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The Jury Is Still Out

Chief Justice John Roberts presides over the impeachment trial of Donald Trump – Public Domain

As of Thursday afternoon, the Trump impeachment trial is in its second day of its “question” phase – the time allotted for Senator-“jurors” to ask the House managers and the Trump lawyers questions designed not to elicit new information — even if they wanted new information, they would be asking the wrong people– but to elaborate on points they have already made.

It is still an open question whether witnesses will be called, but the chances for that are not good. More likely, Trump will be “acquitted” – he will say “exonerated” – in a witness-free and document-free quasi-judicial farce.

The televised proceedings that got us to this point have been tedious, if not downright soporific. Since so much time is allotted for arguments, and since the points in contention are so obvious that they hardly need to be discussed, it could not have been otherwise.

Trump is at least as guilty as sin. End of story.

For the Democrats acting as House Managers, it was like lecturing to the Flat Earth Society. They did their job well.

For the most part, they even kept their party’s penchant for Cold War revivalism muted. With articles of impeachment focused on Russia and Ukraine, that must have taken some effort.

The women, Val Demings, Zoe Lofgren, and Sylvia Garcia were especially impressive. And Adam Schiff put on some masterful performances laying out and coordinating the House Managers’ case. The Adam Schiff who was the DA on “Law and Order” years ago is still my favorite Adam Schiff, but this one turned out to be a lot better than I expected.

Then there were the Republicans, presenting Trump’s defense. What a foul conglomeration of miscreants, the stuff of which lawyer jokes are made. With the arguable exception of Pat Philbin, the sleaze vibes they gave off were powerful enough to cause an ordinary person to want to cross the street to avoid them.

Perhaps they should not be judged too harshly, inasmuch as the facts and the law were emphatically not on their side. But even so – shame on them for their distractions and obfuscations.

Ken Starr was a highlight (or lowlight); his jibber jabber was mind-blowing. The former Mr. Impeachment could do no better than mount an insipid attack on the very idea of impeachment itself. Does his chutzpah know no bounds?

That word raises the Dershowitz Question. In the early nineties, Dershowitz published an apologia for the ethnocratic settler state that now occupies most of Mandate Palestine and that will soon be taking up a lot more of it, thanks to Trump’s eagerness to curry favor with rightwing Zionist plutocrats, and the ideological convictions of Jared Kushner, the Donald’s airhead son-in-law. He called it Chutzpah.

Some years later, a far more meticulous scholar than he, Norman Finkelstein, published Beyond Chutzpah, demolishing Dershowitz’s arguments just as surely as the House Managers have demolished the Trump lawyers’ case, and also identifying portions of Dershowitz’s book that were apparently plagiarized from Joan Peters’ notorious pro-Zionist hack job From Time Immemorial. Dershowitz managed to obtain exoneration from, among others, Larry Summers, president of Harvard at the time; and went on to wreck Finkelstein’s career.

In the current Trump trial, Dershowitz has brought a lot of attention upon himself by arguing, contrary to the considered views of nearly every living and dead constitutional scholar, including Dershowitz himself at the time of the Clinton impeachment, that even if Trump did all he is accused of having done, as is surely the case, that none of it is even remotely impeachable so long as, whatever venal or otherwise self-interested motivations he may have had, he thought in his heart that what he was doing was good for the country.

Were the implications of that view not so dangerous, so dictatorship-friendly, all one could say is Laugh Out Loud.

***

Needless to say, the chances of getting two-thirds of the Senate to vote to remove Trump from office have always been vanishingly close to zero.

Why, then, undertake what is essentially an exercise in futility? The answer, ultimately, is that the Trump presidency is so awful that this is one of those “here I stand, I can do no other” moments. But there is also reason to think that some good can come even from failure; in particular, that it will make plain for all but the most willfully blind to see, the nature and timbre of the enemy we face.

A related question is whether, as it were, to go wide or narrow; to impeach Trump for some broad subset of his countless “high crimes and misdemeanors” or to focus only on a few?

And if just a few, why the two raised in the Articles of Impeachment for which Trump is now being tried?

Answers to these questions are closely related; and do not much redound to the credit of Trump’s accusers or, more broadly to the Democratic Party whose views they represent.

Thus, one must wonder why, of all the reasons for removing Trump from office before the next election, his “quid pro quo” demand to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was the one that finally got Nancy Pelosi, and therefore the entire Democratic Party, on the impeachment bandwagon.

Until she finally came around, Pelosi had been living with a bad case of Impeachment Avoidance Syndrome (IAS). It first “presented” in 2007, when she became Speaker of the House the first time, and when many in her caucus were eager to dispatch George W. Bush.

Though no one knew it at the time, Bush would be the worst American president in modern times for only eight years. If we survive his tenure, Trump is likely to hold that title for a good deal longer than that; he is, after all, by far, the worst president ever. Indeed, his “high crimes and misdemeanors” are so egregious and so blatant that even someone suffering from – or, as they say nowadays, living with – IAS could not let them pass.

But why was withholding aid to Ukraine the proverbial straw that broke Pelosi’s back?

Was it just because the case against Trump on that count is so solid? Or was it because it can be spun in ways that reinforce efforts to treat Russia as an adversary?

To hear the House impeachment managers and the pundits at MSNBC and CNN tell it, it would be hard not to conclude that that is at least part of the explanation.

That conclusion is reinforced too by the realization that going after Russia accords well with the needs of key components of the American “power structure,” its bloated military-industrial-national security state complex, most of all. What they need is a worthy enemy, one fearsome enough to keep the public on its side.

Islamist terrorism is still available of course, but it was never the stuff of which blockbuster movies are made. It was, and still is, cop show material. Moreover, after nearly two decades, it is getting old; it just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Perhaps China could be made to work, but the Chinese economy is too economically intertwined with the “free world,” still the current euphemism for America’s global empire, to serve the purpose well.

