Stronger than ever
While it is good that Trump was acquitted, writes Daniel Lazare, the slide into authoritarianism is now set to continue.
Now that Donald Trump has emerged from the impeachment fiasco bloody but unbowed, are Democrats justified in portraying his acquittal as an epic defeat for democracy? The short answer is yes - except that a conviction would have even been worse.
In an interesting op-ed that ran in the New York Times in November, a couple of Latin American specialists named Steven Levitsky and María Victoria Murillo observed: “Coups against elected governments - even populist ones with authoritarian tendencies - almost always push countries in a less democratic direction.” The reason is twofold: the inability of elected officials to work through problems on their own leaves them weaker than ever, while the military will find it all but impossible to leave once it succumbs to the temptation to intervene.
Levitsky and Murillo were talking about Bolivia following the overthrow of Evo Morales. But they could have been discussing the United States, where impeachment has been the culmination of a years-long effort to do the same to Trump. To be sure, Democrats did not call in tanks and artillery. Instead, they relied on the intelligence agencies. But the effects were otherwise the same. Rather than defeating Trump at the polls, their goal was to bring in a branch of the defence sector to remove him instead.
The process began during the presidential campaign, when Trump made a point of breaking the rules of America’s limited democracy from the moment he announced his candidacy. He outraged liberals by calling for restrictions on immigration, he angered free traders by calling for economic retaliation against China, and he appalled anyone who believes in coherence and good sense by spewing out a mess of other proposals that could not have been more confused and contradictory. But mostly he outraged Washington’s endlessly bellicose foreign-policy establishment by calling for rapprochement with Russia and a new policy toward Syria.
In October 2015, he said he had no problem with Russia intervening in Syria to combat Islamic State. “They don’t respect our president. They really don’t respect us any more. And that’s why they’re doing this,” he told CNN. “At the same time, if they want to hit Isis, that’s OK with me.”
Two months later, he said of Vladimir Putin: “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader unlike what we have in this country.” When CNN news presenter Joe Scarborough asked about Putin’s alleged killing of journalists and political opponents, he shot back: “I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe, so, you know, there’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, a lot of killing, a lot of stupidity.” When Scarborough asked about Russian intervention in the Ukraine, he said that Germany and other European powers should take the lead: “I think maybe we should do a little following and let the neighbours take a little bit more of an active role in the Ukraine,” Trump declared.
Speaking nicely about Washington’s latest villain du jour, refusing to take a hard line in defence of the Nazi-influenced government in Kiev, failing to be dutifully outraged by Russian intervention in Syria - Trump transgressed boundaries that were previously inviolable. If the range of acceptable debate had been broader, Hillary Clinton might have been familiar with such arguments and handled them with skill. But all she could do was summon up the ghost of Joe McCarthy by accusing him of selling out to the Kremlin. She said in the final presidential debate in October 2016:
It’s pretty clear you won’t admit that the Russians have engaged in cyber attacks against the United States of America, that you encouraged espionage against our people, that you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up Nato, do whatever he wants to do, and that you continue to get help from him, because he has a very clear favourite in this race.
Since encouraging espionage - that is to say treason - is an impeachable offense, it was inevitable that Democrats would respond to the shock of a Trump victory by mobilising to throw out him as soon as he set foot in the White House. Just minutes after he took the oath of office on January 20 2017, the Washington Post posted an article on its website entitled ‘The campaign to impeach president Trump has begun’. A flood of collusion stories followed - nearly all of them untrue and virtually all the result of leaks from what would soon be known as the Deep State.
Inevitably, the Democrats called on long-standing allies in law enforcement and the ‘intelligence community’ for assistance. In early January 2017, senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Trump was “being really dumb” by challenging the intelligence agencies’ account of Russian interference in 2016, adding: “Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.” The clear implication was not only that the agencies would strike back at Trump, but that they should.
Three days later, FBI director James Comey personally confronted Trump with ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele’s bogus ‘golden showers’ dossier to see if he would tip his hand about Russian interference. When Trump fired Comey in May 2017, acting FBI director Andrew McCabe met with deputy attorney General Rod Rosenstein to discuss wearing a wire to secretly tape his conversations and invoking the 25th amendment to throw him out of office - a clear misuse of the constitution, since the amendment deals only with presidents who are incapacitated by illness, injury or madness, which Trump manifestly was not. Finally, in October, a YouTube video began making the rounds. To the tune of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme shelter’, it showed FBI agents rounding up Trump, Jared Kushner and other White House personnel and hauling them off in handcuffs, as if they were so many Mafiosi.
This was the Bolivian-style remedy that Democrats reached for almost instinctively - not a political solution aimed at defeating Trump at the polls, but a quasi-coup d’etat, in which heavily-militarised law enforcement and intelligence would simply remove him from power and cart him off for good. Collusion, corruption - the specific charges were unimportant. The only thing that mattered was that he was gone.
