I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that an epic moment for the future of our country looms ahead.
In public hearings over the past two weeks, Congressional Democrats have laid out an overwhelming case that Donald Trump committed high crimes and misdemeanors in the Ukraine scandal. I am aware that right wing America does not see it that way. But right wing America also believes that Donald Trump is a corruption-fighting superhero, a lavishly generous philanthropist, a devoted enemy of Vladimir Putin, and a very stable genius. (Also: that climate change is a hoax.)
It goes without saying that if a Democratic president had committed even a fraction of these offenses, the GOP would already be outside the White House with pitchforks and torches (purchased from Lowe’s). I refer you once again to Obama’s khaki-colored suit.
But this goes way beyond mere partisanship. We are at a point where one of our two major parties and millions of its supporters are contemplating an action that undermines the very fundamental principles at the core of our democracy. I should specify that by that I mean the Republican Party and its willingness to excuse Trump’s behavior, because—per above—its rank-and-file believe it is the Democrats doing precisely that. But their conviction only proves my point, in that Trump and his supporters now reject proper Congressional oversight over the executive branch in favor of the redefinition of President Donald Trump as a king.
A BIG BOWL OF WRONG
After a world class display of goalpost-moving since the Ukraine scandal first broke, the GOP now seems to have settled on the argument that Trump’s behavior was wrong, but not impeachable.
There are two big problems with that.
First, it’s patently absurd. To excuse his actions in the Ukraine would be to affirm that the President can bribe foreign officials for his own gain using Congressionally-allocated taxpayer dollars, and then blatantly obstruct right and proper investigations into that behavior, to include witness tampering and intimidation. As Andrew Sullivan writes, “If that is the president’s position—that he can constitutionally ask any other country to intervene on his behalf in a US election—it represents a view of executive power that is the equivalent of a mob boss’s.” (I know many on the left are permanently furious with Sullivan and won’t read anything he writes. I have my issues with him myself, but he is right on the money there.)
Again, imagine if a Democratic president, blah blah blah. That is not to engage in whataboutist tit-for-tat, but merely to expose the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the GOP position. We know that Trump has boasted that Article II of the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want.” (Someone must have told him that there was such as thing as “Article II.” Or a “Constitution.”) Such is his troglodyte interpretation of American democracy. But we are now on the verge of watching the GOP confirm that it agrees.
The second problem is that Trump himself is constantly undermining the “wrong but not impeachable” stance.
I know they’ll find a way, but how are Republicans plausibly going to mount that defense when Trump keeps tweeting things like: “Republicans, don’t be led into the fools trap of saying it was not perfect, but is not impeachable … NOTHING WAS DONE WRONG!” Ironically, the GOP’s defense of last resort might actually save him, but with characteristic mulishness, he refuses to play along, insisting on his absolute monarchist vision of the presidency.
It’s obvious that Trump was emboldened by having escaped justice in Russiagate. (The pressure campaign against Kyiv had begun months before, but it’s no coincidence that the fateful July 25, 2019 call with Zelinskyy came the very day after Bob Mueller’s anti-climactic testimony before Congress.) If Trump is not held accountable now, he clearly will do this sort of thing again.
As David Frum writes, he’s probably doing it right now.
PROFILES IN COURAGE (NOT)
The idea that Senate Republicans will give Trump a get-out-of-jail-free card is infuriating and indefensible, but after watching the despicable behavior of House Republicans during the last two weeks of hearings, we better get used to it.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself. As I say, the impeachment case is mighty strong, and although the conventional wisdom is still that there’s no way twenty Republican Senators suddenly become vertebrates, a lot can change in the next few months, especially if Trump continues to be his own worst enemy. Look at how fast this whole scandal has unfolded, how fast impeachment—once thought to be dead as disco—came to the point of fruition from a standing start, and how fast public opinion has shifted to support it.
But the odds still remain that, absent a switch to a secret ballot (which is not actually all that farfetched), Trump will be acquitted by the Senate, through sheer willingness to put party over principle and over country.
The canary in the coalmine is Congressman Will Hurd (R-Texas), a reasonable seeming African-American former CIA officer who isn’t even running for re-election in 2020, and who represents what ought to be the most moderate and rational wing of the GOP. Yet Hurd, a member of the House Intelligence Committee who was present for the testimony of witnesses over the past two weeks, subsequently stated that he thinks Trump’s actions don’t merit impeachment, reflecting at worst a “misguided foreign policy.”
