interesting times

The Appeasement of Donald Trump

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The definition of appeasement, according to, is “to bring to a state of peace, quiet, ease, calm, or contentment; pacify; soothe: i.e. to appease an angry king” and to “yield or concede to the belligerent demands of (a nation, group, person, etc.) in a conciliatory effort, sometimes at the expense of justice or other principles.”

That’s where we are aren’t we? We are appeasing an angry king. And the usual result of appeasement is that the angry king banks every concession and, empowered and emboldened by his success, gets more aggressive and more power hungry. Far from restraining him, appeasement gives him time to amass strength, until there’s no restraining him at all. By the time it’s absolutely clear that he is a tyrant, it’s too late. That’s the core narrative of every Shakespeare play that charts a historical bid for absolute power. And every one of those plays is a tragedy.

This week, in the face of Democratic appeasement and Republican complicity, Trump has upped the ante once again. He is lying about the devastating proof of obstruction of justice in the Mueller report, as is his attorney general, the person supposed to defend the rule of law. He is again attempting to intimidate a witness to his abuses of power, this time Don McGahn. He is refusing to let anyone in his administration testify before the Congress, in an unprecedented act of contempt for the legislative branch. He is constantly hinting in his tweets that the DOJ should investigate what he has deemed “spying” on his campaign in 2016; he’s tried multiple times to get the Justice Department to go after his political opponent, Hillary Clinton; and he has retweeted a list of those who should be targeted — including Obama and Clinton — for investigation. And now that he has a toady in the Justice Department, he may well get what he wants. (Can you believe we actually miss Jeff Sessions?) For good measure, his spokesman has said, revealingly, that the president is “not inclined” to release his tax returns at this moment, despite what appears to be a constitutional obligation. In the immortal words of Mel Brooks, it’s good to be the king!

More to the point, he has refused to protect the American election system from the malevolent designs of a foreign enemy. Thanks to leaks, we know now that he has been doing this for the last two years, even though other members of the administration, like Kirstjen Nielsen, were prepared to take strong, defensive measures. Why? Because any mention of Russian interference reminds him of the question of his legitimacy, and that enrages him. Which is to say he has openly put his personal amour propre before the interests of every citizen in this country who wants to preserve our electoral integrity. This alone is an unambiguously impeachable offense. Congress should immediately subpoena Nielsen to testify about the president’s deliberate refusal to perform his core duties. I see no way Trump can actually stop her now she is outside the administration — if she has the courage to expose the ugly truth.

On Wednesday, the president again attacked the justice system, by impugning the integrity of a by-the-book investigation, lying about the lawyers who did their duty, and appealing to the Supreme Court (of all places) to stop impeachment: “The Mueller Report, despite being written by Angry Democrats and Trump Haters, and with unlimited money behind it ($35,000,000), didn’t lay a glove on me. I DID NOTHING WRONG, If the partisan Dems ever tried to Impeach, I would first head to the U.S. Supreme Court. Not only … are there no “High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” there are no Crimes by me at all. All of the Crimes were committed by Crooked Hillary, the Dems, the DNC and Dirty Cops — and we caught them in the act! We waited for Mueller and WON, so now the Dems look to Congress as last hope!”

This is, of course, deranged. Robert Mueller is neither an Angry Democrat, nor, so far as we can tell, a Trump hater. The Supreme Court has no role in impeachment. Obstruction of justice is a textbook case of a high crime and misdemeanor, as the articles of impeachment for both Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon quite plainly show. Mueller — it is vital to keep repeating — demonstrates that Trump attempted to obstruct justice on six occasions, and argues that several more cases of obstruction need to be taken seriously. In the case of Paul Manafort, it appears the president succeeded in thwarting the investigation by encouraging him not to cooperate. (Mueller: The evidence “supports the inference that the President intended Manafort to believe that he could receive a pardon, which would make cooperation with the government as a means of obtaining a lesser sentence unnecessary.”) But it’s telling, it seems to me, that in this tweet, Trump clearly regards the Supreme Court as his ultimate backstop — because he has created a majority that he assumes will always defend him. His intent is to get another branch of the government “on his team,” i.e. under his direct control.

That’s how he sees the federal courts — as an extension of a strongman’s will. So far, that hasn’t been the case (in some instances, especially on immigration, the judicial pushback has actually been excessive) but with more and more judges chosen precisely because they do not believe in challenging executive power, it is seemingly Trump’s intention that the judiciary will be his. In other words, he’s slowly neutering the judicial checks and balances and defying the congressional ones. (As a way to nullify the Senate’s “advice and consent” function, for example, Trump increasingly relies on “acting” secretaries, appointed with no Senate approval and thereby even more vulnerable to Trump’s personal leverage. As Trump explained, “I like ‘acting’. It gives me more flexibility. Do you understand that?” Yes, Mr. President, we do.)

