Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Demagogue in the Offal Office - the Founders' Worst Nightmare

John Cassidy (in the New Yorker ) explains how The House Impeachment Report Highlights Trump’s Ongoing Abuse of Presidential Power

Donald Trump’s obstructive behavior raises fundamental issues about the ability, or inability, of the American political system to police a rogue President.

The first two-thirds of the House Intelligence Committee’s lengthy report on the Trump-Ukraine affair, which was released on Tuesday, tells a story that, in broad strokes, will be familiar to anyone who follows the news. It details “a months-long effort by President Trump to use the powers of his office to solicit foreign interference on his behalf in the 2020 election.” The report describes how, earlier this year, he empowered Rudy Giuliani and the “three amigos” (the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland; the former Secretary of Energy Rick Perry; and the former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker), Trump forced out the sitting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and then froze U.S. security assistance—all in an effort to force Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s new President, to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

“We should care about this—we must care about this, and, if we don’t care about this, we can darn well be sure that the President will be back at it, doing this all over again,” Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the committee, said at a press conference, shortly after his staff posted the report online. Trump’s attempt to squeeze the Ukrainian government, Schiff went on, was part of a pattern in which he asked Russia to interfere in the 2016 election and, more recently, asked the Chinese government to investigate the Bidens. He added, “This is the result of a President who believes that he is beyond indictment, beyond impeachment, beyond any form of accountability, and, indeed, above the law.”

If we go to the 2020 election with Trump surviving the House impeachment and the Senate trial, we run a very real risk of our republic succumbing to a diabolical demagogue. The Founders would cringe at the prospect of the American people, via their elected representatives, accepting the death of democracy. We are on the way there with one of the two major political parties swearing fealty to one man and thus creating a malevolent monarchy. Here’s more about what the Founders feared more than anything else.

Trump Is the Founders’ Worst Nightmare. Once in the Oval Office, a demagogue can easily stay there writes Bob Bauer (the White House counsel under President Barack Obama). Following are lengthy excerpts.

Donald Trump’s Republican congressional allies are throwing up different defenses against impeachment and hoping that something may sell. They say that he didn’t seek a corrupt political bargain with Ukraine, but that if he did, he failed, and the mere attempt is not impeachable. Or that it is not clear that he did it, because the evidence against him is unreliable “hearsay.”

It’s all been very confusing. But the larger story — the crucial constitutional story — is not the incoherence of the president’s defense. It is more that he and his party are exposing limits of impeachment as a response to the presidency of a demagogue.

The founders feared the demagogue, who figures prominently in the Federalist Papers as the politician who, possessing “perverted ambition,” pursues relentless self-aggrandizement “by the confusions of their country.” The last of the papers, Federalist No. 85, linked demagogy to its threat to the constitutional order — to the “despotism” that may be expected from the “victorious demagogue.” This “despotism” is achieved through systematic lying to the public, vilification of the opposition and, as James Fenimore Cooper wrote in an essay on demagogues, a claimed right to disregard “the Constitution and the laws” in pursuing what the demagogue judges to be the “interests of the people.”

Should the demagogue succeed in winning the presidency, impeachment in theory provides the fail-safe protection. And yet the demagogue’s political tool kit, it turns out, may be his most effective defense. It is a constitutional paradox: The very behaviors that necessitate impeachment supply the means for the demagogue to escape it.

As the self-proclaimed embodiment of the American popular will, the demagogue portrays impeachment deliberations as necessarily a threat to democracy, a facade for powerful interests arrayed against the people that only he represents. Critics and congressional opponents are traitors. Norms and standing institutional interests are fraudulent.

President Trump has made full use of the demagogic playbook. He has refused all cooperation with the House. He lies repeatedly about the facts, holds public rallies to spread these falsehoods and attacks the credibility, motives and even patriotism of witnesses. His mode of “argument” is purely assaultive. This is the crux of the Trump defense, and not an argument built on facts in support of a constitutional theory of the case.

The demagogue may be boundlessly confident in his own skills and force of political personality, but he cannot succeed on those alone. He can thrive only in political conditions conducive to the effective practice of these dark arts, such as widespread distrust of institutions, a polarized polity and a fractured media environment in which it is possible to construct alternative pictures of social realities. Weak political parties now fall quickly into line with a demagogue who can bring intense pressure to bear on party officials and officeholders through his hold on “the base.” As we have seen with Mr. Trump, the demagogue can bully his party into being an instrument of his will, silencing or driving out dissenters. Republican officeholders know that Mr. Trump can take to Twitter or to Fox News or to the podium at rallies — or all of the above — to excoriate them for a weak will or disloyalty.

This is how the Republican Party has become Mr. Trump’s party. It is also why that party will not conceive of its role in impeachment as entailing a constitutional responsibility independent of the president’s political and personal interests. It has come to see those interests as indistinguishable from its own. In this way the constitutional defense of the case against Mr. Trump and the defense of his own interests become one and the same. As another fabled demagogue, Huey Long of Louisiana, famously announced: “I’m the Constitution around here now.”

So where does this lead? Bauer concludes:

… A demagogue can claim that Congress has forfeited the right to recognition of its impeachment power, then proceed to unleash a barrage of falsehoods and personal attacks to confuse the public, cow legislators and intimidate witnesses. So long as the demagogue’s party controls one of the two chambers of Congress, this strategy seems a sure bet.

When this is all over, we will not hear warm bipartisan praise for how “the system worked.” The lesson will be that, in the politics of the time, a demagogue who gets into the Oval Office is hard to get out.

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