Dismayed by the republic, and considering my grandfather’s wisdom
Walter Seligsohn arrived in America in 1940, a refugee from the Holocaust. He went on to serve in the US Army as a medic in the Pacific Theatre and graduate from Columbia Law School. He was an ardent defender of liberty. He had a passion for discourse and intellectual debate — he instilled in his children the same, who in turn uniformly passed it on to the next generation.
He raised a generation of Seligsohn’s, all of whom have gone on to be politically active. From political scientists by trade to grassroots activism, all have seen politicization far beyond what is commonplace in our society. It is through this his legacy continues to live on. The practice of politics is what binds us together through the generations, and how his memory continues to live on today.
Today on his yarzheit, I can’t help but wonder what he would think of our nation today. It was infrequent that I’d have the opportunity to sit and discuss things with him yet that doesn’t mean that he can’t still provide me with his insight. Amidst the most recent presidential impeachment, he authored a letter to the editor criticizing the tactic of the lead counsel, Ken Starr, decrying it as “the theater of the absurd.” His assertion was that as Clinton’s policies were largely popular among the public, and as impeachment is “not a device to punish executive officers for conduct that involves neither a Government policy nor an exercise of Government powers,” the use of the impeachment process was wholly inappropriate.
Today’s situation sits in stark contrast. Not only are President Trump’s policies remarkably unpopular, he is largely disapproved by the electorate. Plagued by the perception of illegitimacy after losing the popular vote but still ascending to the highest office, Trump took office with the worst approval rating of any president, only to trend downward. By my grandfather’s standard, the first test has been failed: Trump’s policies are not only “anathema to the people” but he in fact never had broad public support.
The next question is whether or not this case might be one where impeachment would be a fitting course of action. My grandfather argues that “[impeachment] is not a device to punish executive officers for conduct that involves neither a Government policy nor an exercise of Government power.” Implicitly, impeachment is a device to punish executive officers for conduct involving Government policy and an exercise of Government power. Trump’s policy proposals have been dangerous and unconstitutional; courts have been unwilling to enforce them. His exercise of executive power has led to a situation where foreign entities have been able to purchase influence within the executive branch. There is no question that such an action is irresponsible behavior, certainly a question of government power, stemming directly from an executive that is unresponsive to any and all criticism. Again, the President’s actions would qualify under the Seligsohn test.
The next question is whether there are other ways to shape the President’s politics. The answer to this is an unequivocal no. Erick Erickson, writing on the matter, states that not only is the President unwilling to take criticism, but he is unable. “He does not want advice, cannot be corrected, and is too insecure to see any constructive feedback as anything other than an attack.”
“What other means are available to get the President to listen and recognize the error of his ways?” Walter answers, “Impeachment may be resorted to only if there are no other means for bending the executive to the popular will.”
The three-faceted test laid out in Walter’s 1998 letter to the editor articulates the idea that impeachment was not the correct tool for President Clinton because he enjoyed public support, it was not a matter of government policy or power, and there were other manners by which to influence the executive to reflect the will of the people. President Trump fails on all of these.
There can be no more lively debate with him, but his ideas continue to live on, just as relevant today as they were when he penned them two decades ago. It’s this practice of engaging with the world of politics that his spirit persists. And with his words preserved it is clear that, just as I am today, he would have been dismayed with the state of our Republic.