Even in normal times it is not easy for outsiders to understand American politics, even outsiders who live in democracies. And that is because America is an outlier as the planet’s longest-lived mass egalitarian democracy, and as an immigrant society with a civic as opposed to ethnic form of nationalism, an incipient universal civilization despite the flaws that remain within.
And these are by no means normal times. The U.S. House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump yesterday (December 19), only the third such episode since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, and the only time that impeachment or impending impeachment (in the 1974 case of President Richard Nixon) has involved a President who was not a lame duck (no way Andrew Johnson was going to run for President in1868; Nixon and Clinton were in their second terms). That’s not normal to the point of being unique.
Truth to tell, even Americans increasingly don’t understand their own political culture—a fact that is to some extent true of all political cultures. Just as fish are the last to discover water, it takes a special effort backed by a special kind of education to redeem unexamined assumptions from the minds of those who live within their own politispheres. In the case of the current impeachment drama, this matters because outsiders trying to pay attention to it might well be puzzled by the contending discourses they overhear—as thought different sides were describing two completely different worlds. That is in fact the case; your hearing is perfectly fine. But one of the reasons it is the case has to do with the fact that most of the American political class and media seem these days not to really understand their own Constitution and history, or to care about it if they do understand it—which is worse.
So I have cooked up here a series of questions-and-answers that, taken together, form a primer for my Arab readers. I figure since most Americans might not be understanding very well what’s going on, al-Mesbar readers may need a little help getting a grip, too.
Now, before getting down to brass tacks, as we say, let me mention two matters to set the stage. First, this whole business is very complicated. It would take a book to properly explain what’s going on and what’s at stake. But I don’t have time to write and you don’t have time to read a whole book, so we must make do with less. Just please don’t mistake what you see here for a comprehensive analysis.
Second, obviously, this is a very heated partisan shoving match that’s going on in the United States, and so you are right to be skeptical of the objectivity of any explanation that comes before you. What you need to know, therefore, is that, despite being of a selectively conservative temperament, I have never been a Republican (despite having worked for a Republican Administration), and I have not been a Democrat since 1991. I have not voted for a major-party presidential candidate 24 years. My view is that both parties are near brain death, and that both have far too often acted foolishly and irresponsibly: You cannot work your way down to a constitutional crisis any other way, really. I am also not susceptible to Washington fever; I’m writing 15,540 kilometers from Washington, in Singapore, where I have been for the past five months. A little distance can be useful at times like these.
Moreover, unlike most Americans—indeed most people everywhere—I am a trained social scientist whose default drive in situations like this is not to put a premium on emotion and bloodsport handicapping, but on facts and rational explanation of the facts. I am an adept of both the late political satirist and activist Dick Gregory (“Start with the truth before you tamper with it.”) and former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn (“Always tell the truth; that way you don’t have to remember what you said.”) I may not be a perfect seer, but I am not going blow smoke up any particular orifice you may possess—that’s a promise.
OK, so now fasten your seatbelt, here we go.
Q: If President Trump has been impeached by Congress, doesn’t he have to leave office?
A: No. The way the Constitution works, the House of Representatives can impeach the President, as it has done, but then the Senate sits as a special jury to either convict or exonerate the President. That has not happened yet.
Q: Will the Senate convict President Trump?
A: Almost certainly not. Convictions require a supermajority, 67 out of 100 votes. While some Republican Senators may vote to convict, not nearly enough of them—and they are the majority in the Senate now—are likely to do so.
Q: Assuming for the sake of argument that the Senate does vote to convict, will President Trump leave office voluntarily? If not, what would happen?
A: I doubt he would leave voluntarily, and I regret that the White House press corps has failed so far to ask this basic question. I suspect that were he asked, the President would answer “no.” That would align with his claim, before the November 2016 election, that if he lost it would mean the election was rigged and he would not recognize the winner, and it would align with his recent contentions that the impeachment proceedings are a sham and hoax—purely political, and based on no evidence of any wrongdoing. That answer would also be in and of itself an impeachable offense, because the President took an oath to defend the Constitution, not to defy it.
