Imagine if the Democrats had not taken control of the House of Representatives in 2018, and the Republicans were still in control of both chambers of Congress. Would an attempt by this president to withhold 400 million dollars in taxpayer-allocated funds for the purpose of extorting a foreign nation to fabricate some lurid dirt on his perceived 2020 Democratic opponent have ever seen the light of day? Let alone lead to an impeachment inquiry?
Of course not. The Department of Justice under Trump is now more corrupt than at any point in our nation’s history. It exists, by virtue of a venal toady named William Barr, to serve the needs of this president, whether illegal or otherwise. The Executive Branch of our government is rotten through and through with rank looters at the head of virtually every department and agency. What Trump did was merely business as usual for these people—nothing to see here. You can read it in their reactions to the impeachment inquiry, and in their talking points on Fox News.
Even if it had been leaked by someone, that Whistleblower Complaint would have been explained away, quashed and buried, with the approval, tacit or not, or every Republican in the United States Congress. The American public may have never known about it, much less seen a copy of it. Phone call? What phone call? Fake news!
That’s the country Republicans want to live in. Not a democracy, as we know it, but as a vehicle to purely serve their own interests and, more acutely, the interests of those that fund them.
In a trenchant essay for The Atlantic, the always-perceptive Adam Serwer explains that if the Constitution is worth the paper it was printed on, Democrats have no choice in the matter but to impeach this president. Because he has committed the very offense that impeachment was designed by this country’s Founders to remedy.
In fairness to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the events that moved her to support impeachment after months of dismissing the left wing of her caucus are exactly what the Framers had in mind when they crafted the impeachment clause, which was to prevent a corrupt chief executive from using his official powers to keep himself in office. That precisely describes Trump’s use of his official powers to strong-arm a foreign government into implicating his political rivals. The Framers forced the chief executive to face election every four years in order to prevent the president from becoming a king, but they recognized that a corrupt president might use his powers to keep himself in office in perpetuity, and that impeachment was needed as a last resort. Yet Trump is only the most vulgar expression of the anti-democratic streak spreading in the Republican Party, and the forces that propelled his candidacy are the same ones that may shield him from accountability.
Trump tried to use extortion as a tool to maintain his own grip on power—to secure his re-election in 2020. The fact that he did it with American taxpayer funds against a candidate of the opposing party whom he was most likely to face simply cements the seriousness of the offense. As that opposing candidate—no matter who it was– would certainly have the support of roughly half of the American electorate, Trump’s offense amounts to an attempt to disenfranchise the American people from the political process. As Serwer wryly notes, the fact that it took an attack against one of their own to finally make certain Democrats in Congress aware of this is regrettable, but at least they now seem to have shaken off their Stockholm-syndrome complacency and are cognizant of the clear and present danger this administration represents.
Millions of Americans wake up every day worried that Donald Trump’s actions will hurt someone they love, but until he used his authority to go after someone beloved by the Democratic establishment, party leaders didn’t quite grasp the urgency. If Trump could do this to Joe Biden, after all, he could do it to any of them. That’s often how it works in a democracy: People do the right thing for self-interested reasons.
The Democrats—and all of the country, for that matter– now have a clear picture of how Trump will campaign in 2020. As Serwer observes, it will be by and through his abuses of power, with the full support of a corrupt Department of Justice, an echo chamber of endlessly regurgitated right-wing lies from Fox News and their collaborators, and importantly, Republican officeholders in both the House and Senate who can be counted on to willfully turn their backs on the rule of law—a key principle of any government “of, for and by the people”–and hitch their lodestar instead to Donald Trump, no matter what he does or says.
It is the sense of this overwhelming betrayal and repudiation of our democracy—not only by Trump, but by the Republicans defending him at this very moment–that Serwer believes represents an inflection point in how Democrats have come to view this menace.
This is one reason that perceptions among Democrats shifted so fast. In a republic, the people are sovereign. The president used his authority to criminalize or suppress his political rivals, in violation of the people’s right to choose their leadership. His acts exemplify the scenario the Framers feared when they contemplated a corrupt president using executive power to keep himself in office, unaccountable to the people who elected him. Trump’s conduct here is not just impeachable; it is why the impeachment clause exists.
Trump has made his autocratic impulses clear from the start of his administration. What has come, rightly or wrongly, as something of a shock is the eager willingness of an entire political party to abandon any pretense of democratic principles in order to follow his example. Trump’s actions have repeatedly shown he does not believe that his own interests are separate or distinct from those of the American people. And Republicans in Congress and through their mouthpieces in the media have adopted this same overarching mindset. If Trump’s actions do not deter the adoration and worshipfulness of his base, then they cannot be wrong, even though Republicans would instantly excoriate a Democratic President for the same behavior.
That is a fundamentally anti-democratic (small “d”) attitude by itself, but behind it, Serwer observes, there is a far more sinister belief system at work.
As the parties have become more racially polarized, and the Republican Party has become more exclusively white and Christian, Republicans have begun to think of themselves as the only genuinely legitimate actors in the polity. This is why Republicans draw districts that hand them more offices even when they fail to win a majority of the votes; it is why Republican legislatures strip Democratic executives of their powers when the electorate foils their efforts to rig elections in their favor; it is why the Trump administration attempted a fraudulent scheme to use the census to diminish the influence of minority voters relative to white voters; it is why Republicans seek to pass laws intended to suppress minority votes; it is why every night on Fox News, viewers hear one host after another outline deranged conspiracies about how Democrats want to steal America from its rightful white owners through demographic change.
Because their entire political philosophy is rooted in virulent, exclusionary racism, the Republican Party considers all Democratic opposition illegitimate, and therefore any action, no matter how corrupt, illegal, unethical or immoral is justified, as long as it is against Democrats. This philosophy, long unacknowledged by Republicans, found new roots in “birtherism,” which Trump himself propagated, and can be seen in the reflexive assertions of “voter fraud” that are blamed for Republican electoral losses and used to justify voter suppression. It is echoed in the blanket slandering of any negative news about Republicans (or Trump) as “fake news.”
Serwer notes that while the peaceful transition of power in a democracy depends on each party respecting the others’ legitimacy, that concept, for many Republicans, is now a nonstarter. They aren’t interested in democracy or the “rule of law,” only raw power. This is why Trump’s own corruption does not matter to Republicans, and won’t matter, no matter what his crimes turn out to be.
Attempting to use one’s official powers for private gain is the most basic definition of corruption. Yet because the base of the Republican Party believes itself to be the only legitimate expression of popular will, whether or not its members constitute an actual majority of the electorate, it does not matter what Trump’s motives are. Much of the Republican base believes, as Trump does, that loyalty to the country and loyalty to himself are one and the same. Therefore, nothing Trump could do is corrupt, and even using his official powers for personal gain is an act of selfless patriotism. In this warped view, attempting to extort foreign countries into attacking his political rivals is not a betrayal of his responsibilities as president; it is the fullest expression of them.
Faced with this utterly warped, monstrous perversion of democracy, Democrats really have no choice but to impeach here. It’s either impeach, using the only remedy against this cancer that the Founders provided, or let democracy die the slow death that so many Republicans obviously want for it.