Why have so many Republicans given up on America?
This last Saturday my post was about how America’s regime cleavage risks a Trumpian last refuge. The focus was on the article by Thomas Pepinsky, “a professor of government at Cornell University and a nonresident senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution,” explains Why the Impeachment Fight Is Even Scarier Than You Think.. Political scientists have studied what our democracy is going through. It usually doesn’t end well.
Here are two excerpts.
Political scientists have a term for what the United States is witnessing right now. It’s called “regime cleavage,” a division within the population marked by conflict about the foundations of the governing system itself—in the American case, our constitutional democracy. In societies facing a regime cleavage, a growing number of citizens and officials believe that norms, institutions and laws may be ignored, subverted or replaced.
Regime cleavages … focus the electorate’s attention on the political system as a whole. Instead of seeking office to change the laws to obtain preferred policies, politicians who oppose the democratic order ignore the laws when necessary to achieve their political goals, and their supporters stand by or even endorse those means to their desired ends. Today, when Trump refuses to comply with the House impeachment inquiry, he makes plain his indifference to the Constitution and to the separation of powers. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argues that impeachment overturns an election result, he is doing the same. In the minds of Trump, his allies and, increasingly, his supporters, it’s not just Democrats but American democracy that is the obstacle.
And that is why Republican Senators and this Republican President are not bothered by violating their oaths of office.
Michael Gerson, without employing the concept of “regime cleavage” per se, reports instances of it in his Washington Post column The GOP’s defense of Trump has me sinking into cynicism. (Also see this morning’s Daily Star for a copy.)
Unless you were paying close attention, you might have missed one of the most illuminating moments so far in President Trump’s impeachment saga.
During Army Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman’s testimony Tuesday before House impeachment investigators, he said: “I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained. This would all undermine U.S. national security.”
It is the second sentence that cuts. Vindman not only argued that Trump’s crude and obvious quid pro quo was inappropriate. As a regional expert, Vindman was concerned also that Trump’s actions would weaken support for a front-line country resisting Russian aggression and thus compromise U.S. security interests.
It was in this context that Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) road-tested a Republican response to impeachment. “I thought it was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign government to investigate a political opponent,” he said. “I also do not think it’s an impeachable offense.”
BTW: Portman cannot have it both ways. If asking “a foreign government to investigate a political opponent” is not impeachable, then it’s OK for the president to do it again, and again, and again. But if such an act is inappropriate, then there must be some method of enforcement to deal with the impropriety.
Portman is usually found in the more thoughtful portion of his tribe. But this answer conspicuously, even deceptively, ignores the issue at hand. A decision about impeachment not only involves the response to a specific act — say, a third-rate burglary. It also necessarily entails a judgment about the fitness for high office of the actor. In Trump’s case, the problem is not a slimy phone call in a lifetime of slimy phone calls. The problem is a president who puts his personal interests ahead of U.S. national security. And who still finds nothing wrong with his “perfect” conversation. The corrupt act reveals a corrupt man, unable to make the most rudimentary judgments about the nation’s good.
In light of all this — against all my instincts — I am sinking into cynicism. If the best of the Republican Party is willing to make shallow, shoddy excuses for an unfit president, then the path ahead is disturbingly clear. The details of the case for impeachment, it seems, will not finally matter. Fearing the revolt of their base — and the retribution of an emotionally unstable president — Senate Republicans (with one admirable exception, Utah’s Mitt Romney) have already chosen their final position: acquittal. And whatever is revealed in the course of the investigation — no matter how vomitous — will fall just short of an impeachable offense. The goal posts will move and move until they are in the next county. And tolerance for corruption in high places will continue to grow.
Only two eventualities might change Republican calculations on impeachment. First, the Republican base might turn against Trump in significant numbers. This is unlikely to the point of impossibility. No matter what the impeachment investigation reveals, Fox News and conservative talk radio will produce an alternative narrative to which partisans can cling. Even if this involves the defamation of patriots such as Vindman. Even if this involves conspiracy theories and massive revisions to reality.
Second, Americans outside the Republican base might turn against Trump so vigorously and completely that the political incentives for Republican officeholders begin to change. What does it profit senators to keep the base if they lose the rest of the electorate? Such a decisive shift in public sentiment also seems unlikely, but who knows what further ethical horrors a corruption investigation featuring Trump and Rudolph W. Giuliani might reveal?
There is, of course, another factor that might change. Republican senators could actually take the deliberative role of their institution seriously. They could recover a proper outrage at public corruption. They could recall why they entered public service in the first place and choose to pay the cost of conscience.
I still want to believe this is possible. But I’m not holding my breath.
U. S. Senators take this oath. “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”
The oath taken by newly elected presidents is similar and prescribed in the Constitution. "Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: — “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” ARTICLE II, SECTION 1, CLAUSE 8.
The President and his sycophants in the Congress have violated, and are violating each hour of each day, their respective oaths. They never intended to honor those words because, fundamentally, they do not believe in America, its democracy, and its institutions. If they really did believe in what they swore to uphold, they would not be lying about (the President) and mounting specious defenses (Senators) of the President’s illegal acts.
