I knew you would be trouble but I didn’t anticipate how much or for how long. I didn’t anticipate how high-maintenance you would be, when you, with your big head, your big mouth, and your shocking ideas, eclipsed every other craven presidential wannabe in that first GOP cattle call back in 2015. Continue reading
A moral and cultural collapse is fueling the long political crisis Americans are living through. Well-meaning, tolerant, and patriotic people are still in the majority, but the behavior of the January 6th insurrectionists and everyone friendly to them establishes that civil society and federalism are gravely imperiled. The American way of government is based on compromise and negotiation; it is based on civility and comity; and it aspires to realize a humane and virtuous vision of itself. It is founded on a hope of betterment, on a set of ideal principles regarding individual rights and privileges. Throughout time, American leaders have paid lip service to these ideals and sometimes chanced their lives, careers, and reputations to make them real. The nation’s political identity is intrinsically moral and idealistic. This remains true, no matter how far short, in actual performance, it falls.
The underpinnings of republican government are rotting away. Over the past few years, we’ve discovered how many Americans hate the federal government. They resent their fellow citizens. They’ve had it with learning and discussion. They are sick of “bullshit,” meaning the ideas and values of anyone (especially anyone in power) who doesn’t speak or look or act their way. Their favored recourse is intimidation: speak loudly and crudely, ignore decorum. Belittle, smear, and threaten opponents. Gang up on the rule of law, which works best garbed in the regalia of intolerance, preferably while bearing a stick or a gun. Sneer at moderation, at tradition and respectability. Even polite-looking figures such as Ted Cruz and Lauren Boebert are actually completely corrupt thugs inside.
These people are looking for their next chance to attack police officers, desecrate the flag, and destroy government norms.
The question is whether good Americans can stem the tide. Can we stop the pendulum from swinging toward violence and extremism, and get it to move back to the other side? Can we neutralize the influence inflammatory figures enjoy? Can we restore contentment and consensus, notably by ministering to legitimate grievances and needs? Can the political establishment refrain from abusing its power, and get back to the retreating goal of figuring out how best to promote widespread prosperity, how to restore dignity and safety to ordinary households and communities? A world of trouble lies ahead if the answer is no.
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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From my vantage here in Chicago, I can sense the forces in favor of Donald Trump’s impeachment and removal from office building among Republicans on Capitol Hill. Even as David Brooks has insisted that impeachment is a political mistake, even as Tamara Keith and other analysts see political “tribalism” as ineluctably binding Republican legislators to President Trump, one can read events as building toward a directly opposite result, and one very liberating and propitious for all the perplexed Republicans now “hiding in the tall grass,” uncharacteristically quiet and desiring at all costs to avoid the press.
One sign of a change in Republican sentiment is that vocal defense of the President has stopped. Until lately, leading Republicans have eschewed impeachment as a spurious partisan maneuver, insisting in the face of the Democrat-led initiative that the president is innocent of any action meeting the Constitution’s definition of an impeachable offense (“treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors”). Since September 19, however, when word of the President’s efforts to strong-arm Ukraine into giving him political dirt against Joe Biden began circulating, the White House has itself supplied prima facie confirmation of Trump’s determination to use his official powers for personal ends.
With remarkable speed, the president has moved from doing wrong in private to openly testing the proposition that he can do no wrong. He has breezily defended his actions as a matter of “style.” He has gone so far as to make public statements at odds with his Constitutional duties and responsibilities, denying the legitimacy of, and declining to cooperate with, the House impeachment inquiry, and railing against the “phony” emoluments clause.
The President has moved onto dangerous new ground, all but thumbing his nose at anyone who would insist that he adhere to the Constitution. This was the significance of Mick Mulvaney’s open admission of a quid pro quo: Trump expects his fellow Republicans to tolerate his dirty dealings and “get over it.” As though the Constitution is something to go beyond.
Everyone who passed civics grasps that Trump is violating federal election laws. Once fair elections go by the boards, nothing will be left of the republic, either.
