The Inciter-in-Chief

In his final year in office, Donald Trump demonized and denigrated his political opponents while inflaming a sense of grievance in his followers. Having become president on promises to “drain the swamp” and fight a corrupt political establishment, he treated any political figure who opposed, or merely competed with, him as an enemy. Meanness rather than civility was his metier. Whereas the duty of a president is to execute and administer laws impartially, Trump ran the White House like a machine politician, rewarding loyal “friends” and punishing the rest.

Trump’s willingness to foment violence against “enemies” became evident in April, when he began egging on groups of gun-toting citizens in several states, including Michigan, who resented strict COVID measures as an intolerable curb on personal liberty. “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” Trump tweeted, explicitly encouraging them to overthrow the state’s lawfully elected government, implying that it was akin to tyranny. Trump had incited his first insurrection. Shortly afterward, members of right-wing militias stormed the statehouse in Lansing and forced their way into its legislative chambers, chanting “Let Us In.” At least two of the protestors later joined a plot with some ten others to bomb the capitol and kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. Michigan state legislators were terrorized. Whitmer had to carry on knowing that the president had made her a target of violence.

After the plot made the news, Trump brushed it off, saying Whitmer should “make a deal” placating her would-be captors. In the end, Trump got away with his blatant attack on Whitmer and Michigan’s state sovereignty. Inciting violence in Michigan cost him nothing. Among disaffected whites, who resent the way minorities and women are achieving political parity in US society, his following grew. State governors were silent. Female senators, who might have identified with Whitmer and chosen to stand up for her, also said nothing. No one formally called out Trump for this unprecedented and unwarranted attack on a state government and its authorities.

Trump’s partial success in Michigan encouraged him. It inspired him to plan crowd violence more methodically. He continued experimenting with militaristic language, particularly in the service of a boastful, grandiose narrative. He projected excessive confidence and invincibility. He spoke as one destined to win reelection, speaking dismissively of the machinations of his supposedly corrupt opponents and “others” who were not really American and definitely not worthy of the franchise. In the run-up to the November election, Trump loudly denounced the nation’s sophisticated election system as unfair and easy to manipulate. He repeatedly challenged the legality of election procedures in key states and counties, even where such measures enjoyed bipartisan support. In the summer, emails went out to Trump supporters inviting them to join “Trump’s Army.”

After losing Biden, Trump continued casting aspersions on the honesty of state and local election officials. He questioned the vote. He refused to concede, instead gathering about him a chorus of sycophants (including many top Republicans) who amplified his baseless claims of election fraud, perpetrating the Big Lie. Thousands began echoing his rallying cry of “Stop the Steal.” Trump’s insistence that he had won the election, that Biden and the Democrats had somehow stolen his victory, resonated with a segment of his followers who felt that they too had been passed over and betrayed. Secretary Pompeo kept the faith, insisting on November 10 that there would be a “smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”

Trump’s forces kept pressing on every front, threatening death to election officials and others who refused to falsify the election so that Trump could win. In Georgia, a frustrated election official, Gabriel Sterling, begged Trump via social media, “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed. And it’s not right.” In Michigan, armed Trump protestors showed up at the home of secretary of state Jocelyn Benson for a “Stop The Steal” rally one December night. They surrounded the house and taunted her, as she and her 4-year-old son decorated for Christmas inside. Such folk believed, as one Trump fundraising email put it, that they were “the President’s first line of defense when it comes to fighting off the Liberal MOB.”

Having exhausted every legal option for overturning Biden’s victory, Trump orchestrated one last grand maneuver to wrest the presidency away from Biden on the day Congress was to receive and record the Electoral College results. Trump’s determination to disrupt and derail the proceedings predated the occasion by several months. This time, the groundwork he laid ballooned into a choreographed melee, a pitched attack on the Capitol and the people within it, that has no precedent in American history.

When the Senate impeachment trail begins on February 8, House managers will present a more complete picture of the storming of the Capitol that injured some 140 police officers and caused eight deaths. The outgoing president deliberately manufactured an assault on the legislative branch that could have resulted in the end of our Constitutional tradition.  He encouraged a spirit of grievance and distrust among his followers, stoking their resentment against Congress and the political establishment itself through a sedulous campaign of put-downs and lies. He told them to march to the Capitol; they obeyed. He watched the violence from the White House with delight. Afterward, he claimed to “love” the mob and averred that “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”

Next week, the ex-president will send lawyers to the Senate to defend the indefensible: Trump’s premeditated attack on Congress, the vote, and the nation itself. The senators must find him guilty. To do otherwise will destroy the prospect of peace in our land: presidential authority will have no limit, and the peaceful transition of power will be a thing of the past.

