The Right Side Of History
The latest skirmish between the moderates and progressives within the Democratic party is just another part of the occasionally heated debate about how best to confront Donald Trump and probably only resonated inside the Beltway and with the party’s most activist base. Moderates believe that focusing on policies to appeal to the Obama-Trump voter and doing as little as possible to directly confront Trump himself with congressional power and oversight is the best path to winning in 2020. The more liberal and progressive wing of the party believes that Trump is an historically transgressive President, abetted by a corrupt and racist Republican party, whose ongoing crimes need to be confronted with all the political power that the House can muster, which will simultaneously motivate the Democratic base in order to win in 2020. Of course, the answer to which wing of the party has the best approach will actually only be partially resolved by the 2020 election, and it’s entirely possible that either approach, or, more ominously, neither, will succeed.
These two different approaches are now largely dealt with as a tactical matter for the upcoming election. But the moderates’ view, sublimating focus on Trump’s transgressions in order to win in 2020, willfully ignores how impotent the incoming Democratic president will be if still confronted with a Republican Senate and an activist conservative Supreme Court. Worse, that approach also poses a far greater danger of creating longer term structural damage to our already inadequate democracy than the policy of direct confrontation.
General Michael Hayden, who oversaw the NSA’s illegal surveillance of US citizens in the wake of 9/11, is hardly a champion of the left. But even he admits that the damage Trump has done to our institutions is already significant and that US democracy may not survive a second Trump term. His comments not only highlight the enormous stakes for the future but also the destruction of the recent past.
Hayden’s comments certainly reflect a large segment of the conventional wisdom among Democrats but also badly misunderstands and/or underestimates the situation. Trump may be especially egregious but he is also a product of the modern Republican party and the anti-democratic, racist, and xenophobic policies of the party will continue even if he is no longer President. The partisan gerrymandering, the disenfranchisement of minority voters, the total obstruction from Republicans in Congress, the implicit and explicit racism, all of it will continue after Trump. The Steve Kings, the Roy Moores, the Lindsey Grahams will still have a home in the Republican party. And whomever takes up Trump’s mantle will not only be a similar demagogue but also, frighteningly, surely far more competent than Trump.
Confronting Trump with real accountability will force Republicans in Congress to actually take a public stand supporting Trump’s abuses or openly condemning them, as opposed to the silence, feigned ignorance, and tepid criticism they get away with now. At this point, real accountability does not even have to end with impeachment, just a true public airing of the crimes of the Trump administration. Beyond the multiple obstruction of justice crimes detailed by Mueller, there are the emoluments violations and related corruption permeating the federal agencies and his family, the obstruction of congressional oversight, the crimes against humanity on the southern border, the violations of the Hatch Act, the destruction of the independence of the Justice Department, and a whole litany of other lesser crimes. Perhaps the desperate need for this kind of public airing was best illustrated by the woman who went to hear Justin Amash explain why he supported impeachment and was shocked to discover the Mueller report did not totally exonerate the President but, instead found him having engaged in multiple acts of criminal obstruction, at a minimum.
And if the House actually does go down the road of impeachment, that will force Republicans Senators to stand and defend him at the trial in the Senate. That would certainly put vulnerable red state Republicans like Susan Collins, Thom Tillis, Joni Ernst, and Corey Gardner, seats Democrats would love to win, in the awkward position of having to defend Trump on the record as his crimes are delineated. The idea that an acquittal in the Senate will be used by Trump to proclaim his innocence again ignores the fact that Trump already proclaims his innocence. At least with impeachment and a trial, or even just impeachment hearings in the House that do not result in a vote for impeachment, the evidence will be out there for every American to plainly see if they even just glance beyond the conservative propaganda machine.
More importantly, however, the refusal to even countenance impeachment and slow-walking the investigations in the House just adds to the already established belief among a significant part of the electorate that the Democrats are terminally weak. Among a portion of the Democratic electorate, flipping the House in 2018 was supposed to be the beginning of the process of standing up to Trump and holding him to account. And among some potentially swing conservative voters, Trump’s abusive behavior is seen as a positive, a show of strength and the willingness to confront the status quo. Democratic meekness in confronting Trump feeds the belief among both of those constituencies that the leadership may just not be up to the task of actually governing.
