“On the final day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when our Constitution was adopted, Americans gathered on the steps of Independence Hall to await the news of the government our founders had crafted. They asked Benjamin Franklin, ‘What do we have, a republic or a monarchy?’ Franklin replied, ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’ Our responsibility is to keep it…. in the darkest days of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote: ‘The times have found us.’ The times found them to fight for and establish our democracy. The times have found us today, not to place ourselves in the same category of greatness as our Founders, but to place us in the urgency of protecting and defending our Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. In the words of Ben Franklin, to keep our Republic.”
– Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, upon announcing the House of Representative’s Impeachment Inquiry of President Donald J. Trump, September 24, 2019
Speaker Pelosi’s anecdote was not chosen lightly, nor was it included in her remarks for mere rhetorical flare. Rather, I believe she intended to remind the American people of our collective responsibility as citizens of this great nation in holding our leaders to account. In a representative democracy such as ours this is often achieved indirectly, made possible by “the wisdom of our Constitution, enshrined in three co-equal branches of government, serving as checks and balances on each other,” (to once again quote the Speaker). But democracies are inherently fragile things, as likely to crumple and fray as the paper on which their constitutions are written. Like Tinker Bell from J.M. Barrie’s perennial play Peter Pan, they exist only so long as there are those of us who believe in them and are willing to actively demonstrate that belief. (One must recall that, in the play, when Tink is dying, mere belief in fairies is insufficient to save her. Those in the audience who believe have to clap in order to revive her.) Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s impeachment has revealed just how anemic and passive that belief really is, and I fear the consequences of our continued inaction could prove fatal to the republic.
While it is true that impeachment has always been a politically partisan process, history shows that loyalty to the Constitution and the rule of law has thus far trumped partisanship and political self-preservation. In the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, it was Republican Senator Edmund G. Ross who broke with the majority of his Republican colleagues and cast the fateful vote that allowed President Johnson to remain in office. (Ross would later lose his bid for reelection in 1871.) Following the release of the “smoking gun” tape during the Nixon impeachment proceedings, all ten Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee who had previously voted against impeachment publicly announced that they would vote in favor of it once the matter reached the House floor. What’s more, it was Republican Senators Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott and House Minority Leader John Rhodes (also a Republican) who met privately with President Nixon and convinced him that his Congressional support had all but evaporated in the political firestorm of such damning evidence. (Nixon resigned his office the following day.) During the Clinton impeachment, there were five Republican Senators — Susan Collins, John Chafee, Jim Jeffords, Olympia Snow, and Arlen Specter — who likewise broke with their party to vote against both articles of impeachment with which the President had been charged. I would ask the reader to note that these proceedings all have something in common: in each instance, it was members of the Republican caucus who managed to put principle before party and honor their respective oaths of office to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution. There is little to suggest that the present proceeding will follow a similar path or produce a similarly admirable outcome.
While there is certainly an argument to be made that Presidents Johnson and Clinton, through both their public remarks and private actions, did bring some measure of “disgrace and ridicule” to the office of the presidency (to use the language from one of the articles against Johnson), and thus did merit impeachment, I do not believe their actions ultimately warranted their respective removals from office. After all, the Supreme Court has since ruled, in 1926’s Myers v. United States, that the Tenure of Office Act, which had led to President Johnson’s impeachment, was itself in violation of the Constitution and thus “invalid.” What’s more, Clinton’s corroborated crimes of perjury and obstruction of justice stemmed solely from a private extra-marital affair and were not in any way associated with his prior or on-going duties as President. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Nixon impeachment, and its numerous parallels with the current Trump impeachment are, in all respects, far more troubling.
This is confirmed by a brief comparison of the articles brought against both Presidents. Although the House Judiciary Committee drafted five articles of impeachment against President Nixon, only three were ultimately approved: obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. The two articles against President Trump presently under consideration by the House are strikingly similar: abuse of power, and obstruction of Congress (which could, in effect, be considered a combination of the previous first and third articles against President Nixon, given the Office of Legal Counsel’s 1973 and 2000 memos which assert that a sitting President is immune from indictment and thus not subject to criminal prosecution whilst he or she remains in office). In both instances, crimes were committed (burglary and bribery, respectively), conspiracies were immediately hatched to conceal them, and Congress was consistently stonewalled by both White Houses when attempting to exercise its constitutionally-mandated oversight. What’s even more disturbing is that, in both instances, it was the freeness and fairness of our elections that were most grievously at stake (both the Watergate break-in and the attempted coercion of an announcement of a foreign investigation into the Bidens were intended to influence electoral outcomes).