As public servants who have their own oaths to uphold, their own powers to wield, Republican lawmakers can hardly fail to notice how Trump is blossoming into a fearful liability: a president without fealty to their own political needs or principles, an interloper who, having cannibalized their once “grand” party, is intent on desecrating its remains, as in his disastrous unilateral decision to withdraw US troops from Syria and abandon the Kurds. Trump wants Republicans to do more to defend him. Yet why should congressional Republicans remain loyal to a president deviating so wildly from his Constitutional job description, which is to execute the will of Congress and respect its laws?
Republicans are supposedly afraid of cutting Donald Trump loose. What, really, would the downside be? After Trump’s removal from office, the very conservative Mike Pence would be the incumbent president. Trump’s much-talked-of base supposedly wouldn’t like this, but let’s face it, this is something no one can know. What will Trump be, when the amplifiers are turned off? The Republican Party is still lousy with political talent (much of it in abeyance). Boosted back into a commanding position through a gutsy act of patriotism, the GOP could find redemption, enjoying a new and more broad-based popularity. It could even remake itself in time to beat the Democrats in 2020. Nikki Haley, anyone? She’s on a long list of Republican alternates published the other day in the Rolling Stone.
Image: Black and white screen-shot of Donald Trump just before his inauguration,
© 2019 Susan Barsy
“If Republicans Ever Turn On Trump, It Will Happen All At Once” (FiveThirtyEight)
Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump has often promised that, if elected, he will recruit the very ‘best people’ to improve the federal government. To those who favor a smaller, smarter federal government, it’s an appealing idea. It also appeals because our need for ‘the best people’ to run the republic is old and enduring. Representative government is only as good as the people in it: if people of low character become prevalent, the quality of representation suffers and the power delegated to officials ends up being misused.
Yet Trump is in a poor position, politically and morally, to bring the best people to government. Politically, he has set himself up as an antagonist of the establishment. For more than a year, he has railed against the political class, not limiting his attacks to issues of policy, but assailing the character and achievements of many people who have painstakingly built up a reputation for public service. Remarkably, Trump has not confined his attacks to members of the opposite party. He has also insulted many within the GOP, his own adopted party, which could normally be expected to supply talent for a Republican administration. Serving in a Trump administration would be politically risky. Many leading Republicans, in and out of government, have openly repudiated him, leaving one to imagine a Cabinet populated by hangers-on like Chris Christie, Trump’s own children, or his loyal lieutenant Kellyanne Conway.
It’s difficult to recruit ‘the best people’ without belonging to the best class oneself. Here Trump’s cratering social reputation will be felt. Last week, the media’s focus shifted from the implications of Trump’s political positions to his personal conduct and mores. Allegations of his sexual misconduct are multiplying, sparked by a leaked tape in which Trump boasted of his indecent behavior toward women in lewd and contemptuous terms. Whatever claim Trump had to personal decency has been destroyed. Respectable people are censuring him loudly.
The issue of social integrity is distinct from the issue of Trump’s politics. Who would care to sit next to him at a dinner party? Who would feel honored to shake his hand? Until lately a popular celebrity, Trump’s own words have supplied grounds for branding him a pariah. Were he to win in November, he would make a poor figurehead for a country whose creed is the equal enjoyment of inalienable rights.
To summarize: Trump arouses political and moral aversion in people who might otherwise be his supporters and colleagues. The aversion is not just to Trump’s views but to his very personality. Yes, Trump’s tactics and policies arouse aversion, but so do Ted Cruz’s. Cruz, though, combines political iconoclasm with some personal probity. In this, he resembles the antebellum radical John Calhoun, whose ultra pro-slavery views combined with a cold rectitude and formality that impressed even his political enemies. How different is Donald J. Trump, whose claims to social respectability are evaporating.
Were voters to catapult Trump to the top of the government, it’s difficult to imagine his improving on the caliber of the talent it attracts. How many able, forward-looking people of good character would decide that serving Trump is something worth doing? Shunned by the ‘best people,’ President Trump could find it tough to deliver on the promise of better government.
Image: Aerial of a winding mountain road,
© 2016 Susan Barsy