Q: What would happen then?
A: No one knows. No President has ever been convicted. There is no precedent.
Q: What will be the nature of a Senate trial?
A: The Constitution sets out some specific guidelines. First, usually the Vice-President presides over the Senate, and as President pro tem, can cast a deciding vote if the Senate deadlocks 50-50 on any piece of legislation or resolution. But in the case of an impeachment trial, the Vice-President is not involved, because the Framers realized that he would be subject to conflict-of-interest pressures. Therefore, in the special case of an impeachment trial, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides. In this case, that is Justice John Roberts.
Q: Do the general legal provisions of Federal trials otherwise apply to impeachment?
A: Absolutely not! And the level and degree of misunderstanding here is disheartening. It is clear from the Framers—from the history of the Constitutional Convention and the Federalist Papers—that impeachment is not a legal proceeding. It is a political proceeding. In the Federalist No. 65, Alexander Hamilton, writing as Publicus, states clearly that impeachment is a political proceeding, and he capitalized the entire word—POLITICAL—the only way back then to emphasize something in writing. The Founders realized that impeachment would be polarizing and emotional, and so reasoned that law alone could not stand before such circumstances.
Q: What practical difference has this misunderstanding made?
A: Plenty. Republicans trying to defend the President’s clearly impeachable behaviour in holding up congressionally approved aid money for Ukraine, using it as a means of extortion to get the Ukrainian government to dig up dirt on his potential future political rivals, have contended that since there is no firm evidence of a crime, therefore no impeachable offense exists. This is disingenuous, and most of them know it. The Constitution speaks of bribery, treason, and “high crimes and misdemeanors ” as the three varieties of betraying the public trust sufficient for impeachment. There were no Federal bribery statutes until 1853, so the Framers obviously did not mean specific crimes by bribery. Moreover, George Mason, the author of the Bill of Rights, is the one who came up with “high crimes and misdemeanors” language, because, viewing an impeachment trial then going on in London—the trial of Warren Hastings, Governour-General of India—the delegates realized that Hastings, whom they all believed guilty, would not be convictable on the basis of specific laws alone. So they sought a formula for the U.S. system that was looser than positive law but not so loose as to be regularly abused. It is simply not true that impeachable offenses are subsumed by crimes; indeed, in The Federalist No. 65 Hamilton does not even once use the word crime.
Q: Why, then, has the U.S. media not corrected this misapprehension?
A: Conservative media, like Fox News, doesn’t care about truth so much as it cares about partisan advantage. The rest of the mainstream electronic media is simply ignorant and incompetent. One reason for this is that the tech giants have strip-minded professional journalism, such that the intellectual quality of the typical electronic media type is much lower than that of former print media professionals. But the vast majority of Americans no longer get most of their news by reading serious newspapers; they get it from television and unfiltered internet, especially social media platforms like Facebook. Ignorance multiplies in these self-referential media wormholes, where advertisers care more about clickbait-attracted “hits” than they do about serious or truthful content.
Q: Congressional Republicans claim, nearly every one of them, that Ukraine, not Russia, sought to interfere in the November 2016 U.S. election. They do this to underwrite the White House claim that President Trump wanted to clean up corruption in Ukraine, not get dirt on Joe Biden, in his July 25 call with President Zelensky. What evidence is there for that claim?
A: None whatsoever. This claim is Russian disinformation in its origin. Republicans have picked it up in desperation, because the President’s behaviour is indefensible. They tried first to claim that the President’s “ask” of Zelensky referred back to 2016, not ahead to 2020, but the transcript contradicts that claim very plainly. So they turned to a tactic that resembles something 9-year old boys do in the playground. When someone verbally assaults some boy, the boy may retort “I know you are but what am I?” What this means is that for every accusation thrown the President’s way, the White House and its supporters invent an equal but opposite accusation, whether based on evidence or not. They repeat it over and over again, and have it magnified by conservative media, to the point that for most Americans it creates enough ambiguity to discount the truth.
Q: Don’t Republicans who do this feel guilty about lying like this?
