The likely fiasco of President Trump’s impeachment reminds us that we would understand little of how societies actually function if we were to examine only their laws. This is familiar from the distorted impression of ancient societies that’s liable to be left by a record only of their aspirational laws, but the same point applies to how our present cultures might seem to historians from the distant future.
The law shows how the social systems should work. Citizens and officials strive to follow the law, but eventually the society may shift in certain ways that make various laws obsolete. A society may even become so degraded that it loses respect for the spirit of law as such or else laws may be written by factions and reflect only their special interests rather than the character of the society as a whole.
Take, for example, what the US Constitution says about impeachment:
The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment…The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two-thirds of the Members present…[The President] shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
By including provisions for impeachment, the founders assumed that presidents can fail spectacularly to fulfill their oath of office. The House brings the charges, the Senate conducts a trial, and if convicted the president is removed from office.
The Irrelevance of the Laws of Impeachment
But I suspect the framers would have been stunned by the circumstances of Trump’s presidency. First of all, the Electoral College made Trump’s election undemocratic. Not only did the opposing candidate win the popular vote, but because the American electoral system and the distribution of its social classes have the unintended consequence that only several large swing states matter to the election’s outcome, because the other states cancel each other out in terms of their electors’ votes, half the country doesn’t vote at all in the presidential elections.
The turnout in 2016 was 55.7%, which means Trump won with only around 26% support from those who were eligible to vote. Arguably, then, there’s no need to pretend that such formal means of impeachment are needed to oust a wayward president, if the electoral system is so flawed from the outset. Of course, the main reason for the Electoral College is to keep the scattered rural voters in the game. In practice, the College gives Republicans an unfair advantage, casting doubt on all modern American presidential elections.
Republican cheating extends to Congress where gerrymandering has allowed Republican senators to remain in office by the wildly undemocratic scheme of using census data to redistrict and select their voters. This, too, makes a mockery of the impeachment laws, since the high bar of a two-thirds majority for conviction in the senate assumes, of course, that the senate membership has been democratically decided.
The impeachment provisions say the senators must take an oath to fulfill their duties honourably, which means the trial is supposed to be legitimate rather than a sham. But here in 2020 the Republican-controlled senate aims to continue the President’s obstruction and cover-up of his abuse of office, by likely not allowing the relevant witnesses to testify if doing so would endanger the President. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said on television that there’s “zero chance” Trump will be convicted since McConnell promised “total coordination” with the White House.
In addition, to beat the laws of impeachment, all the president has to do is obstruct Congress as Trump has done, preventing witnesses or documents from being turned over and effectively denying the equal power of those branches of government. Assuming the president is wealthy, as all powerful American politicians must be, the president can tie up any lawsuit or trial in the courts, once he leaves office. Despite all the liberal puffery for the American Constitution, the US president is practically above the law.
Given the partisan nature of democratic politics, the laws of impeachment seem to assume either that the party that impeaches must, in practice, control both houses of Congress to convict or else that the president’s offenses have to be so overwhelming that the senate can’t support the allied president without effectively destroying their common party or losing the support of their voters.
The Egregiousness of Trump’s Presidency
Making impeachment so difficult would be reasonable if American society hadn’t effectively convicted itself by electing Trump as president in the first place. From the outset, Trump was accused of being unfit for office, not because of partisan hatred but because of the obvious facts of who — and what — Trump is. There’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Trump’s “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the latter being mainly gross abuses of power, since they’re not defined by the Constitution.
Think of how Trump sees himself as president only for the faction that supports him, not for the whole country, and how he’s turned the Republican Party into a cult. Think of how he reduced the White House to an extension of his shady private business, complete with graft, including violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
Think of how Trump encouraged Russia, a rival of the US, to help him get elected and how he actually benefited from Russia’s interference with the election, which makes Trump a Russian asset in the sense of a useful idiot, if not a knowing foreign agent. Think of how Trump was caught red-handed by a whistleblower as he tried to force the president of Ukraine to help him cheat in the 2020 election. That’s close enough to treason, which is one of the few abuses specified by the laws on impeachment.
Think of how Trump has lied to the American people literally thousands upon thousands of times as president, so that his public rhetoric constitutes a disinformation campaign against his own country. Think of how Trump has debased America’s standing in the world as well as American culture, such as by lending support to white supremacists and by demonizing not just Democrats but his own government and intelligence agencies when they oppose his dereliction. Think of how the President doesn’t read or care about learning to do well in his job and disgraces himself over and over again, acting like a man-baby who wears his grotesque emotions on his sleeve, because he’s obviously a malignant narcissist who thinks he’s Superman and can do no wrong.
