In the 20th century, we would be entering the end game of Donald Trump’s ascendancy. His criminal conspiracy with Michael Cohen to ignore campaign financing laws would be enough to convince most voters that Trump is corrupt and has to go. Backroom negotiations between the two parties would determine whether Mike Pence would go, too, and if so, whether Trump would anoint—er ah, appoint—a traditional Republican like John Kasich or Mitt Romney as interim VP about to be president or have Nancy Pelosi or whoever is Speaker of the House take over as president. Political leaders would be relieved that they can change administrations without getting into the more destabilizing accusations regarding cooperation with the Russians to fix the 2016 election. Under extreme pressure from his closest supporters and the “wise men” (I would like to say “wise people” or “wise men and women,” but both would be inaccurate), of the Republican Party, Trump would announce his resignation.
Under normal—read: 20th century—circumstances, the resignation would occur in August because, as in 1974 when Nixon resigned in August, the Republican Party is facing a disaster in November, no matter what. Why have the resignation affect another election cycle, when you can get all the bad stuff out of the way all at once.
But the standard model of representational democracy of the last century is not operative at the given time, for a several reasons:
- Trump’s mental illness is of the type that will make him dig in and ignore the advice of Republican elders, believing he can depend on his loyal base to impose his untruths on reality.
- Trump has helped too many people accomplish goals that go against the best interest of the country and its people, but do help either the ultra-wealthy or thin but well connected slices of the economy. The tax cut for the wealthy, increases in military spending, hardened immigration policies, dismantling of environmental regulations, backing out of the Paris Accord, Iran nuclear agreement and other international agreements, easing of regulations on for-profit schools, changing Justice Department policies that helped enforce the civil rights of minorities, encouraging white supremacy—all of these are bad policies, but most represent what the Republican Party stands for in the 21st century.
- A large portion of the mass media and a large number of very well-financed independent internet voices may continue to support Trump, spewing out misleading accounts, lies and false accusations to protect him.
- Never before has so much political discourse and policy been based on lies that go against basic proven science. Lies and disproven theories have always poisoned our political discourse, as can be quickly seen by reviewing speeches given by Southern politicians in the 19th century or by imperialists in the 1890-1920 period. From time to time, administrations have forged policies based on untruths, especially as related to the reasons to go to war or to cut taxes on the wealthy. But the quantity of lies told by this administration raises public mendacity beyond a thresh hold of decency and sustainability.
One thing that seems to remain from the pre-21st century political consensus is the idea that stability is more important than anything else. Our ruling elite has always solved constitutional crises by avoiding them—except in the case of the war in 1861-1865 between the United States and the 13 treasonous states that tried to leave the union and attack our country so that they could maintain and spread their slave regimes. Just think of what we have avoided since World War I: The ruling elite let an ailing Wilson remain president. Nixon didn’t contest the 1960 election. Nixon resigned rather than force an indictment. The ruling elite let a senile Reagan complete his term. Gore did not contest the 2000 election. We swept Bush II torture and lies about the Iraq War under the table rather than prosecute high administration officials. The demand for stability in the system made Republicans accept Trump instead of working to deny him the nomination at the convention or launching a third party bid. The quest for stability made the Electoral College voters decide not to follow their constitutional duty to prevent the election of someone representing, in the words of James Madison, “a number of citizens whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
Avoidance of instability is the reason, I think, that so many constitutional scholars assert that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Nowhere in the constitution is there anything written that says that a president is above the law. The best the experts can hope to do is tease out the idea that because the constitution mentioned impeachment that implies the founding white fathers (again, an accurate, if tragic phrase) ruled out normal due process when a president is suspected of breaking the law.
If Mueller doesn’t indict, or if a rightwing court upholds the dubiously autocratic and certainly not originalist principle that a sitting president can’t face indictment, it leaves Congress to act to end this abomination of an administration. That other government officials have been both impeached and indicted undercuts this idea.
Three times the House of Representatives has considered impeachment. Nixon resigned before Congress could act on the notion. Twice, presidents were impeached, both times for political reasons more than any legal offense they committed. Don’t get me wrong—Andrew Johnson was a despicable racist who was dragging his feet on Reconstruction, but the reason he was impeached was inherently political: because he fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Clinton’s impeachment was most certainly political in nature, given seven years of investigation revealed no corruption and no law-breaking except fibbing about having an affair.
Assuming the Democrats win the House, it’s a safe bet that Trump will be impeached. But it will take 66 Senate votes to convict Trump, and the Democrats may not even win the Senate in November because of the rare oddity that they have so many candidates up for reelection. The central question may thus turn out to be how many Republicans will ignore the fact that Trump has delivered so much of their agenda and vote to convict? How much bad stuff about Trump’s active collusion with Russia and his ham-handed attempts to cover up his treason will it take for Republican Senators to find or relocate their basic decency?
My fear is that like always, the political elites will decide to resolve the issue in the way that maintains the greatest stability and illusion of continuity. Thus, if Trump refuses to resign—as he no doubt will do—the United States will likely have to live out a full four years of corruption, bad policies, increasing consolidation of power in the hands of the presidency and a severe weakening of both our economy and our standing in the world.
All for the illusion of stability.