A: First, not all of them do it. One Republican congressman left the party out of disgust. Several Senators have resisted such pandering. Some Republican columnists in major newspapers support conviction. But second, you have to remember that most Congressmen are lawyers. And what trial lawyers are trained to do is to make the best argument for their clients, whether they think they are guilty or not. There is, in their view, no dishonour in this, since in the common law tradition all those accused of crimes are entitled to a vigorous defence in a system where the burden of proving guilt lies with the prosecutor. The basic principle here is that is better that ten guilty people go free than that one innocent person be wrongly convicted and punished.
Q: So these people do not really believe the strange and unsupportable things they say?
A: Some of them do believe it, including, I think, the President—thanks in part to the influence of his lawyer, Rudy Guiliani. There are a lot of brain-addled high-functioning alcoholics in Washington. Seriously. But most don’t. The problem is, the typical American citizen doesn’t realize how lawyers talk. And with the effort of the White House and its supporters in recent years to discredit responsible news sources, with accusations and counter-accusations of fake news flying around, a lot of people simply default to the political side they favour, taking their version of the story on trust. All that these invented conspiracy theories about Ukraine and the Bidens and so on have to do is create ambiguity; they don’t need to actually persuade anyone based on evidence or logical argument.
Q: But how can people defer to their partisan choices at the expense of trying to understand what is and is not true?
A: This is an excellent question, but a simple answer goes like this: Human beings evolved to place great store in trust—as in, stick with me, kid, and you’ll survive until dinner. The concept of truth is very abstract, and before the advent of literacy it didn’t mean much to most people. Truth at first meant religious truth, something one takes on faith—or, more often—by trusting the people who urge you to accept the truth. The idea of truth as accuracy, as something having to do with facts no matter how you may feel about those facts, dates really from only about the 16th century, and mainly, then, in parts of Europe. In populist times, with more people having political views and willing to express political agency—but still not knowing much about the subjects—the power of trust far exceeds concern with truth. And obviously, this is true not just in the United States; walk outside wherever you are in the Arab world and look around if you don’t believe me.
Q: How will this whole impeachment episode effect the November 2020 election?
A: It will affect it in every way possible and already is. This is the campaign, already.
Q: Which party will benefit most from it?
A: That depends on how skilful the leaderships are. After the issuance of the Mueller Report about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign early in the year, a lot of people called for impeachment then on the grounds that the President obstructed justice. But the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, resisted calls for impeachment coming from the leftwing of the Democratic Party. She resisted because she believed that an impeachment proceeding that failed to convict in the Senate, as she believed would be the case, would create a backlash that would help the Republicans.
It is entirely possible—we just don’t know—that Donald Trump concurs with this analysis, and that he made available the transcript of his infamous quid pro quo telephone conversation of July 25 with the Ukrainian president in order to force Ms. Pelosi to move toward impeachment. Trump even said lately that while the Democrats were banalizing impeachment, the politics of the thing seemed to be helping him. So either the man is very, very stupid on this count, or he is very, very shrewd. The more I see and the more he talks, the more I am inclined to believe the latter. If that is so, he has made complete fools of the House Republicans trying to defend him, since he doesn’t want to be defended; he just needs the appearance of a defence to make his stratagem credible. It’s the Senate he cares about, and that he has under control.
Q: Is that what explains Pelosi’s hesitance to turn the matter over to the Senate now that the vote is done in the House?
A: The Republican leadership in the Senate has indicated that it will very rapidly dispense with any trial. It will call no witnesses. Pelosi wants to force them to come off this attitude, and be serious about a Senate trial, because she thinks, maybe, that the subpoena power of the Congress can succeed at getting witnesses to testify that would hurt Trump politically. Trump, for his part, wants a Senate trial because he is sure that, whatever any witnesses say, he will not be convicted. This he intends to use politically against the Democrats. Oddly enough, Trump sides with Pelosi here, because he wants as much exposure as he can get out of all this. His is the quintessential reality-TV presidency. He understands that even bad publicity is better than no publicity. Pelosi might be expected to want to let the Republicans embarrass themselves with a sham trial; but she is wary that such a spectacle actually would not help the Democrats. Some are accusing her of an unforced error; I am not sure it is so simple.
