President Donald Trump’s withholding of aid for Ukraine and subsequent phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy asking questions about possible corruption involving Vice President Joe Biden’s son is yet another example of Trump’s abuse of executive branch power. Like his Russia imbroglio, the incident with Ukraine demonstrates that Trump has no respect for one of the most fundamental principles of American democracy: the rule of law. The House of Representatives impeachment inquiry is in many respects an act of exasperation. It also sends two important messages: The House will no longer tolerate being ignored by Trump and will use its constitutional power of impeachment to protect the integrity of American elections and established political norms.
Checks and balances
American democracy is predicated on sharing power through institutions that check and balance competing claims to that power. Norms such as accepting that Congress has specific powers outside the reach of the president, recognizing an independent judiciary, using civil discourse and the spirit of compromise during political negotiation, and accepting the legitimacy of political battles won by the opposition are crucial to a functioning democracy. If practiced with restraint and care, these norms can enhance a president’s effectiveness to govern. Trump, however, bases his presidency on the assumption that the power of the executive is absolute and should not be questioned. His unwillingness to compromise or recognize the viability of contending political perspectives has created a government of stalemate. Trump’s primary political motivation is to solidify his base. As a result, he has become the president for 40 percent of American voters.
Trump’s transactional decisions are made out of personal self-interest. His modus operandi is to “seal the deal” in any way possible through lying, changing positions on a whim, and intimidation. Ethics has no place in his transactional negotiations, nor does morality. He views all “deals” as a zero-sum exchange; the end result is to win. Ultimately, the consolidation of power is all that matters in his transactional worldview.
Blurring of public and personal realms
Since coming to power, Trump has blurred the traditional separation between public and personal realms of influence. Similar to contemporary autocrats, Trump views himself as the personification of the state. He has created a political culture in which unquestioned loyalty is expected from all levels of government. Trump, like other autocrats, employs periodic purges of bureaucrats and agency experts who oppose him. He has encouraged crony capitalism within the ranks of his Cabinet and the Republican Party, thereby consolidating their political loyalty.
Through the use of institutional corruption Trump has simultaneously enriched himself while his supporters buy influence. For example, the New York Times reported that “90 members of Congress, 250 administration officials and more than 110 foreign officials have been spotted at Trump properties since 2017.” Public Citizen, a nonprofit organization that monitors ethics in government, estimates Trump’s U.S. businesses have acquired more than $15 million in profits, mostly from political groups and federal agencies, since he announced his run for president. Public Citizen added Trump’s properties were “not hotbeds of political activity” before he became president.
With the fusion of state and personal interests, all politics become an extension of Trump. His personal gratification is seen as more important than the national interest. Under Trump, democracy has become a vassal of his demagoguery threatening the commonwealth. Yale history professor Timothy Snyder, the author of “The Road to Unfreedom,” describes Trump perfectly when he writes, “When the difference between public and the private collapses, democracy is placed under unsustainable pressure … only the shameless politician can survive, one who cannot be exposed.”
Actions speak louder than words
In Trump’s Inaugural Address, delivered in January of 2017, he stated, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” But Trump’s actions speak louder than words. His political agenda has found plenty of room for prejudice. Trump has normalized hate speech, awakened long-dormant white supremacy and the concomitant violence associated with white supremacist groups. He has committed human rights violations against immigrant children by separating families along the Mexican border. He has tried to prevent immigrants fleeing violence in Central America from obtaining asylum in the United States. Patriotism according to Trump is predicated on division. The patriot is one who pays loyalty to Trump and buys into his politics of hate. For Trump you are either with him or against him. If you are against him and happen to be black, brown, Muslim or an immigrant, you are an outsider and expected to “go back to where you were born.”
Trump’s reactionary politics has systematically weakened the foundation of cosmopolitan, liberal democracy in America. The United States is no longer seen as a beacon of freedom or a refuge for those fleeing political violence. Decades of collective struggle to expand the right to citizenship has been abandoned since Trump came to office. Trump’s bogus populism based on ethno-nationalism has pushed a more exclusive and restrictive view of citizenship. In essence, he has redefined the semblance of the citizen and it looks very much like his base: white, monied, and conservative. Those who disagree with Trump for all intents and purposes become invisible. They are simply not worthy of Trump’s attention.
Given Trump’s normative indiscretions and potentially criminal actions, it is totally appropriate for the House of Representatives to begin an impeachment inquiry. The likelihood of an actual impeachment of Trump is slim, given Republican control of the Senate. However, the inquiry will immediately accomplish two outcomes: first, the Democrats will be able to capture the moral high ground in taking steps to protect the Constitution and the ideals of American democracy which Trump has continuously trampled upon; second, the inquiry will provide a process in which Trump’s nefarious activities will be exposed to the high court of public opinion.
Risks for both parties
The outcome of these proceedings pose a risk for both parties. Trump’s general approval ratings have been in the low 40 percent his entire presidency. Morning consult’s August 2019 net approval ratings for Trump signal serious troubles for him in key states critical to his reelection: -14 in Nevada, -4 in Arizona, -18 in Colorado, -9 in Iowa, -14 in Wisconsin, -13 in Michigan, -5 in Ohio, -9 in Pennsylvania, -7 in Virginia and 0 in Florida. These poll numbers suggest a significant number of American voters may be suffering from Trump fatigue.
Past impeachment proceedings have always taken a toll on the American public. The ultimate question is who will be the recipient of the people’s scorn this time?
Thomas J. Scott is a Twin Cities writer who analyzes international affairs, globalization and education issues. He is a frequent contributor to Truthout, a nonprofit news organization, and an adjunct professor at Metro State University; his views are his own and do not reflect the position of the university.
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