The destabilisation campaign continued even after special prosecutor Robert Mueller announced last March that his investigation was unable to establish that the Trump campaign had colluded with the Russian government. Even if Trump had not conspired, Democrats announced, he had welcomed Russian interference, had profited from it and would undoubtedly do the same in 2020.
With little evidence other than a throwaway line at a July 2016 press conference - “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Clinton] emails that are missing” - Democrats concluded that Trump was incapable of playing by the rules and would rig any election in which he took part. Hence, Congress had no choice but to throw him out before the next election could occur.
Impeachment may seem democratic, because it is constitutional and “republican” in the 18th century sense. But it is not. The problem is not only that the US constitution is itself a pre-democratic document - one that nowhere mentions the d-word and hedges popular representation about with all kinds of checks, balances and restrictions. Rather, it is that impeachment represented a continuation of the same close collaboration with the intelligence agencies, the same free-form, anti-Russian paranoia and the same belief that electoral politics are not a solution. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was unabashed in describing impeachment as Russiagate II: “This isn’t about Ukraine,” she said after the White House released a transcript of a July 25 phone call, in which Trump pushed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch an investigation into former vice-president Joe Biden. “This is about Russia. Who benefited by our withholding that military assistance? Russia. It’s about Russia … Our adversary in this is Russia. All roads lead to Putin. Understand that.”
Other Democrats followed suit. A pro-impeachment legal scholar named Pamela Karlan told the House judiciary committee in December that it was in America’s national interest to arm Ukraine, “so we can fight the Russians there and we don’t have to fight them here” - as if Russia was planning to invade Washington any time soon. Adam Schiff, the Los Angeles neocon leading the impeachment drive, added in January: “Russia is not a threat … to eastern Europe alone.” He continued:
Ukraine has become the de facto proving ground for just the types of hybrid warfare that the 21st century will become defined by: cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns, efforts to undermine the legitimacy of state institutions, whether that is voting systems or financial markets. The Kremlin showed boldly in 2016 that with the malign skills it honed in Ukraine, they would not stay in Ukraine. Instead, Russia employed them here to attack our institutions, and they will do so again.
America and Russia were at war, in other words, and Trump was on the other side. Warming to the theme, a Colorado Democrat and ex-Army ranger named Jason Crow told the Senate a few days later:
Vladimir Putin couldn’t care less about delivering healthcare for the people of Russia, about building infrastructure in Russia. Vladimir Putin … gets up every morning and goes to bed every night trying to figure out how to destroy American democracy, and he has organised the infrastructure of his government around that effort.
Rather than a mere adversary, Putin was now a diabolic figure seeking to undermine entirely beneficial forces led by the US. George W Bush metaphysics were back in favour - this time with Russia as the new “evil-doer”, as opposed to al Qa’eda.
This is the imperialist war drive that, by early last week, appeared heading for certain defeat in the Republican-controlled Senate. This is all to the good. If it had been successful, the principle that presidential candidates must submit to a CIA-administered loyalty test would have become well established, while democratic self-government would have continued only within limits set by an all-powerful intelligence ‘community’. Anti-Russianism would have become the first principle of US foreign policy, with powerful consequences in half a dozen hotspots, from Cuba and Venezuela to Syria and the Persian Gulf. Anti-imperialists would have wound up even more marginalised than they already are, if such a thing is possible.
This is not to say that a Trump victory is not nearly as dangerous. On the contrary, we have a choice between arsenic and cyanide. If Trump wins re-election in November, then impeachment will be a dead letter and his power will be unconstrained. After years of torment, he will have free rein to take revenge on a host of enemies ranging from liberals to the corporate media and the CIA, and there will be little that Democrats will be able to do in response. America’s decrepit constitutional structure will give way to electoral despotism, headed by a Mussolini-style con artist and showman.
This is despite the fact that he is the only candidate capable of beating Trump by winning over not only black and Hispanic workers, but white workers as well. But Democratic politicians are so terrified of the slightest whiff of ‘socialism’ that they would probably prefer to have Trump. One way or another, the slide into authoritarianism will continue.
1. S Levitsky and MV Murillo, ‘The coup temptation in Latin America New York Times November 26 2019.
2. According to the department of justice inspector general, Comey and his top aides “discussed Trump’s potential responses to being told about the ‘salacious’ information, including that Trump might make statements about, or provide information of value to, the pending Russian interference investigation” (Office of the Inspector General report, August 2019, p17 - available at https://oig.justice.gov/reports/2019/o1902.pdf).
4. Pelosi’s remarks are available at www.c-span.org/video/?c4836121/user-clip-roads-lead-putin.
5. For Crow’s remarks, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIzxyoPZSrE.
6. ‘Sanders introduces resolution to protect American democracy from Russian meddling’, July 19 2018: www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/recent-business/sanders-introduces-resolution-to-protect-american-democracy-from-russian-meddling.