I recently took part in a debate on whether the Democrats were setting a good or bad precedent by impeaching Donald Trump. I argued that they were setting a good, and indeed necessary, precedent. My opponent, who was an ex-diplomat living in Washington D.C., argued the other way. I have a feeling that the reasons he gave, though they were quite weak, will be ones that the common citizen may assume to be true. Here, in paraphrase, is what he said:
The Democrats are behaving like hypocrites. Most presidents serving from the last half of the 20th century onward have committed crimes—for example, waging undeclared wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Neither the Democrats and the Republicans challenged these criminal acts, which it should be noted, were paving the way for an imperial presidency. Now, because Democrats feel they were robbed of the 2016 election, they have become over-sensitive to President Trump’s behavior and are trying to oust him from office. That is a bad precedent that is being set because opposition parties will be tempted to use impeachment as a common weapon against sitting presidents.
You can see in this position the commonplace notion that all those politicians in Washington are crooks. Presidents have been out of control for a long time and this really makes the situation we face with Trump kind of normal. So why get upset? In fact, there is plenty to get upset about, and the ex-diplomat’s point of view is dangerous and flawed. Here is why:
(1) The fact that others have committed impeachable acts (we are assuming here that attempted blackmail and obstruction of Congress are also such acts) without being held to account, cannot, logically, be used as an argument against prosecuting President Trump’s crimes. One can just imagine a person accused of murder citing as a defense the fact that others had done the same thing and not been held to account. Therefore, accusing him or her now is just hypocritical—a lot of “hot air.” This sort of excuse usually makes its first appearance in the playgrounds of elementary schools and rarely gets much further.
(2) It is untrue that Congress has not tried to rein in the drift toward an imperial presidency (unlimited executive power), particularly in terms of waging undeclared wars. That is what the War Powers Act, passed by both houses of Congress in 1973, is all about.
(3) The fear that the present Democratic impeachment effort will set the precedent of impeaching a president every time the opposition party feels like it, is not entirely without basis. But you deal with that eventuality through more precise criterion for the impeachment process, not by ignoring present criminal behavior.
Two Types of Wrongs
We are presently confronting two interrelated types of wrongs:
(1) Actual criminal acts: Trump’s well-demonstrated attempt to blackmail the Ukrainian government into libeling his probable political opponent, and then attempting to obstruct a congressional investigation into this effort.
(2) Complicity after the fact. In the present case, this complicity will involve the practice of jury nullification. Jury nullification happens when a sworn jury exonerates or condemns someone despite the lack of evidence or strong countervailing evidence. This tactic was most prevalent in the American south, where white juries would find whites innocent when charged with crimes committed against blacks, and condemn blacks charged with crimes against whites, even when, in either case, the evidence strongly pointed in the opposite direction.
It would seem that the Republicans in the Senate are about to play this gambit. Despite their sworn oaths of impartiality and the damning evidence presented by the Democrats, they will let President Trump get away with his criminal behavior.
How can we account for this attitude on the part of the Senate Republicans? Here are some suggestions which, if accurate, mean the U.S. is in deep trouble:
(1) The Republican Party has become, with but very few exceptions, a group of authoritarian politicians who are more interested in holding on to power than winning it in any fair democratic fashion.
(2) They will steal elections by rigging the results if they can get away with it. They seek to lower the number of the votes cast by people of color and young people. To do this, they purposely try to reduce the number of polling places in Democratic districts and purge voter rolls in suspect ways. They are masters at gerrymandering voting districts. They manage to dream up false irregularities in the voting process when they lose. They attempt to strip Democratic governors of the power of their offices. These are the actions of an essentially lawless collective.
(3) For many of those still loyal to the Republican Party, the Democrats, and liberals generally, are not just political rivals. They are reprobates—enemies of the Republicans’ peculiar ideology of minimal government. By demonizing their opponents they share a certain fanaticism with all other extreme ideologues, left or right, religious or racist.
(4) The Republicans evolved this outlook before Trump arrived on the scene. You can see intimations of it in the behavior of Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush. All of them, and their supporters, saw little wrong with ignoring inconvenient facts and inconvenient laws as well, in favor of their own personal interests and ideological convictions.
(5) Thus, this wayward Republican Party was ready for the Mussolini style of leadership that Donald Trump had to offer. And, having made their unholy pact with him, they are now stuck. They have no democratic values or moral principles to fall back on.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that when the head of the Democratic impeachment team, Adam Schiff, delivered his powerful closing remarks on 24 January 2020, his argument hit a wall of Republican indifference. Schiff explained that President Trump “will choose his own personal interests over protecting our national interests—which makes him dangerous.” Therefore, the “right thing to do” is to remove him from office. “Because right matters. And truth matters. Otherwise we are lost.”
The problem is that the Republican Party is already “lost.” As Nancy LeTourneau put it in the Washington Monthly, “Don’t hold out much hope that either right or truth matter to the Republicans sitting in that chamber, which is why we recognize that it is not simply Donald Trump that poses a threat to our country.”
The conviction that the pursuit of personal wealth is more important than any other social goal is a fundamental capitalist tenet. Societies devoted to this capitalist worldview and simultaneously hostile to economic regulation, must expect ever more frequent episodes of corruption and ultimately the erosion of liberal democratic values. The latter comes from capitalism’s inherent hostility to the equalitarian impulses that such a democracy represents. If not otherwise misdirected by propaganda and greed, liberal democracies should incline toward social democratic policies that reflect this equalitarianism. But this is anathema to the Republicans and their leader, Donald Trump.
Thus, come November 2020, American citizens will have a choice: either vote for the Democrats (whoever they put up for election) or vote for Trump’s evolving authoritarian and lawless Republican Party. It might strike the reader as surprising and disturbing, but how this choice will go is still undecided.