Writing in 1954, Walter Lippmann, speaking about liberal democracies stated: ‘[T]hey are faced with popular movements, aided and abetted by unfriendly foreign powers, and employing the machinery of democratic governments to capture it and abolish it.’ Reading this, just days before the opening of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, caused me to sit back in my chair and wonder if Lippmann had been in possession of a crystal ball.
Since Trump’s election in 2016, both citizens and scholars of liberal democracy have beat their hands bloody in an attempt to understand just how such a man could find himself the President of the United States. The last few years have felt like an anomaly. Book after book, documentaries, blogs – all of them trying to provide answers to explain the dumpster fire that is Donald J. Trump. Given this, it is somewhat comforting to read Lippmann, and find that such concerns are nothing new to liberal democracy. Indeed, the liberal democratic order has survived turmoil before, and can again.
No one is expecting the Senate trial to be pretty. At the time of writing, it is still uncertain whether or not Republicans will even allow witnesses – a trial without witnesses, although abhorrent, it does seem fitting for the times. And, let’s make no mistake about it, the impeachment and trial of Donald Trump is not just about Trump, but will stand as an indictment of this period in our history. I fear in this case, history will be a harsh judge.
In their opening salvo, Trump’s legal team chose to attack the process, not the case. They accuse the Democrats of rushing the impeachment through Congress, and using it as a ‘political tool’. Of course it’s a political tool. An election is also a political tool. The Constitution itself, is in essence, a political tool. Political tools are intended to provide a way for plural societies to function and govern themselves. The political tool of impeachment is being used in an attempt to oust one of the most dangerous Presidents in U.S history before he can have a chance to be re-elected. In other words, it’s being used exactly as the Founding Fathers had intended it to be used.
Although not the first impeachment, Donald Trump’s is the first impeachment to involve a foreign government. Andrew Jackson was impeached in 1868 because he fired his Secretary of War without Congressional approval. In 1998, Bill Clinton was impeached for lying to Congress regarding the nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Trump invited a foreign power (the Ukraine) into the domestic affairs of the United States for his own political gain – withholding aid and potentially derailing US foreign policy in Eastern Europe. In other words, Trump makes both Jackson and Clinton look like Boy Scouts.
A level of certainty is another distinguishing feature of the Trump impeachment. In Jackson’s case, the jurisprudence surrounding the President’s ability to dismiss a member of his executive was still unclear. In fact, Jackson’s impeachment and subsequent trial would lead to the 25th Amendment being added to the Constitution, as both Congress and the Executive branch sought clarity. Clinton’s impeachment could be characterized as perhaps the greatest, ‘he said, she said’ of the late 20th century. In Trump’s case, we have a telephone transcript, a timeline of when the aid was released, and to top it all off – Trump’s own tweets. If the Senate acquits, it will be as the result of a technicality, and not the evidence.
To me, the far more dangerous character in this macabre play is Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. Trump himself is a populist stooge, relying solely on the anger of Middle America. McConnell on the other hand, has lurked the halls of power for decades, and is a prudent political operator. Right now, he’s trying to derail, obscure, and fast-track the trial. Whether or not he will be allowed to steamroll the proceedings will very much rely on whether or not his fellow Republicans, like Mitt Romney and others, have the backbone to see the trial not simply as a partisan act, but as a defining moment in the due process of American democracy.
In Lippmann’s assessment, the only saving grace for liberal democracy is for democratic societies to cling to what he terms, ‘the public philosophy’ – a set of governing rules defined by truths that are found only through reason. In an age of ‘fake news’ and Russian bots, this is a tall order. Donald Trump was able to seize on popular movements. He was aided and abetted by foreign governments unfriendly to the U.S, and used the machinery of democracy to ascend to the Oval Office. The question that remains is not whether Donald Trump abused his position for personal political gain. The question is whether one hundred senators will fulfill their oaths, uphold the public philosophy, and place America back on a path of reason.