eroded
The Miller Center's Nixon expert looks at lessons from the mother of all presidential scandals
Democratic erosion in America depends on the conspiracy theory, destructive and demonstrably false, that the 2020 election was stolen. As the author of a couple of books on Richard Nixon—who, before Trump, was the biggest conspiracy theorist to inhabit the White House that we know of—I see conspiracy theories less as failures of rationality and more as triumphs of rationalization.
Nixon launched a real conspiracy against an imaginary one.
When Nixon muttered to White House aides that he was the victim of a conspiracy of Jews, intellectuals, and Ivy Leaguers, “arrogant” people he said placed themselves above the law, he did so to justify arrogantly placing himself above the law. Nixon launched a real conspiracy against an imaginary one, plotting real crimes—breaking into the Brookings Institution, leaking grand jury information damaging to Democrats—against those he deemed real criminals, despite a chronic lack of evidence.
Likewise, when conspiracy theorists falsely claim the last election was stolen, they’re putting the pieces in place for themselves to steal the next one. Not by anything as blatant as pressuring a vice president to publicly shirk his duty to certify the vote, but by subtler means, such as taking over the offices that handle vote certification at the state level.