There’s still time to demand that the Senate defend the Constitution
The desire for political freedom and autonomy has brought massive protests to Hong Kong, Barcelona, and India.
Allegations of government corruption sparked demonstrations in Egypt, Lebanon, and Chile.
Iraqis have taken to the streets to demonstrate for income equality and against corruption.
Here in the United States, we sit. Perhaps we watch the impeachment hearings, perhaps we listen as media analysts predict the president will certainly be acquitted in the Senate, despite the evidence that his actions in Ukraine endangered the national security of the United States and Europe. We seem content to let impeachment play out, content to trust that the 2020 election will right the wrongs, despite evidence of foreign interference in the 2016 election that was welcomed by this president and despite evidence that he solicited foreign interference in the upcoming election. There is growing fear that this country is slipping unchecked toward authoritarianism, yet we seem reluctant to do the one thing that might shift the Republicans in the Senate: demand the Constitutionally provided impeachment and removal of this president from office through peaceful protests in every city with the kind of numbers we saw during the January 2017 Women’s March.
We don’t know precisely what triggers mass demonstrations like those in Hong Kong or the Arab Spring. No one expected the numbers we saw the day after the president’s inauguration. One theory is that social movements develop when there is a fissure in the fabric of society. There is a breakdown, an opening for change. Then there is a triggering event — a government action, a street vendor sets himself on fire, a president is inaugurated under a cloud of illegitimacy. The response is not orchestrated. It is spontaneous.
Some might argue that the lack of public outcry is the numbness resulting from three years of the Trump presidency — the nonstop misrepresentation of facts, the chaos, the obstruction and corruption, the lack of accountability. While there is certainly some Trump Fatigue, I’m inclined to believe the lack of massive protest is due to the fact that those who believe Trump should be convicted in the Senate of abuse of power and obstruction of justice also believe in the system; they believe that the legislative branch will do its job to check the power of the executive branch, that the system and institutions that have served our country through multiple crises will once again prevail.
Some think this kind of trust kept President Obama from alerting the public to Russian interference during the 2016 election. The system would resist and Clinton would win. Once Trump was elected, Obama believed the gravity of the office would temper the outrageous behavior of candidate Trump. None of that happened.
We put our faith in systems during the Mueller investigation. But the report did not produce a clear path to impeachment.
We continue to treat the divided Congress — and the divided electorate — as a partisan divide; a difference of political beliefs while holding that everyone still believes in our system of government with its shared power, equal branches of government, checks and balances. But more and more it appears this is not true. Those who favor the president’s conviction and removal from office continue to believe in the system, the process, the weight of evidence. They look back at Watergate, how the evidence shifted public opinion and Republican support for the president. They believe that at the end of the day, members of Congress will not just put the rule of law above party loyalty, they will be faithful to the institution in which they serve, rejecting an executive branch that diminishes it by ignoring subpoenas and calling the process of impeachment outlined in the Constitution “illegitimate” and a “coup.”
What has unfolded, however, is a scenario in which those in Congress who support the president’s narrative on Ukraine also appear to support his push toward a strong executive branch, not subject to the checks and balances of our democracy, and perhaps not subject to the term limits of the Constitution.
Writing in Politico, political scientist Thomas Pepinsky identified this as “regime cleavage,” a political climate in which “citizens and officials believe that norms, institutions and laws may be ignored, subverted or replaced.” Democrats are following a process that relies for success on shared values that are no longer held by many elected officials, members of the executive branch, certain media outlets, and a significant portion of the population.
Pepinsky said that regime cleavage in the United States has not yet hardened to the extent that it has in other countries, “but if it does, it will not be possible to elect a president who can ‘end the mess in Washington’ because both sides of the regime cleavage will argue that the other is illegitimate and undemocratic. Voters, understandably, will lose what faith they have left in the value of democracy itself. In the worst-case scenario, presidents and their supporters would be entirely unaccountable to Congress, while their opponents would reject the legitimacy of the presidency altogether.”
Already we are seeing the president and his supporters rejecting not the facts behind the Articles of Impeachment, but Congress’s right to impeach. The president not only denies that his actions warrant impeachment, but has said impeachment should never happen again, which suggests he believes there should be no check on the presidency. He misinterprets Article 2 of the Constitution saying it allows him to do whatever he wants.
He has joked about serving more than the two terms of office outlined by the Constitution.
Pepinsky asks what will happen if the president refuses to leave office if defeated in 2020. We can also ask whether Democrats, if defeated, will point to election interference in 2016 and the president’s request for interference from Ukraine and lose faith in the electoral process.
If either of those scenarios happens, we may well arrive at “regime cleavage” and this may be the “fissure in the social fabric” that results in public demonstrations to support our democracy. But by then, it may be too late.