That’s like saying the secret bombing of Cambodia was a “careless handling of ammunition.”
If Will Hurd won’t vote for impeachment, no Republican will.
Former Republican Congressman David Jolly of Florida, speaking to Nicole Wallace, gave this perfect summary of the GOP’s shameful role at this critical moment in American history:
These are, in today’s Republican Party, spineless politicians, rotten to the core. Without virtue, without any level of human integrity. Devoid of self respect, self reflection. Without courage and without the moral compass to recognize their own malevolence. And one day maybe they will have the recognition of how they failed the country and themselves in this moment. But that would be giving them credit that somewhere down deep they have the goodness to recognize how to reconcile their own failings with what is right and just in American politics, and frankly, what is right and wrong in the eyes of adults and children alike….
I agree they inevitably will make the case this is not impeachable. The problem is it requires every single Republican to align with Donald Trump and say that only Donald Trump speaks the truth. That Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, a man of honor and Purple Heart recipient, does not speak the truth. Ambassador McKinley, somebody who’s referred to as the ‘dean of the foreign service corps,’ does not speak the truth. Ambassador Yovanovitch, somebody who dedicated her life to promoting freedom and US ideals on the world stage, does not speak the truth. Only Donald Trump does. And there is no greater example of selling your soul to a charlatan than what Republicans are doing right now in the House and the Senate. And their legacies are on the line just as much as Donald Trump’s. We know the character of Donald Trump. We know the failings of Donald Trump. Watching play out in this impeachment proceeding is the failings of a Republican Party and every single member that goes along with this.
All you need to know about the modern GOP is that a man of principle like David Jolly felt compelled to leave it.
DECISION POINTS #1 AND #2
So let me state the patently obvious. If the Republican majority in the Senate blocks the removal of Donald Trump from office despite the manifest evidence of his abuse of power and other high crimes, it will be a dark day for the United States of America. It will mean, in short, that one of our two political parties has abandoned any semblance of respect for the rule of law. That should not come as a shock, given the GOP’s decades-long descent into neo-authoritarianism. But an acquittal of Trump would be the final nail in the coffin of conservative credibility.
In the final act of Watergate, when Nixon’s crimes became undeniable, the mandarins of the Republican Party did the right thing—belatedly perhaps, but they did it. Sen. Barry Goldwater, House Minority Leader John Jacob Rhodes, and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott famously went to the White House and privately told Dick it was time to go. And he went.
Neither thing—Republican courage nor presidential acceptance of his fate—is likely to happen this time. And let’s bear in mind that Watergate, terrible as Nixon’s sins were, was a far less serious abuse of presidential power than what Trump has done.
Assuming Trump survives trial in the Senate, the next inflection point will be the election, which at the current optempo, figures to hit about eight to ten months later, and will be perhaps our last chance to put out this housefire and save the republic.
As I have argued over and over, echoing the thinking of many Democratic strategists, merely by laying out his crimes and general unfitness for office the impeachment process might damage Trump badly enough to doom him next November. In a functional democracy, it wouldn’t even be a question.
In that sense, the presumptive GOP decision to put party over country might prove a shortsighted calculation. If enough Americans are sufficiently disgusted by this Republican display of dishonesty, hypocrisy, and cowardice, the GOP might pay a hefty price in 2020, from the top of the ballot all the way down. Indeed, the indefensible defense of Trump might haunt and hobble the GOP for years to come. (I’ll stop short of the wishful thinking that it will be fatally wounded and go the way of its ideological forebear, the Know-Nothings. After all, just six years after Nixon resigned the GOP took back the White House.)
Then again, it might not pay that price at all. As I’ve written before, my nightmare, like that of many Americans, is that Trump not only survives impeachment but manages to get re-elected. He may do so “legitimately,” under the anti-democratic, countermajoritarian mechanism of the Electoral College (it wouldn’t be the first time), or illegitimately, through outright criminality. Since both paths involve voter suppression, black propaganda, rivers of dark money, violations of campaign finance laws, and other skullduggery, including the assistance of foreign powers, the line between legitimate and illegitimate is pretty fuzzy.