Another bizarre assumption is that there is a binary choice between impeachment and legislation and that impeachment will somehow mean the Democrats can not pass legislation focused on improving the health care and economic conditions of Americans. As Democrats readily admit, the important legislation they have already passed barely registered with voters, largely because Trump is always able to dominate the media narrative and also because everyone knows that none of that legislation will become law anytime soon. Moreover, as the so-called squad’s press conference well illustrated yesterday, it is entirely possible to talk about both policy and impeachment at the same time. In fact, the two can actually complement each other in breaking through Trump’s dominance of the media narrative. Lastly, it is quite possible that the eventual Democratic presidential candidate would have been on record supporting impeachment or impeachment hearings during the primaries while the House leadership will have refused to go there.
But by far the most important reason to support aggressive oversight and, at minimum, impeachment hearings, is because it is the right thing to do. There is a serious argument to be made that the situation we currently endure today under Trump is a result of the unwillingness to confront the criminality of our political and economic class since the beginning of this century. The erosion of the rule of law did not begin with Trump. But one can see the escalation of the process with the refusal to pursue the war criminals in the Bush administration, with the refusal to pursue corporate malfeasance after the collapse of Arthur Andersen, and with the subsequent economic crimes that created the Great Recession that went unpunished. And, one can imagine that, should a Democrat win in 2020, the pressure to move on and leave the crimes that occurred under the Trump administration again unpunished will be enormous, setting the stage for the next round of abuses.
And Trump is a uniquely dangerous and criminal President. Hogan Gidley recently quoted the President’s reaction to the census decision by the Supreme Court as saying “listen, I’m not going to be beholden to the courts anymore”. Trump was only talked out of defying the Court because someone convinced him of what everyone knew all along, namely that the citizenship data was already available from other sources.
This is not the first time Trump has trashed or threatened the judicial branch. His administration, especially CBP and ICE, has shown it is quite willing to defy the courts when it suits them, as happens on our southern border every single day. This is an administration that created theories of executive privilege and immunity out of thin air in order to avoid legal oversight. This is a president and an administration that believes in the theory of a unitary executive in order to give the President extraordinary power. This is a President who has ordered the investigation and imprisonment of his political enemies, accusing them of treason. This is an administration that is running concentration camps inside the United States, separating and imprisoning children as young as four months old. This is a President who is clearly a racist and he is now talking openly about being “sick and tired of many people in this country.” US citizens are now being detained and held by ICE long past the 48 hour limit imposed by law. Finally, this is a President who has often talked about serving more than eight years.
Does anyone seriously believe that, should the worst happen and Trump wins in 2020, these autocratic tendencies will simply dissipate? If anything, Trump will be even less constrained than he is today as he seeks re-election. Trump’s autocratic tendencies will mix with the structural inadequacies of our current democracy to create a toxic stew of authoritarianism. The Republican party is deathly afraid of getting on the wrong side of Trump and will now have the ability, thanks to the Supreme Court, to choose their electorate. Combine that with the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College and you get the perfect recipe for tyrannical minority rule.
Now, it’s quite possible that Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership are correct. Trump will essentially self-impeach and his racist rhetoric will rally enough of the country against him for the Democrat to win in 2020. And I understand Pelosi’s focus most of all is on maintaining Democratic control of the House. But that approach still leaves the rot inside the Republican party largely unaddressed and unchallenged.
On the other hand, if Trump wins and General Hayden is correct that our democracy will not survive a second Trump term, I want to at least be able to proudly answer the question a decade from now about what I did to try and save our democracy. I want to be able to say I fought hard to expose Trump for the racist, autocratic criminal he is and hold him accountable before it was too late. Instead of saying I tried playing a game of inside baseball to try and squeak out an electoral victory in 2020, I want to be able to say I wanted Trump impeached and wanted to see a trial in the Senate where his crimes would not only get fully aired but also where Republicans would be forced to choose between defending him and exposing their complicity in his crimes or standing up the rule of law and our democracy. I want to be able to say I was on the right side of history.