Impeachment’s Authoritarian End

Following just a few days of Congressional testimony, it is clear that Trump will, at most, be impeached but certainly not convicted. This would be nothing new, for although such proceedings have now been brought against four presidents in U.S. history, not a single one has been removed in office. Republicans in the Intelligence Committee have already outlined the basis of Trump’s defense, that not only has he done no wrong, but seemingly that he can do no wrong, period. The genius of this move also gets to the core of why Trump’s base loves him, for when critics call out his abuses, he can claim that he is simply doing what all presidents do. This may be deflection and projection, perhaps, but also a keen observation of the decades long pattern of presidential abuses. In other words, Trump is able to use the corruption of D.C. as his justification for his own corruption. Of course, this is partially correct, for much of the outrageous authoritarian behavior of Trump in office has been consistent with past administrations, though done more brazenly and in plain sight. Even when things look darkest for Trump, this ‘swamp’ allows him an easy scapegoat by playing to the justifiable cynicism many Americans have towards government. Trumpians, in rhetoric and in action, prefer to fight fire with fire, or in this instance, fight the ‘swamp’ with more swampiness.

Surely Trump will then claim total exoneration (as he did following the Mueller Report), and likely run ironically as an underdog, a victim of the ‘deep state’ and its unfounded conspiracy to remove him from office. This will likely energize his already seething base, which may or may not result in his reelection. Whether or not he is lawfully elected, of course, is another issue, and it seems clear through not only Trump’s own activity, but also the convictions of his ‘dirty tricksters,’ that Trump has no interest in respecting the rules of U.S. elections. Additionally, Trump has long expressed his reticence to accepting election results that do not result in a victory for himself. In other words, Trump may not have to win in 2020 in order to stay in office, for he has any number of tools through which to not only manipulate the election (including assistance from foreign power, which he will be confirmed in his claim that this is acceptable when he is acquitted), but also to discredit elections if the results are not in his favor. He didn’t ‘win’ in 2016 either, but the true rigging of the electoral system (both gerrymandering and the infamous Electoral College) still handed him the office. This article, however, isn’t meant to focus entirely on Trump, though, for we must also ask what are the implications of impeachment not only for the remaining year(s) of the Trump presidency, but for the presidency as such?

Of course, we must acknowledge that the expansion of presidential powers did not begin, nor is it likely to end, with Trump. Every modern American president has expanded executive power, be it warrantless surveillance, expanding torture, unilateral declarations of war, utilizing unmanned drones against citizens, the ever increasing frequency and severity of law making via executive order, or any of the multiple and brazen circumventions of Congressional and Judicial authority. The response of the two political parties has been, in typically hypocritical fashion, to condemn this expansion when it is the other part in office, but praise it when it is their guy. Both parties have been jockeying for position in this decades long game of expanding power, similar to the captains of amateur baseball teams moving their hands in succession up the length of a baseball bat until one of the hands reaches the knob on the end and wins the game.

The Democrats are (perhaps knowingly, perhaps unwittingly) playing an extremely dangerous game. I’m sure their strategy assumes that these proceedings will cost not only Trump, but also the Republican party politically, despite the fact that there is no evidence to suggest that Americans of either party affiliation are willing to budge on their already formed opinion on impeachment. By pursuing these impeachment proceedings, they are in fact exponentially expanding the power of the executive by setting the stage for the Senate to write him a blank check and openly confirm that he can do whatever he wishes and that he is in fact above the law. Are they doing this because they hope to be the last hand on the authoritarian bat, having established ultimate power in the executive and then claiming it for themselves? This would seem to follow precedent, as seen for example, after condemning the PATRIOT act under Bush but maintaining and expanding the powers outlined there under Obama. The frightening implication of these proceedings goes far beyond Trump himself, though his personal, political, and policy interests will also gain from this process. Sure, Trump is tweet-attacking witnesses and has done nothing but confirm his guilt. But ultimately, the politically genius move here is that he can brazenly break the law in full public view and get away with it. By not convicting, the Republican controlled Senate will send the message that the president is in fact above the law, can use the power of his office for self-interest, and ultimately all semblance of legislative oversight of the executive will be dashed. As Trump has already skirted the authority of both the Congress and the Courts whenever they deny him fealty or allow him his abuses. He clearly has never had much respect for the vaunted checks and balances that the U.S. Constitution outlines, and openly boasts that he can do whatever he wants. When Nixon attempted a similar line of argumentation (i.e. that the president can commit no crime because he is above the law), members of both parties were not only pursing impeachment but also pressured him to resign. We now have a Congress (and increasingly, as he continues filling benches, a court system) full of enablers that seem perfectly comfortable with absolute, unchecked presidential power.

As if all of these developments were not concerning enough, we are also witnessing the growth and installation of a political dynasty, for Donald Trump, Jr. is also clearly pursuing his own political career by releasing the requisite book, making the talk show rounds, and even holding his own rallies. It seems quite clear that he will run, likely successfully, for the Republican nomination in 2024, just in time to pardon dear Dad and his associates. But the deeper concern is this growth in executive power and privilege that is unlikely to recede whoever the next president is. Whether future presidents are named Trump or not, we should all be deeply concerned with the Congressional validation of the immutability of the office, and should begin strategizing what positive solutions, tactics, and movements (or at minimum, reactions) may be best suited to respond to this confirmation of presidential authoritarianism.

Andrew Wood has a Ph.D. in Politics, teaches at multiple colleges, and pursues activist and aesthetic modes of critique and resistance.

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