See? It’s regime cleavage at work.
The AZ Blue Meanie at Blog for Arizona has an exhaustive list of more instances of quid pro quo (at least 5, maybe 8) than we are accustomed to seeing in the media: Republicans have no defense to Trump’s extortion and bribery of Ukraine. He wraps up with these observations.
A handful of scholars and legal experts (Lawfare Blog) have argued that what Trump did constitutes bribery — or at least, bribery as the Founding Fathers understood it. The framers of the Constitution understood bribery to be an offense that includes both giving and accepting bribes. “Bribery” is one of the offenses specified in the Constitution meriting impeachment.
As Aaron Blake explains:
Some have argued what Trump did was more extortion than bribery — particularly if he was withholding already-approved military aid for leverage — because Ukraine wasn’t going to get anything it wasn’t already due. But those two words have often been used interchangeably. And even if you want to draw that line, Trump’s conditioning of an Oval Office meeting on the investigations would seem to qualify as an extra benefit and, thus, potential bribery.
Why get bogged down in specific offenses with actual statutory requirements that the other side could argue must be satisfied, when you’re really making a general case about abuses of power? That risks allowing people to argue this wasn’t technically bribery, and maybe allowing the accused to skate. A number of experts have argued against defining what Trump did as bribery, including Renato Mariotti and Teri Kanefield, for that very reason.
But we’re in a different era now, in which polarization has rendered basically any subjectivity and plausible deniability politically weaponized. The phrase “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” is a nebulous one to pretty much every American who doesn’t call themselves a constitutional scholar. That allows plenty of people to convince themselves Trump’s actions don’t rise to the level required.
You could argue that defining Trump’s misdeeds by a less subjective term would be much more fruitful. Does your average person know whether what Trump allegedly did is a “high Crime” or “Misdemeanor?” Perhaps not. And perhaps they think a “high Crime” means something, well, with a high degree of criminality — which isn’t true.
Could they be convinced, by contrast, that it was the kind of bribery that is expressly forbidden in the Constitution? And, on a more basic level, do people even know that bribery is an impeachable offense? Those are the questions Democrats should probably be asking themselves about now.
Democrats and the media need to be educating the public about constitutional law, and simplifying the evidence in this case. There is no doubt that Donald Trump should be impeached for this crime. He used the powers of the presidency to benefit himself, and he invited a foreign nation to interfere in our 2020 presidential election — just as he did with Russia in the 2016 election. Donald Trump’s abuse of power is a threat to our national security and the integrity of our elections.
Once upon a time there was a conservative faction deeply opposed to Trump - the NeverTrumpers. What happened to them? Is Romney the only one that remains? (And remember that even he tried sucking up to Trump in search of a position in the Trump administration.)
Washington Post columnist Bret Stephens tells us the story in The NeverTrump Vindication. They may be on respirators. But conscientious conservatives still count. Let’s see.
… his tweet of Oct. 23 — the one that called NeverTrumpers “human scum” — plumbed new depths in the debasement of presidential speech. … “The Never Trumper Republicans, though on respirators with not many left, are in certain ways worse and more dangerous for our Country than the Do Nothing Democrats,” the president wrote, before warning of their scummy natures.
Think that one over. If the few remaining NeverTrump conservatives can still be that dangerous while we’re on respirators, we must be powerful indeed. …
[After the election] The NeverTrumpers scattered. Some became ex-conservatives. Others, full-on Trumpers. Still others, anti-anti-Trumpers — which only meant they were smart enough to see the president for what he is and churlish enough to be angry at those who wouldn’t join them in capitulating to it.
Yet the NeverTrumpers never scattered entirely, and thank heavens for that. Every political system will always have a conservative faction, and every healthy democracy needs that faction to be rooted in some combination of classical liberalism and moral traditionalism. Trump’s G.O.P., whatever its political fortunes, is the opposite: a nativist party led by a libertine.
At some level, conservatives know this. Trump knows they know it. Which explains why he has turned his sights on Never Trumpers: What despots and demagogues fear most is their followers developing a conscience.
… the president’s support with his base is slipping at last. A new poll finds Trump’s support among Republicans at 74 percent — an eight-point decline since September and the lowest since he was elected. Nearly one in five Republicans support impeachment and removal. So do 47 percent of independents. These numbers will not move in Trump’s favor if the truth about his “drug deals” (to borrow Bolton’s phrase) continues to come to light.
I doubt any of this will be sufficient to get at least 20 Republican senators to vote for Trump’s removal from office. But Trump knows that the number needed to spell his moral defeat on impeachment is four. If Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and one other Republican join the Democrats to convict, the political humiliation will be thunderous. And, as my colleague David Leonhardt has convinced me, it could devastate his re-election chances. If the administration thinks impeachment is such a political winner, they wouldn’t be fighting it this hard.
In the meantime, someone ought to print “Human Scum” on a limited-edition T-shirt. Given who said it about whom, it turns out to be a badge of honor.