America, the robotic
Daniel Lazare examines the role of a reactionary constitution in the battle over Trump’s impeachment.
Why are Democrats impeaching Donald Trump? Is it because pressuring Ukraine to investigate a political rival makes him guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanours”? Because colluding with Russia means that he is such a danger to American democracy that liberals have no choice but to cry out, ‘Basta’ (‘Enough’)?
No, it is because Democrats are caught in an 18th-century time warp. In 1787, a group of tribal patriarchs known as the Founding Fathers (always capitalised) wrote out a script that today’s Democrats have no choice but to follow. The script requires them to do three things:
- Prove that Trump is guilty of “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours” - the only constitutional basis for removing a sitting president prior to an election, according to article II, section four.
- Build the constitution up as the holy of holies in order to depict Trump’s alleged violations as the lowest of the low.
- Portray themselves as true believers, whose only concern is protecting the constitutional faith.
Impeachment is thus less a political movement aimed at driving out a dangerous authoritarian than a religious crusade aimed at banishing the unbelievers. Just as a 12th-century knight rampaging through the Holy Land would insist that trade and plunder had nothing to do with it, impeachment advocates insist that political considerations are absent as well.
As black Democratic congresswoman Barbara Jordan proclaimed when Richard Nixon wound up in the dock nearly half a century ago, “My faith in the constitution is whole. It is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the constitution.” The fact that the constitution allowed generations of Jordan’s Texas ancestors to be held in slavery did not matter - faith was all. Not to be outdone, speaker of the house Newt Gingrich insisted 25 years later that politics were also irrelevant when Bill Clinton went on trial for the crime of having sex with someone other than his wife:
This is not about politics. I don’t know - and I don’t care - how this ‘strategy’ polls. This has nothing to do with vendettas or witch-hunts or partisan advantage. This is very simply about the rule of law, and the survival of the American system of justice. This is what the constitution demands, and what Richard Nixon had to resign over.
And now we have Gingrich’s successor, Nancy Pelosi, saying the same. “What is at stake here,” she told reporters on January 15, “is the constitution of the United States.” She continued:
This is what an impeachment is about. The president violated his oath of office, undermined our national security, jeopardised the integrity of our elections, tried to use the appropriations process as his private ATM machine to grant or withhold funds granted by Congress in order to advance his personal and political advantage ... He’s undermining a system, the beautiful, exquisite, brilliant, genius of the constitution, the separation of powers, by granting to himself the powers of a monarch, which is exactly what Benjamin Franklin said we didn’t have.
It is not that national security and congressional prerogatives are unimportant: merely that they are subsumed under the rubric of constitutional faith. As long as the United States adheres to its beautiful, exquisite constitution, the ancient religion holds that everything else will fall into place - checks and balances, separation of powers, free elections, relations with Russia, and so on.
Conversely, apostasy means the opposite: ie, that social decay and political breakdown will advance, as evil foreigners like Vladimir Putin ‘sow discord’ in an otherwise harmonious society. Indeed, the fact that the US is already flying apart - that Republicans and Democrats are at the point of civil war, that economic polarisation is shooting through the roof, that mass shootings are a near-daily occurrence - means that apostasy is well underway. The only way to roll it back is by restoring the ancient law. And the only way to restore the ancient law is by banishing the supreme law-breaker - Trump himself.
The constitution is thus supreme - not only legally, but morally, intellectually and politically - a fact that is never more apparent than when impeachment season rolls around, as it seems to be doing with growing frequency. Where other countries update political structure so as to conform to the needs of modern society, America expects modern society to conform to the needs of its ancient constitution.
The upshot is a growing political crisis that impeachment is designed to evade rather than confront. Americans are perfectly aware of the unprecedented social breakdown taking place all around them. The newspapers are filled with little else. But, because the constitution is the holy of holies and hence beyond rational scrutiny, they suffer from a political blind spot that prevents them from analysing the role that a profoundly outmoded and undemocratic political structure plays.
Yet it is immense. In no other comparable country have basic political mechanics broken down so completely. Because the ‘separation of powers’ doctrine says that four main governing bodies - the presidency, Senate, House of Representatives and supreme court - must agree before anything can be done, well-positioned minorities are able to wield effective veto power by bringing the machinery to a halt. Under the filibuster rule, for instance, 41 senators representing as little as 11% of the population can block any bill. Under the constitutional amending clause set forth in article V, thirteen states, representing just 4.4%, can block any constitutional reform.
Nothing happens as a consequence. Separation of powers is supposed to promote moderation and compromise by giving political passions time to cool. But in fact it is a gridlock machine that bottles up political pressure until it reaches boiling point. Even though Republicans and Democrats are bourgeois parties with similar class interests, they are so far apart as a consequence, it is as if they exist in separate universes.
In a system in which state representation counts as much as popular representation, governing institutions grow ever more undemocratic, as state population disparities widen.1 The Senate, in which California (population 39.6 million) has the same clout as Wyoming (population 578,000), is thus more unrepresentative than at any time since 1810.2 The electoral college - yet another archaic constitutional provision that is effectively unchangeable - has overridden the popular vote in two out of the last five presidential elections (the first time this has happened since 1876). The more democratic self-government deteriorates, the more society deteriorates with it.
Economic polarisation is greater than in any comparable nation, ‘diseases of despair’, such as alcoholism, drug overdose and suicide, have nearly quadrupled since 1999, while life expectancy in general has declined for three years in a row - a development unparalleled since the post-Soviet collapse.3 Polls show that a record two-thirds of Americans yearn for a third major party. Yet the current two-party system has been set in stone since the 1860s, thanks to a Balkanised political structure and a ‘first past the post’ voting system in thousands of federal, state and local elections.4
The likelihood of a change is nil. Under Stalin, soviets could vote for any party as long as it was the Communist Party. In the US, citizens can vote for any party as long as it is the ‘Repocrats’.