Q: Does Trump actually think he’s innocent?
A: He doesn’t know the law, so it is a hard question to answer. Besides, it is probably a non-question to him. He is the President, and to him that means he can do anything he wants. I doubt he thinks in terms of right or wrong, guilty or not guilty. He thinks in terms of what is useful and hurtful politically. The law is to him entirely transactional, as is everything else. That is why, for example, he felt not the slightest compunction about mischaracterizing the Mueller Report. And again: Did he know he was mischaracterizing it? Hard to say: It is difficult to read a narcissist’s inner state of being
Q: What about the Mueller Report? What did it actually say?
A: The White House completely distorted the findings of the Mueller Report. The President claimed that the report fully exonerated him. It did no such thing. But Mueller reasoned correctly that views on impeachment were not the purvey of the Justice department to give, since—he at least understood—impeachment was a political judgment to make, not a narrowly legal one, and it was Congress that had to make it.
Also, understand: The Mueller investigation did not find that the Trump campaign actively colluded with Russian efforts to affect the election. But it and subsequent findings show that: the campaign accepted money under the table from foreign countries, which is illegal; and that it knew of Russian efforts to hack the election via trolls and bots on social media but said nothing about it. Paul Manafort, the campaigns first chairman, is in fail thanks in part to the former fact; Roger Stone is in jail thanks to the latter fact. But the Republican line has been that since there was no active collusion, none of the other things it did are true either. This is nonsense, but repeated often enough in a high-strung partisan environment it’s enough for many people. As Lincoln did NOT say, but as the joke goes: You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time…..and that should be sufficient for most purposes. Turns out it’s no joke.
Q: But isn’t it true that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign?
A: As the recent Horowitz Report has made clear, the FBI was malfeasant and incompetent in how it went about investigating the Trump campaign. But this was an investigation justified on the merits—note the above mentioned behaviours—not spying. The fact that the FBI did many nasty, stupid, and incompetent things—including lying multiple times to a FISA court—doesn’t surprise anyone who knows anything about the FBI. Once it is determined who knew what and when, and whether a cover-up was involved, some people should go to jail for this.
But none of that changes the fact that first the Trump campaign did illegal things and then the Trump Administration behaved in ways incompatible with the President’s oath to defend the Constitution. None of it justifies the President’s ludicrous accusations of a “deep state” out to get him; there is no such thing in the United States, and the undereducated people who think otherwise have watched too many bad movies that have turned them into dime-store cynics. Obviously, just because any one side acts badly doesn’t exonerate automatically the other side in everything it does or has done. In politics, all sides can act badly, foolishly, stupidly. You might think that any sentient adult would understand this. Well, think again.
Q: Is that all there is? Is anything deeper going on here?
A: No, that is definitely not all that’s going on here. Plenty of a deeper nature is going on. But that’s about the book that we have agreed I would not write and you would not read. But OK: let me give you the very short version, and hope that’ll do for now.
First, this is not just about the future of the Trump presidency; this is about the future of the American republic. The precedent being set is hugely important, and the fact that there has been so much ignorance of basic civic ideals, and so much bald-faced Republican lying, does not bode well for the future. Clearly, on both sides, but especially the Republican side, those who have taken oaths to defend the Constitution do not take those oaths seriously. The vast majority of them have put party above principle without blinking an eye.
We will see what happens with the Senate trial. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and insane weathervane Lindsay Graham, among others, have threatened to zoom through a trial calling no witnesses, and several say they already know how they will vote without seeing any evidence. That alone constitutes a threat to constitutional order. If Justice Roberts lets them get away with this, his own constitutional behaviour will be suspect.
And then we will see what happens in November, assuming that Trump survives to stand for re-election. If the American people do not punish this kind of perfidy by the Republican leadership in the Legislative and Executive branches—led presumably by a Democratic Party that doesn’t completely screw up its duty, and opportunity—then the existence of the United States as a constitutional republic will be at severe risk. “A Republic if you can keep it”, said Benjamin Franklin when asked what the constitutional convention had wrought. We are on the verge of losing it.