Image: Screenshot from NBC coverage of the assault on the Capitol,
from this source.

2020: The Possible, Probable, and Inevitable

Near view of the statue normally atop the US Capitol dome.

Some new years open on indeterminacy, the shape of the future vague enough to warrant a complacent optimism.  “Happy New Year!”  Not 2020.  The United States, though still the planet’s most powerful nation, is in the thick of a political metamorphosis, and what character of government will emerge from it is anyone’s guess.  Bickering parties, an out-of-control president, a resentful populace, oceans of Russian disinformation, even a tech-driven epistemological crisis: such are the forces pushing the American republic ever closer to a great collapse—or paralysis.  Even if it isn’t curtains for the US, this is surely one of its most inglorious periods, its government full of cowardly and mediocre people.

Between the president’s pending impeachment and the certainty of a presidential election come November, what is possible, probable, and inevitable in this new year?  Here are a few prognostications.

The possible: Democratic nominees

Although the field of Democratic presidential candidates remains broad and, as yet, no votes have been cast, only two of the candidates have a shot at becoming president: Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg.

If Sanders retains his current support, his chief progressive rival, Elizabeth Warren, will have to drop out.  Her voters will gravitate to him, giving him a strong lead over all the Democratic field.  In a general election, Sanders would repel moderates and capitalists, giving a victory to the incumbent, President Trump.

None of the more moderate candidates—whether Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, or Tom Steyer—can attract a majority of Democratic support: if they could, that majority would have gravitated to them from other candidates already, and the attraction would have registered in public opinion polls.

As moderate candidates drop out, the moderate “frontrunner” Joe Biden will not necessarily get stronger.  Pete Buttigieg will be limited in that he comes across as a product of entitlement.  Michael Bloomberg, a wealthy and capable latecomer, could, however, draw enough support from among moderate and independent voters to come to dominate this weak and wide field.  In a general election, Bloomberg would stand a fine chance of beating Trump.

The possible: a fair Senate impeachment trial

It is still possible, though not probable, that the US Senate will decide to conduct a thorough impeachment trial of the president, one that impartially explores the charges against Trump that the House has formally brought.  That Senate Republicans have stood firm as a group and only faintly objected to the fawning proclamations of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and vocal Trump loyalist Lindsey Graham makes me doubt that the Republicans will ever do anything but fall on their swords in defense of their man.

More evidence could come out against Trump, however, of a nature impossible to defend, tolerate, or ignore.  As long as Nancy Pelosi holds on to the impeachment charges, and as long as there is a chance of a major witness coming over from the administration to testify, there is a chance that a fair and full trial, with live-witness testimony, will be held.

The Senate is intent on stonewalling and preventing a fair trial, because, if a fair trial were held, the Senators would be compelled to find the president guilty and remove him from office.  In that case, we could see a President Pence in 2020.

[Hours after this post appeared, John Bolton, a key player in the White House during the Ukrainian controversy, announced that he would be willing to comply with a Senate subpoena and testify.]

The probable: a show trial in the Senate

More probable is that the Senate trial will be a superficial affair, with a vote to acquit the president.  That would leave him free to run for reelection.  Regardless of the lip service constantly paid to Trump’s base, his erratic conduct and the controversy it engenders is weakening the Republicans.  The unusually large number of Republican lawmakers leaving Congress instead of running for reelection is one sign of the party’s critical condition.  It is rare for humans give up power unless they must.

The probable: a very close presidential vote but a loss for Trump

Americans who don’t approve of Trump outnumber those who do by about 10 percentage points.  Trump’s victory in 2016 rested on electoral votes, while the loser Hillary Clinton dominated the popular vote, winning nearly 2.9 million votes more than he.  According to the Washington Post, “Of the more than 120 million votes cast . . . , 107,000 votes in three states effectively decided the election.”  The three states were Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.  Trump also won Iowa and Ohio, which Obama had carried previously.  In all, margins of less than two percent decided the outcome in six states.