But we cannot lay off a potential Trump win as a flatout train robbery by the RNC, not even if it’s with the help of a certain Mr. V. Putin, late of St. Petersburg. If it is a train robbery, it’s one where a fair number of the passengers are in on the crime.
Lest we forget, sixty-two million Americans did vote for Trump in 2016, for whatever reason: three million less than voted for Hillary Clinton, yet still an appallingly high number. Ironically, Trump might cobble together an even bigger Electoral College win next time around while losing the popular vote by an even bigger margin—an outcome that cannot be described as democratic by any reasonable definition of the term. To those conservatives who bluffly shrug and say, “Tough luck, that’s just how the Founders built our system” (or make some flimsy gesture at justifying it with blather about states’ rights), I would suggest that they would be far less sanguine if that system happened to favor the other side. The egregious flaws of the Electoral College are a book-length essay all by themselves, but suffice it to say that the institution was from the very start designed to benefit the Southern slaveholding states, and continues to do so to this day.
Trump’s first victory could maybe be written off as a fluke. The rest of the world looks at us right now more with pity than scorn. But if we return this cretin to office for a second term, even allowing for the skewing of the popular will by the Electoral College and other vote-distorting factors, we will forfeit that sympathy. And we will deserve to lose it.
APRÈS HIM, LE DÉLUGE
If Trump manages to remain in power for a second term, our system of government is likely to become unrecognizable, and not in a good way. It may be game over for American democracy as we know it, and once it is gone, the path to getting it back is formidable indeed.
Given the no-holds-barred, Louis XIV-meets-Roy Cohn manner in which he has behaved in his first term, an emboldened Trump is sure to be even more uncontrollable and flagrantly criminal in a second, when unconstrained by considerations of re-election.….except to the extent that he might well piss on the 22nd Amendment and run again, or just declare himself el presidente-for-life, as he has repeatedly “joked.” In any event, we can expect the neo-authoritarianism of the past three years to dramatically shift into flatout autocracy, and as some wag opined, look forward to Ivanka as Secretary of State, Roe v. Wade overturned, a shooting war with Iran, and Trump’s face on the $100 bill.
Think that’s Trump Derangement Syndrome? OK. Meanwhile, I’ll remind you that we have children in concentration cases on our southern border.
But, hey, I’m sure a second term will cause him to ’“pivot” and become “so presidential we’ll be bored,” as Donald promised during 2016.
No republic had lasted forever, of course. Right now, ours is experiencing a stress test unlike any in our history. There have been darker times—the Civil War, Jim Crow, the Depression, the Second World War, to name just a few—but no threat to the foundations of democratic rule quite like the one we are now facing.
Very popular lately is the story of Ben Franklin leaving the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787, and approached by a prominent woman named Elizabeth Willing Powel who asked what sort of government the founders had resolved to form. “A republic, if you can keep it,” was Big Ben’s famous reply. (It’s even the title of a recent book by none other than Neil Gorsuch.) The Founders lived a lot closer to the menace of autocracy than we do, and were painfully cognizant of how fragile a representative democracy would be. In fact, in human history there had never been one of the precise sort they envisioned.
More than two hundred years later we’ve grown complacent and spoiled, but the fragility of government of, by, and for the people remains unchanged.
CLEAVAGE, AND NOT THE GOOD KIND
We are about to find out how many of our fellow Americans would prefer to live in a right wing autocracy than a proper representative democracy. Again, I specify “right wing autocracy” because, of course, those folks who are so keen on King Donald the First would never in a million years go for this sort of authoritarian regime were it headed by an Elizabeth Warren.
The author Michael Gruber puts it well:
Russia is aspirational to current Republicans. They want a nation where the press is muzzled, where political opponents can be arrested and killed with impunity, where gays are oppressed, where the state and church are essentially one, where women are eliminated from serious political power, where Muslims and foreigners are despised and oppressed, also with impunity, and where everyone is white. This is their vision of America’s future, and four in ten of our fellow citizens agree.
Along those same lines, the aforementioned Andrew Sullivan’s recent New York magazine column “This Is No Ordinary Impeachment” was such a tour de force that for my own blog this week I contemplated just reprinting it in its entirety. But since my lawyer has advised me that that would be unwise, I’ll merely quote from it at length.
Sullivan writes that this is more than just an impeachment, but a question of “whether the legitimacy of our entire system can last much longer without this man being removed from office.”