I am not exaggerating. A democracy cannot be more virtuous in civic terms than We the People in a democracy are virtuous and responsible. If We the People do not give a damn about the rule of law, then We deserve whatever kind of tin-pot government we get. Evo Morales tried to steal the recent Bolivian election; got caught; started a small insurrection, and ended up in exile, a wanted man, in Argentina. This is the kind of thing that happens in places like Bolivia; it’s not the kind of thing that is supposed to happen in the United States. What is at stake, therefore, is far greater than the future of the Trump presidency, as non-trivial as that may be.
Second, Trump’s election was a symptom of deep division and decay in American culture. It’s not as if the tenured elite was doing such a great job. They made serial mistakes, became insular and ignorant of how average Americans lived their lives, and the left side of the elite became almost insufferably condescending to anyone who did not bow down to their idealist-cosmopolitan attitudes. “Deplorables”, Hillary Clinton called such people during the 2016 campaign, and that word alone lost her the election. But to turn to someone like Donald Trump to shake the cage is something else again. How do we explain that?
A very deep cynicism has infected American culture. It has various sources: the impact of the technological tsunami all around us that has, among other things, driven deep literacy down to lower levels and empowered poorly educated but aroused people to think they should express political agency; the downside of unprecedented broadly spread affluence, which has eroded social trust, punctuated by growing inequality, which has increased envy; the predatory, sinister efforts of political consultants and pollsters to manipulate the electorate for personal gain; demographic change that has made immigration the third rail of American politics; and some colossally bad Supreme Court decisions in recent years that have magnified the distortive power of money in American politics.
That’s a short list. But the upshot of the cynicism, combined with the spectacle culture enabled by the ubiquity of mediated images on screens, has been—I suspect—responsible for a huge wave of what can only be called irrationality, or mere arationality if I want to be generous—a kind of political St. Vitus Dance. Let me close by trying to describe this lingering pulse of irrationality through a story.
In the autumn of 1969 two female friends from high school went off for their freshman year to the University of Chicago. Before the end of the first quarter, each one of these young women had done things—and let’s leave the details aside—that dismayed their parents back in the Washington, DC area. When the two sets of parents, who were friends, found out what their daughters were doing, they reduced their pocket money, hoping thereby to pressure the two young women into behaving in ways more to their liking. It didn’t work, so they soon cut off their pocket money altogether. The two young women became very short of cash. So they would go down to the soda machine in the lobby of their dormitory and buy a root beer. They both hated root beer. So after pumping their last 35 cents into the machine and getting the soda can, they would go over to the water cooler and pour the soda down the drain—and laugh like banshees. This is the basis of what I call the Root Beer Syndrome.
If you’re unsure what this means, another brief example. Suppose you are vacuuming the dining room one day and you accidently whack the leg of your breakfront, and the entire huge piece of furniture topples forward, breaking every single piece of your best china except for one forlorn saucer. What do you do with the saucer? You smash it on the floor, of course.
In other words, when things are so bad, or are believed to be so bad, it can be fun to make them just a little bit worse, and especially if by doing so one imagines reaching some kind of psychic closure. Exactly that form of irrationality is, I think, at work on a sizable scale in the American population right now. Many people have turned out: Only about 60% of Americans are paying any attention the impeachment drama, compared to 90% back when President Clinton was impeached for behaviour utterly trivial compared to Trump’s—a clear sign of sharply degraded civic health. Americans in the main don’t trust institutions, they don’t trust experts, they have no faith in the ability of government to solve any significant problem, and many see no way to better their own situations short of robbing banks. So what do they do? They smash the saucer; they vote for someone like Donald Trust, and sit back listening for Nero to start tuning up his fiddle again.
What this means, if true, is that the end of Donald Trump’s political career, sooner or later and one way or another, will not signal a return to normalcy in American politics. No one knows what it signals, except that this impeachment affair is no small beer. It is the visible part of a spectrum of dysfunction the majority of which we cannot see, but that Americans—and not just Americans—are one day sure to feel.