The Obama administration, spurred on by the liberal imperialists Obama and Hillary Clinton empowered, tried to “pivot” towards Beijing, but never quite succeeded.

It soon became obvious that there was no way to sustain a suitable Cold War with China because, despite all the bruhaha, making an enemy of the Chinese would do more harm than good for American workers and America capitalists in ways that are impossible to obscure or overlook.

It has been a long time since harming workers, getting them to take one for the team, was a problem for leading Democrats. Discomfiting capitalists is another story; that is not the American way.

It was different when the Soviet Union was around; then, the conflict was “symmetrical” or could at least be thought of that way.

There was an epochal clash of political economic systems too, and there was weaponry that could destroy the world many times over. Compare that with roadside bombs planted by religious fanatics.

Our nearly two decades long war on terror and its various continuations are indeed a cop show, but not a particularly inspiring or even interesting one. The bad guys are lowlifes, not master villains; and opportunities for heroism are few and far between. No wonder that in the Pentagon and in the corporate board rooms of the “defense” industry, the rich and powerful were getting antsy.

But now, having withstood a merciless regression to capitalism, spurred on by capitalist greed and Western, mainly American, meddling, Russia, the heart of the old Soviet empire, is at long last more or less back on its feet. For want of a better alternative, why not make it an adversary again?

The care and feeding of Cold War animosities has long been a bipartisan pastime. Nowadays, however, Republicans are less into it than mainstream Democrats. Being under Trump’s thumb, they could hardly be otherwise, inasmuch as, on matters of war and peace, Trump’s views are, to say the least, equivocal.

Indeed, it gives Trump too much credit even to say that he has views; what he has are attitudes and instincts. His attitudes lead him to dote on authoritarian “strongmen,” and therefore on Vladimir Putin.

This does not stop him, however, from doing what the generals and the “industrialists” and even the neocons in what he considers “the deep state” demand of him; he wouldn’t dare.

Peace is not their thing. Their thing is not exactly perpetual war either, however. It is perpetual preparation for war.

And so, in the end, there is less difference between the Trump Party and the Democratic mainstream than Trump’s words sometimes suggest.

Pelosi is more of a straight shooter. She is also as mainstream as it gets. As such, like all Democrats to her right and quite a few to her left, she buys into the story in which Putin is the root if not quite of all evil, then at last to a lot of it.

He is certainly no angel; quite to the contrary. But this is a problem for Russians to deal with, not us.

Even if Putin did have his people hack into Democratic National Committee servers – in other words, if the CIA et. al. is telling the truth this time – any harm that came of it was trivial compared to the harm Big Money, aided and abetted by social media, does to the purported inviolability of our elections.

This is why the only Democrats worth supporting – except in emergency situations such as will be the case in November, when supporting them will be necessary for dispatching Trump – are Democrats who go after our death merchants and masters of war; not Democrats who evince respect for them every chance they get.

They could be a little less respectful too of our forces of order. The national security state is not exactly on the right side either. You would hardly know it, though, to hear mainstream Democrats talk; for them, yesterday’s “pigs” are today’s heroes, and CIA accounts of who is doing what to whom are gospel truth. Trump cannot be blamed for that; blame there lies with the Democratic Party’s mainstream leaders.

Nevertheless, for the sake of unity in the struggle against the Trumpian menace, let’s let all that pass, and wonder instead whether it did indeed make sense to go after Trump in a way that seems remarkably like the way that, back in the day, the Feds went after Al Capone.

They got him for tax evasion, perhaps the least odious crime for which the legendary gangster merited prosecution. Their strategy made sense if it was indeed, as legend has it, the fastest and most effective way to get him off the streets.

In Trump’s case, there are plenty of high crimes and misdemeanors unrelated to Ukraine and Russia that could serve the same purpose just as well. Violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause provide many examples. There are also war crimes, especially crimes against the peace, assassinations, and enough corruption to put Trump, his adult sons and the peerless Ivanka away for eons.

In a more rational universe, Trump would be impeached and removed from office for these and other really important things, not comparatively trivial, but indisputable, high crimes and misdemeanors of dubious wickedness in their own right.

But we are obliged to play with eighteenth century rules. And so, while treason and bribery and abuse of power could count as reasons for removing malefactors from office, leading the world to ecological catastrophes and risking nuclear wars, being beyond the ken of the authors of the document that, for all its evident flexibility, ultimately does lay down the basic rules of the game, don’t count.

Those rules were contrived by people who had, and could not have had, any notion of how dangerous a president could be.

But they did understand venality and the temptations of tyranny, and, inasmuch as most of them were desists or free thinkers, they were more inclined to believe in human perfectibility than to take Sin, radical human insufficiency, seriously. On that basis alone, they would never have imagined that the republic they were establishing would have to deal with the likes of a Donald Trump.

To put the best face on Pelosi’s ultimate acquiescence to the impeachment process, her aim, in following the Capone-model, was to give the Senators a case that no Senator could reasonably reject. Thus, she had the House settle on charges that were provable not just beyond a reasonable doubt, as in criminal trials, but more indisputable even than that.

It hardly matters, though, that the House managers could meet their burden a hundred times over –because the jury they are addressing has a majority of fundamentally dishonest Republican Senators in it, lawmakers so lacking in self-respect that they will do whatever their Leader demands.

In these circumstances, it would seem that she would have nothing to lose by being more expansive. There would be something to gain too: an educative experience for a public that rightwing media dumb down and that “liberal” corporate media fail to enlighten.

This seems right, but we don’t really know; maybe Pelosi really is the parliamentary wizard Democrats have lately taken to making her out to be. Maybe she is right. The jury is still out on that, but before long, we will know.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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