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Trump’s impeachment trial already shows how far US democracy has been undermined

Institutional deadlock in Congress indicates a deeper and far more worrying threat to rational debate among American citizens

Jim Sleeper
Jim Sleeper
9 February 2021, 2.38pm
Pro-Trump protesters breaching the Capitol, Washington DC, on 6 January 2021
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Lev Radin/Sipa USA/PA Images

Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial is as confusing to many Americans as it is to others who are following it from abroad. The US Senate, which will try him, is not a criminal court, much less the International Court of Justice that some people wish it were on this occasion. Although Trump’s offenses are more egregious than those that were charged against him in the first, failed trial in 2020, he’s no more likely to be convicted now than before. That’s true even though the Senate chamber itself was part of the crime scene this year, as a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, and senators were among the targets and witnesses.

The present confusion has two fundamental causes, one constitutional and divisive by design, the other more opportunistic than malevolent.

The constitutional cause, which arises from the fact that the US is a federation of 50 semi-sovereign states, frequently leads to institutional obstruction in national politics. When a president is impeached, charges are brought by the House of Representatives, the lower house of Congress, but tried by the Senate, the upper body. Senators can remove the president for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but only if two-thirds, 67 of them, agree. But unlike jurors elsewhere, senators are elected to their positions, and each represents a particular state. They tend to be bound less tightly by their individual consciences, by the evidence, or by deliberation with other senators than by the voters who elevated them to their six-year terms in office.

Can beleaguered Americans rejuvenate their civil society to curb the poisons that Trump has carried into their politics?

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Rational deliberation is skewed also by the fact that senators’ votes count equally, even though they can represent vastly different numbers of people. California, whose 40 million residents tend to elect relatively liberal Democratic representatives, sends two senators to Washington. So does Wyoming, whose population of less than 600,000 tends to be heavily right-wing and Republican. Whatever that imbalance does for state sovereignty, it produces a polity in which roughly 70% of US citizens, who live in states such as California, New York, Texas, and Florida, are represented by only 50% of senators.

The present Senate, controlled narrowly by Democrats, will need to find 17 Republicans to achieve the two-thirds vote to convict Trump. It won’t find them in today’s bitterly polarized polity, no matter what evidence and arguments Trump’s prosecutors present.

The consequences were anticipated by Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and a manager of Trump’s first impeachment trial in 2020, when he warned senators that if they don’t allow clear evidence and reason to determine what’s right, “it doesn’t matter how good the Constitution is. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the framers were. Doesn’t matter how good or bad our advocacy in this trial is ... If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost.”

If the Constitution facilitates deep division, so does an even more powerful sower of confusion. Trump’s characterization of impeachment proceedings as “political theater” mirrors the performance that he himself has staged ever since his defeat in the 3 November election. He staged it most fatefully on 6 January, at the rally that preceded the assault on the Capitol, showing his swooning, raging devotees a chillingly powerful film (assessed as proto-fascist propaganda by the Yale philosopher and scholar of fascism Jason Stanley) just before they began their assault, many of them videotaping it, unintentionally providing their and Trump’s prosecutors with useful documentation.

It’s strongly reminiscent of Joseph Goebbels’ tactic of accusing anti-fascists relentlessly of offenses that Nazis were committing far more often and more brutally. It also highlights the danger in seemingly apolitical, anodyne commercial forces – such as the appropriation of personal data by internet platforms and the rampant financialization of workplaces and homes – that turn active citizens into cogs and pawns.

A steady evisceration

On Trump’s ascent to the presidency in 2017, I summarized Edward Gibbon’s account of the analogous rise of ancient Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, who eviscerated what was left of the Roman Republic’s principles and liberties. In Gibbon’s account, Augustus knew that “the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom. A feeble senate and enervated people cheerfully acquiesced in the pleasing illusion.”

Augustus “reformed” the Senate by blackmailing and brutalizing some of its members: he expelled those “whose vices or whose obstinacy required a public example” and persuaded others “to prevent the shame of an expulsion by a voluntary retreat”. This terrified the rest so that they surrendered to the tyrant. Trump similarly terrifies senators, threatening to depose any who defy him, directing his mobs to replace them with more servile Republicans in the party’s primary elections.

“The principles of a free constitution are irrevocably lost, when the legislative power is nominated by the executive,” Gibbon reflected. It was almost as if he anticipated a time when Americans, trapped like flies in a spider’s web of sticky-fingered but seductive surveillance machines, would ignore the insinuation of what he called “a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire”.

The more subtly impoverished and imprisoned people are by casino-like financing, predatory marketing, and media such as Rupert Murdoch’s that teach them to scapegoat others, the more they seek relief in pills, vials and empty spectacles that leave them too ill to bear their sicknesses or their cures, capable only of occasional eruptions and cries for a strongman. Trump is less the primary cause than the accelerant of a derangement of society that preceded and molded him.

“It is quite terrifying when rational exchange is totally blocked by steely-eyed, unlistening dogmatic assertion,” the president of Yale, Kingman Brewster Jr, told my class shortly before our graduation in 1969. He recalled that in 1937, before entering Yale, he’d traveled “through National Socialist Germany,” where he “was taken in hand by a stormtrooper deputized to be hospitable to unwary young foreign tourists. We sat at a café on Unter Den Linden. I, of course, began to argue about National Socialist policy ... Suddenly I realized there could be no argument, not because of the censorship of fear but because of the dogmatic dictate which said ... ‘it is so because the Fuhrer wills it so.’

“Dogmatism is the enemy of a moral society,” Brewster added, “for without the morality of reason it is hard to see how there can be any higher standard than passion and force. And if passion and authority respond to no checkrein of reason, then neither authority nor its victims can avoid a crude confrontation of naked power.”

Can beleaguered Americans rejuvenate their civil society and sustain new social movements to curb the poisons of malevolence and mindlessness that Trump has carried into their politics? That will require more than a trial or a pie in Murdoch’s face.

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