I don’t want to underestimate the Democrats’ ability to choose an unelectable candidate or run an undisciplined presidential campaign, but with the right candidate and a smart strategy, the Democrats could defeat Trump fair and square.  In truth, this would be better for the country than removing him from office, which would embitter many of his supporters.

The inevitable: dangerously fierce partisan rancor

Here’s the problem with extreme partisanship.  The parties end up competing for power, rather than tailoring their identities around ideas or the needs of the people.  The government grows unresponsive and ineffectual, increasing discontent and cynicism among citizens.  The bland, stale character of the parties largely accounts for the rise of Trump, a dangerous figure.

Unfortunately, unless a third party emerges to disrupt the existing balance of power between the two parties, or unless the parties reform themselves from within, American politics is likely to go on being nasty, vengeful, and mediocre.

The overall decline in the quality of American governance is not just wasteful and embarrassing; it is a real threat to our well-being, domestic tranquillity, and security.  Yet it appears inevitable that party warfare will continue and perhaps even intensify in 2020.  It won’t be unprecedented, but it will be both scary and a betrayal of the people’s trust.

Image: A 1993 Jack Boucher photograph of a close view of the Statue of Freedom
normally atop the United States Capitol,
 
from this source.


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In Truth, No One Knows What Will Happen


We’ve heard a lot of bluster from Republicans lately, much of it pooh-poohing impeachment and the odds of President Trump’s being removed from office.

In Congress, Republicans used the House Intelligence Committee’s recently concluded public hearings to depict impeachment as uninteresting, unpopular, unfair, unnecessary, unsubstantiated, unpromising, and unwise.  The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, likewise prejudged the whole endeavor, saying that should the Senate try Trump on impeachment charges, “It’s inconceivable to me there would be 67 votes to remove the president from office.”

So say the Republicans, with impressive bravado.  Meanwhile, the nation is heading straight at a moment of truth that will show what every Republican in the House and Senate is made of.

The public has received a mass of credible evidence that the president violated his oath of office to pursue a delusional personal agenda at the expense of national security.  Trump enlisted other senior White House officials to further this agenda, explicitly empowering a private citizen, former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani, to orchestrate it.  The House Intel hearings were an effective whodunnit.  A parade of witnesses described a president at ease with sacrificing America’s public interests to those of Russia and to what matters to him personally.  Such are the “goods” Republicans are bent on defending, at the expense of nation, party, and their own place in American history.

For, if the president’s conduct is tolerated, our republic is gone.

Republicans have sought to diminish the gravity of this Constitutional crisis.  They complain mightily about the Democrats, perhaps because it’s painful to admit the turpitude embodied in the leader of their own party.  They evoke the 63 million Americans who voted for President Trump in 2016, as if the mandate he secured then forever freed him from Constitutional limits or Congressional oversight.  Republicans even assert that the riveting testimony given before the House Intel Committee was trivial and boring, whereas this great week of political theater was singularly dramatic, momentous, and often moving.  Americans are far more sophisticated and more concerned with political rectitude than Republican lawmakers care to consider.  No poll can predict what will happen to Republicans who choose to enable Trump’s abuse of power.

Republicans like Jim Jordan and Devin Nunes pander to the sort of voter they imagine forms the unshakable bedrock of Trump’s support: this voter is ill-informed, narrow-minded, and easily hurt.  Republicans point to Trump’s forty-percent approval rating, as though this were a justification for abdicating the responsibilities Congress has to the Constitution.  Congressional Republicans come across as fearful of securing office on their own terms, once this amazing charlatan leaves the public stage (which, given presidential term limits, is destined to happen anyway).

Deference to Trump’s “base” is curious and self-defeating.  Trump is one of the least popular presidents in recent history, on a par with Gerald Ford.  (For graphical comparisons to other presidents, click here and scroll down.)

A simplistic and condescending view of the voter has the Republican establishment running very scared.  Republicans wants citizens everywhere to believe that impeachment is doomed, because otherwise Republican politicians will have to face the crisis of leading their constituents into the post-Trump age.  Will Republicans continue to shirk the responsibility of leading, which, in a republic, involves educating citizens on complex matters and figuring out how to change their constituents’ minds?

Impeachment is now before the House Judiciary Committee.  In the coming weeks, Republicans in power will come under increasing pressure to lead the nation, rather than dither about how hard it is to do the right thing.

Image: Edmund S. Valtman’s “Don’t Put Up Any Resistance! Just Keep In Step,” published 13 April 1973, from this source.


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