When you combine this looming scenario of a completely unaccountable president (outside presidential elections) with the powers of the presidency as they have evolved since the Second World War, you have a Turkey scenario. The GOP will not stand in the way of strongman rule, and will, in fact, try to buttress it. Even when Trump usurped the Congress’s power of the purse by declaring a fake national emergency, 182 out of 195 Republican House members eagerly backed him, surrendering their constitutional power in favor of Trump’s diktat. Just look at that sad sack, Lindsey Graham. He’s a man who insisted that perjury in a civil suit on sexual harassment was impeachable — and led the prosecution in the Senate trial of president Clinton no less — but that dangling pardons, intimidating witnesses, attempting to fire a special prosecutor, and threatening “the integrity of the justice system,” in Mueller’s devastating words, is no big deal. That’s the power of the Trump cult in the GOP base.

The House Speaker, for her part, reacted to a report outlining ten cases of obstruction of justice (ten more than Clinton was accused of) by immediately dissing the idea of impeachment. Steny Hoyer firmly ruled it out. Their response to Mueller was, to my mind, incredible, but telling. I can fully understand taking your time. No one is asking for an impeachment vote yet — just hearings including Trump officials who spoke with Mueller, in a consideration of impeachment. The Dems too often assume a defensive crouch, even when our Constitution is at stake. Against the Big Lie of “No Collusion. No Obstruction,” their message is muddled. They are beginning to wake up, but if a president wantonly obstructs justice and the opposition party immediately worries about the political cost of impeachment, we’re in deep trouble.

I’m no more optimistic about the likely result of impeachment than I ever have been. Even if the House were to approve articles of impeachment, I doubt Senator Mitch McConnell would follow what are the obvious constitutional obligations. McConnell has ripped up Senate rules when they might hurt the GOP’s interests before — remember Merrick Garland? Or the Supreme Court filibuster? And there is some wriggle room here. The Constitution does not explicitly mandate a trial in the Senate if the House approves articles of impeachment. It simply says the Senate has “the sole power to try” a president. You think McConnell would hesitate to use that nuance to shut any trial down before it started? Bob Bauer has noted: “The question presented in some form would be whether, under the relevant rules, the Senate is required to hold an impeachment ‘trial’ fully consistent with current rules — or even any trial at all. A chair’s ruling in the affirmative would be subject to being overturned by a majority, not two-thirds, vote.” If you think McConnell would ever convene a trial, or that a majority would vote for it, you’re underestimating the radicalism of the current GOP.

Trump didn’t invent the powers he is now abusing. The slow accretion of powers vested in the executive have been growing for quite a while, from the Second World War onward into the Cold War. But the 21st century has broken new ground. We know, for example, that the last president once stated he could not unilaterally change immigration law to prevent Dreamers from being deported because he is “not a king,” and then, in his second term, went ahead and did it anyway. We know he launched a new war against ISIS in 2015 based on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force of 2001 because the Congress abdicated its constitutional duty to declare war. What Trump demonstrates is that a brilliant demagogue with one party’s cultlike support can use these extraordinary powers to install a version of a strongman presidency in the model of Erdogan in Turkey or Orban in Hungary.

Only a massive public insurrection against strongman rule can begin to reverse this. It’s not happening, but it needs to. The shock and zeal and passion so many felt in 2016 needs to be summoned again. The Congress needs to subpoena Don McGahn and Kirstjen Nielsen to testify about their experiences in the White House. They need to tell the story that Mueller has laid out, in vivid testimony day after day. They may well have to go to court to enforce their oversight role. The focus should be on Trump’s claim to be beyond the rule of law. The Democratic candidates need to be clear about domestic policy and focus on it as a way to remove Trump by the ballot box — but they shouldn’t duck the gravity of our current constitutional crisis. It’s real and it’s important.

More sane right-of-center voices — like that of the admirably sane Andrew Napolitano and David French — need to explain that this is not about right or left, or Democrats or Republicans, but about the preservation of our republic. Mitt Romney has to do more than simply feel sickened. It took a long time for Nixon’s crimes to sink in with the public. But eventually they did.

Yes, Trump’s hegemony is strong, and getting stronger. He can bypass the television networks in ways Nixon couldn’t have dreamed of. He has a very strong economy. He has successfully marginalized much of the mainstream media for half the country. He has a shamelessness that is rarely found, even the most vulgar and venal. He is prepared to push buttons in the national psyche that few sane or decent people would. He can seem, in his demagogic genius, intimidating.