You could go on and on and on in recounting the objective, nonpartisan reasons why Trump makes for a catastrophic president. But the point is that Trump was elected anyway, and that’s largely because roughly half the country has no faith in their political system, because of the Electoral College, the gerrymandering, and America’s resurgent plutocratic shadow government that moots the democratic process; therefore, that half doesn’t bother to vote, which leaves the elections up to zealous minorities.
Another reason Trump was elected is that one of those minorities, namely the base of Trump’s supporters voted mainly to troll the nation. Instead of voting in good faith, believing Donald Trump would make a fine president who would be able to fix the country’s ills, these white Evangelicals, white nationalists, and bitter blue-collar labourers believed Trump would embarrass or tear down the corrupt “establishment.” The reasonable expectation was that Trump would be their mentally-incompetent puppet, their instrument of vengeance against liberal culture who would stuff the courts with conservative judges not because he cares about conservative ideology but because he’s vulnerable to flattery by the mob that would praise him for doing so.
Of course, the other, Democratic minority of zealous voters voted on the basis of their conviction that Trump would be disastrous as president.
Trump’s America: A Clusterfuck of Anti-Patriotism
There is, therefore, a perfect storm against the American ideals that are reflected in the laws on impeachment. The President’s offenses are indeed so overwhelming that they ought to persuade any of Trump’s reasonable congressional allies that he deserves to be removed from office. But not coincidentally, the same cultural forces that enabled such a monstrous candidate to become president had already degraded the Republican Party for decades so that the current Republican representatives and senators agree with the primary aims of Trump’s base of supporters, those being the trolling and sabotaging of American democracy.
The Republican-controlled senate won’t remove Trump despite the damage he’s doing to the country, because they’re using Trump’s mental disorders to enact plutocratic economic policies. These senators are effectively in league with the shadow government that’s comprised of the richest one percent of Americans who control the country’s economic agenda. It’s not just the President, then, who’s at war with most of the country, but the Republican Party that’s conned rural voters into voting against their economic interests since the Southern Strategy of the 1960s.
Trump’s saving grace for these voters is that, unlike previous Republican presidents who didn’t deliver on the social issues (because those vulgar issues don’t matter to the top one percent that cares only about increasing its fortunes), Trump’s been brazen enough to redirect the American legal system by filling the courts with regressive, right-wing judges. This is why Trump’s support from Republicans is unwavering no matter what else he does, because he delivers on the issues that matter to the two factions. The would-be plutocrats get their deregulation and tax breaks, and the “basket of deplorables” gets to turn back the cultural clock on issues such as abortion, gay rights, and gun laws.
Politically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with troglodytes in a democracy taking advantage of elections to make their society more “conservative,” by electing representatives who will pick suitable judges. That in itself isn’t un-American, although the irrationalism at the heart of “conservative” moral principles conflicts with the spirit of the Enlightenment philosophy that guided the country’s founders.
For example, the founders were deists and effectively atheists, whereas the conservatives who are proud of Trump’s presidency are either Christian fundamentalists who long for the US to be a theocracy, racists who would dismiss the Enlightenment’s liberal theory of personhood, or bitter, cynical, virtually anarchical members of the working-class that want to “shake things up” in Washington.
But the Republicans’ promotion of crony capitalism is effectively un-American, since their economic policies, from the “free trade” of yore to Trump’s arbitrary protectionism, empower an unelected master class that can subvert the will of the majority, by flooding the political campaigns with money to ensure that the winners are mostly fellow members of the upper class, and by controlling the national narrative through the corporate media.
You can tell that the American discourse hasn’t been allowed to unfold organically, because the half of the country that recognizes the monstrousness of Trump’s presidency is hardly doing all they can to combat their enemy. Why haven’t the never-Trumpers and the Trump-loathers organized mass protests throughout the ordeal of Trump’s time in office, to pressure Trump to change his ways or to convince the deep state or other politicians to rein Trump in?
Ultimately, the reason is that Trump’s incredulous foes are mostly American urban professionals who were convinced of neoliberalism long before they had to make a decision on Trump. These Democrats care mostly about their economic status, so as long as the economy is temporarily booming they can’t bring themselves to act on their disapproval of Trump’s vulgarity. Sure, they signal their virtue by attacking Trump verbally at every opportunity, but they don’t turn their words into effective political action, because the top one percent has controlled the narrative for decades by pushing neoliberalism through the industrial-entertainment complex and setting the Overton window.
Centuries from now, then, historians may study American society and take some of the surviving evidence too seriously, including the record of American laws, since the Constitutional provisions for impeachment will be silent on the clusterfuck of anti-patriotism that played out in the US from the 2016 election to at least Trump’s impeachment in late 2019.