(Trump) believes in the kind of executive power the Founders designed the US Constitution to prevent. It therefore did not occur to Trump that blackmailing a foreign country to investigate his political opponents is a classic abuse of power, because he is incapable of viewing his own interests and the interests of the United States as in any way distinct….
This is not just another kind of presidency; it is a rolling and potentially irreversible assault on the legitimacy of the American regime. If the CIA finds something that could reflect poorly on him, then the CIA is part of the “deep state coup.” Ditto the FBI and the State Department. These are not old-fashioned battles with a bureaucracy over policy; that’s fine. They are assaults on the legitimacy of the bureaucracy, and the laws they are required to uphold. These are definitional impeachable offenses, and they are part and parcel of Trump’s abuse of power from the day he was elected.
That’s all bad enough. But this cancer is not confined to one gobsmackingly terrible human being. No no, as we surveyed above, it is much worse than that:
Trump has turned the GOP—one of our two major parties with a long and distinguished history—into an accomplice in his crimes. Senator Lindsey Graham, perhaps the most contemptible figure of the last couple of years, even says he will not read witness transcripts or follow the proceedings in the House or consider the evidence in a legal impeachment inquiry, because he regards the whole impeachment process as “BS” and a “sham.” This is a senator calling the constitutional right of the House of Representatives to impeach a president illegitimate.
Thus it is the Republican Party, to repeat what has become a tired but immutable refrain, that is even more to blame and more of a threat than Trump himself, and will remain so even after he is gone. After all, it was the GOP leadership that allowed him to rise; this was no hostile takeover, but rather an piteous, voluntary surrender. It is the GOP leadership that has consistently protected and abetted him and used him to further its own despicable agenda, even in defiance of the popular will and rule of law, not to mention its bluff assurances that it would rise up in opposition if he went too far. Instead the GOP and its red-hatted flat-earther constituency has slipped further and further into an eager embrace of full-blown authoritarianism.
For the Republican leadership could not do what it has done without the passionate support of the rank-and-file. In fact, given the way Republican pols—even the most established—seem to tremble at incurring the wrath of the Trump base, it is often hard to tell who is leading whom. Sullivan again:
Sixty-two percent of Republican supporters have said that there is nothing Trump could do, no crime or war crime, no high crime or misdemeanor, that would lead them to vote against him in 2020. There is only one way to describe this, and that is a cult, completely resistant to reason or debate. The tribalism is so deep that Trump seems incapable of dropping below 40 percent in the national polls, and is competitive in many swing states. The cult is so strong that Trump feels invulnerable. If Trump survives impeachment, and loses the 2020 election, he may declare it another coup, rigged, and illegitimate. He may refuse to concede. And it is possible the GOP will follow his lead. That this is even thinkable reveals the full extent of our constitutional rot.
It has often been remarked that Trump is a symptom rather than the cause of our national illness, which is true enough. For as much damage as he has done and continues to do, there is no denying that a system that would allow Donald Trump to become head of state is not healthy in the first place.
Sullivan suggests that the US is in the throes of “regime cleavage,” that dangerous state of affairs in which a society ceases to have a consensus about the system government it desires.
(I)t is described by one political scientist as follows: “a division within the population marked by conflict about the foundations of the governing system itself in the American case, our constitutional democracy. In societies facing a regime cleavage, a growing number of citizens and officials believe that norms, institutions, and laws may be ignored, subverted, or replaced.” A full-on regime cleavage is, indeed, an extinction-level event for our liberal democratic system. And it is one precipitated by the man who is supposed to be the guardian of that system, the president.
He concludes by bucking the conventional wisdom that it would be better for our democracy to remove Trump at the polls than by impeachment, arguing that the former would only further normalize him and his behavior, even in electoral defeat:
(To defeat Trump in an election) would suggest that his assault on the truth, on the Constitution, and on the rule of law is just a set of policy decisions that we can, in time, reject. It creates a precedent for future presidents to assault the legitimacy of the American government, constrained only by their ability to win the next election. In fact, the only proper constitutional response to this abuse of executive power is impeachment. I know I’ve said this before. But on the eve of public hearings, it is vital to remember it.
This blog is subtitled “Dispatches from the American Twilight.” We are about to see whether that pessimistic description is accurate, and if we are indeed living on the edge of sundown.
AP photo by Carolyn Kaster