Although the smoking gun in the Nixon impeachment came to light quite late in the proceedings, it has been front and center from almost the very beginning of the Trump impeachment inquiry (confirmed in writing by the White House call summary, subsequently acknowledged on national television by both the President and his acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, attested to under oath by numerous career diplomats, public and civil servants, as well as by several political appointees of the President himself: Bill Taylor, Fiona Hill, and Gordon Sondland most famously among them. It has been further established by a mountain of documentary evidence that has since been substantively and repeatedly confirmed). The only difference thus far in the political response to these proceedings versus those during Watergate has been the disparate levels of congressional support in the face of such similarly irrefutable evidence. While the Republicans in Nixon’s day were, at long last, willing to acknowledge the evidence and to somberly follow where it led, the Republicans of today seem either unable or unwilling to do so. Why is this?
Some have suggested that the heightened partisanship of the Trump era is simply a result of the unprecedented divisiveness of our politics, but surely the post-war years during which Andrew Johnson was impeached were at least as divisive and dysfunctional as our own times. Others have suggested that it is President Trump’s unparalleled disdain for political norms, lack of civic decorum, and contempt for the rule of law that is to blame, but the historical records of Presidents Johnson and Nixon show similar dispositions and describe similarly despotic behaviors. Instead, I would contend that the reason for this sea change in Republican politics is that, for the first time in U.S. history, the President’s personal ignorance of/contempt for the equal protections afforded us all by the Constitution of the United States is mirrored in the minds of his supporters (and thus parroted by the politicians who purport to represent them). When campaigning for office, Mr. Trump once famously claimed that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Whether or not that sentiment is true, his ensuing suggestions of postponing the 2020 Presidential election or simply remaining in office beyond his constitutionally-limited tenure do not seem to have cost him any of his political support (which has consistently hovered in the low-to-mid 40s throughout his time in office). What’s more, his frequent and merciless attacks on practically all of the freedoms afforded us by the 1st amendment (religion, speech, press, assembly, and the right to petition for redress of grievances) are more frequently met with applause and adulation from his supporters and with dismissive indifference from his detractors, rather than with the trepidation and terror they so deservedly merit from both. I believe the reasons for this are two-fold.
First, amongst Trump supporters, there seems to be a steadfast belief that the President’s current targets — women, minorities, Muslims, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, the press, etc. — could never be sufficiently broadened to encompass them. After all, they are the true Americans whom the Founders intended to protect, and the Constitution they so carefully crafted would never allow such a miscarriage of justice where they, the chosen few, are concerned. Therefore, they need do nothing to ensure their desired outcome. Second, amongst the President’s detractors, there appears to be a belief that the American ship will self-correct, the present storm will pass, and the Constitution will ultimately endure. After all, we’ve had crises before, and we’ve always managed to come through them relatively intact and unscathed. They, too, conclude that no action on their parts will prove necessary. Unfortunately, both of these beliefs are specious because they fundamentally undercut the Constitutional protections and responsibilities they both presume to promote and preserve.
What Trump supporters don’t seem to understand is that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Those are the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., but perhaps another voice of protest from another time and place will ring even truer for those who support the present actions of the President, as well as for those who find themselves on the opposite side of the ideological coin, seemingly but silently opposing the President and believing such quiet opposition to be sufficient. Martin Niemöller was born in Germany, served in World War I, and initially even supported the political rise and proposed reforms of Adolph Hitler and the German Third Reich. However, upon ultimately realizing his own complicity in the Nazi persecution, imprisonment, and outright murder of millions of people, Niemöller penned these poignant words: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” These words of warning (from King and Niemöller both) should serve to awaken us all from our dogmatic slumber and force us to realize that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” may indeed perish from the earth if we, as citizens, do not do all we may to preserve, protect, and defend it. Either the Constitution applies to all of us, or it applies to none of us, and we must reaffirm its tenets each and every day, lest its light flicker and fade until it no longer shines our way forward.
After all, the Constitution is only an idea, a social construct every bit as frail and fragile as the magical sprite in Barrie’s beloved tale. And like Tinker Bell, it will only endure if we continue to believe in its power and goodness and strive to show the steadfastness of that belief by clapping back at executive overreach and congressional capitulation, while at the same time applauding those who champion the rule of law and endeavor to preserve the complementary principles of individual freedom and mutual interdependence. Together, we must struggle to make ourselves heard above the cacophony of political calculation as well as over the deafening silence of demagogic deference, and in so doing revive this republic we all so strongly wish to keep.
“Every moment her light was growing fainter; and he knew that if it went out she would be no more…. Peter flung out his arms…. ‘Do you believe?’ he cried.”
And if so, what are you prepared to do?