Impeachment is a by-product of this epic breakdown rather than a response to it. Because nothing like a no-confidence vote exists in the US system, it is the only way of removing a chief executive outside of the quadrennial election process. Since Trump’s legitimacy was already in question following his loss to Hillary Clinton by three million votes, it was all but inevitable that Democrats would give it a try. Indeed, just 19 minutes after Trump took the oath of office on January 20 2017, the Washington Post ran an article entitled ‘The campaign to impeach president Trump has begun’.
Still, with the Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress, the first two years saw something of a holding pattern. Instead of pushing for Trump’s ouster, all Democrats could do was ally themselves with the intelligence agencies in the hope of proving that Trump had colluded with Russia. Collusion was perfect, not only because conspiring with a hostile foreign power is the ultimate constitutional transgression, but because it allowed Democrats to portray themselves as defenders of patriotism, free elections and the constitution itself.
Thousands of breathless headlines followed, linking Trump with the Kremlin. The effort faltered when special prosecutor Robert Mueller announced last March that his investigation had been unable to “establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government”. But a CIA analyst named Eric Ciaramella saved the day five months later by sending the house judiciary committee a densely-argued seven-page memo contending that Trump was “using the power of his office to solicit interference by a foreign country in the 2020 US election”.
With that, the ancient machinery began to clang and whirr. Since Democrats had regained control of the house in 2018, impeachment was a foregone conclusion. But, precisely because it was unavoidable, any pretext would do - which meant that a hastily-improvised case against Trump would be weaker than Democrats realised. Thus, they assumed that the investigation that Trump pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to launch in a famous July 25 phone call had to be “for corrupt purposes in pursuit of personal political benefit”. What else could it be, since the effect would be to undercut a major political rival? All their friends in academia and the press said so, so how could it be otherwise?
But what they failed to acknowledge is that, by allowing his son, Hunter, to take a high-paid job with a notorious Ukrainian oligarch named Mykola Zlochevsky - at a time, no less, when Obama had named the then vice-president his point man in the Ukrainian anti-corruption effort - Biden was guilty of a conflict of interest so glaring that even the New York Times was taken aback.5 As a result, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that Trump pushed for an investigation because he was legitimately outraged by Biden’s behaviour and by Democratic efforts to cover it up.
Trump outraged by political corruption? Democrats scoff at the very idea. But it is how millions of voters will see it regardless. So not only will impeachment go nowhere, given that a GOP-controlled Senate will almost certainly vote to acquit, but it could actually backfire by making Democrats look no better than their opponents - and possibly even worse. Rather than hurting Trump, it might well wind up benefiting him, which is why he has pushed for a full-blown Senate trial, in which Republicans put Joe and Hunter Biden on the witness stand and subject them to a relentless cross-examination.
Not that Democrats care. Since they are above such mundane political considerations, the only thing that concerns them is upholding constitutional faith. If the ancient law says ‘impeach’, then that is what faithful servants of the constitution must do. Wherever the process leads, it can only be right because the constitution is right.
Never mind that blind allegiance like this can only lead to disaster - no party deserves it more than the Democrats. But it will also lead to disaster for broader society. Rather than a defence of democracy, impeachment represents an attack on Trump from the right. By withholding military aid, Adam Schiff, the neocon warmonger in charge of the impeachment drive, told the house last month that Trump was betraying a brave little ally fending off a Russian threat:
We should care about Ukraine. We should care about a country struggling to be free and a democracy. We used to care about democracy. We used to care about our allies. We used to stand up to Putin and Russia. We used to. I know the party of Ronald Reagan used to.
Trump’s problem, therefore, is that he does not stand up to the ‘evil empire’ the way ‘the Gipper’ used to. A man who has brought the Middle East to the brink of a 1914-style military blowout is thus condemned not for being too confrontational, but for not being confrontational enough. It is not easy to out-hawk someone like Trump, but that is what Democrats have done.
This is what constitutional faith comes down to in an age of imperialism - a demand that America be more bellicose than it already is.
Back when America had just 13 states, the ratio between the most and least populous - ie, Virginia and Delaware - was 10 to one. Today, it is 68 to one.↩︎
FE Lee and BI Oppenheimer Sizing up the senate: the unequal consequences of equal representation Chicago 1999, pp10-11.↩︎
JE Stiglitz, ‘The truth about the Trump economy’ Project Syndicate January 17 2020: www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/grim-truth-about-trump-economy-by-joseph-e-stiglitz-2020-0; A Woodward, ‘Life expectancy in the US keeps going down’ Business Insider November 30 2019: www.businessinsider.com/us-life-expectancy-declined-for-third-year-in-a-row-2019-11.↩︎
L Drutman, ‘How much longer can the two-party system hold’ Vox.com September 17 2018: www.vox.com/polyarchy/2018/9/17/17870478/two-party-system-electoral-reform.↩︎
“Sadly, the credibility of Mr Biden’s message may be undermined by the association of his son with a Ukrainian natural-gas company, Burisma Holdings, which is owned by a former government official suspected of corrupt practices,” a Times editorial declared. “… It should be plain to Hunter Biden that any connection with a Ukrainian oligarch damages his father’s efforts to help Ukraine.” (‘Joe Biden lectures Ukraine’ New York Times December 11 2015: www.nytimes.com/2015/12/12/opinion/joe-biden-lectures-ukraine.html.↩︎