No one should be intimidated. And of course appeasement in the past has not always led to defeat. With a long, bitter, damaging campaign of resistance and counterattack, it can end in victory as well. Let’s put aside all our differences on policy and politics, and together do our constitutional duty. Every hour. Every day. Until we have not only defeated this president’s assault on America but cast him and his party into the rubbish bin of history.

Free Speech at Middlebury, Part Two

In recent months, there have been both disturbing and hopeful developments around the barring of non-leftist voices on Western college campuses.

The bans are no longer just on fascist clowns like Milo Yiannopoulos, but on serious scholars. My old professor, Harvey C. Mansfield, a man of profound learning, was invited and then disinvited to Concordia University in Canada to give an address on the role of great books in contemporary education – because of his alleged (and, I can personally vouch, nonexistent) sexism, homophobia, etc., etc. Jordan Peterson was invited and then disinvited by Cambridge to do research for a semester, for roughly the same crimes against “social justice” ideology. Next up: Roger Scruton, perhaps the most profound and persuasive conservative philosopher in the West. He had an unpaid position to advise the British government by chairing an innocuous “Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.” This time, he was fired after an unethically doctored interview was published by the deputy editor of the New Statesman, George Eaton. Eaton marked the occasion of a scholar’s downfall by posting a photo of himself downing a bottle of Champagne.

And then Middlebury. Ah, yes, Middlebury, a fine school that has, in recent years, capitulated to the outrage mob. Middlebury’s latest strike against free discourse is the sudden disinvitation of one professor Ryszard Legutko, a reactionary Polish philosopher and sometime politician, who despises liberal democracy (which you’d think the “social justice” crowd might approve of). Legutko, however, has no time for gay equality or visibility, because of his sincerely held orthodox Christian convictions, but he is nonetheless a serious scholar, specializing in ancient political philosophy, in particular Plato. He was also a hero of the Polish resistance to Communist rule and the editor of a samizdat publication. He was invited to speak at Middlebury, flew across the Atlantic, only to discover as he arrived in Vermont that his talk had been canceled for “safety” reasons.

But the good news is that there are inklings of a pushback. At Middlebury, the students who were planning to protest Legutko were far more liberal than their college administrators: “It is absolutely, unequivocally not the intent of this protest and those participating in this protest to prevent Legutko from speaking. Disruptive behavior of this nature will not be tolerated,” wrote one of the student organizers. The inspired idea was to create a glorious festival of gay visibility outside the lecture, while Legutko spoke — but not to shut him down, as the mob did with Charles Murray. Perfect.

So when the administrators abruptly canceled the event, the students who wanted to engage Legutko did something remarkable. They asked their political science professor if he would host Legutko in their regular seminar. The invitation was unanimously supported by the students, the professor agreed, and the students spent one hour developing arguments in advance against Legutko, then heard him lecture and tackled him in vigorous debate. There was no “safety” issue whatsoever. In fact, students in other classes migrated to that seminar, the crowd growing as time went by.

After Legutko’s invite, the administration convened an emergency meeting with students. And in another encouraging sign, a rebel student secretly recorded it. Check out his video here and here. You can hear PC students arguing that gay students are too fragile to engage arguments against homosexuality, so distraught by even the idea of it that they could not study anything at all. Seriously. All those pioneering activists for gay equality, who risked their lives and careers for their cause and brought their arguments directly to the face of their opponents, should shudder at the insult.

Legutko, of course, is no stranger to having his speech threatened. In Poland, the Communists did it, with the power of the state. Communist students would berate professors in class with the same arguments against a liberal education that today’s “social justice” activists make. Legutko remembers them: “Why teach Aristotle who despised women and defended slavery? Why teach Plato whom Lenin derided as the author of ‘super-stupid metaphysics of ideas’? Why teach Saint Thomas Aquinas, who was propagating anti-scientific superstition? Why teach Descartes who in his notion of cogito completely ignored the class struggle?”

In America, with the First Amendment, he is far freer. But it’s quite clear that college administrators, following critical race, gender, and queer theory, did all they could to silence him, just as the Polish Communists did. In the same samizdat tape, one professor, responding to the outrage at even inviting Legutko to speak, told the students: “You should be outraged and we should acknowledge that and apologize for it.”

I’ve long believed that at some point students would rebel against their new ideological overlords, like students always have. The desire to learn by engaging uncomfortable arguments rationally has been a deep one in the human psyche, since Socrates was executed for it. It is the root of liberal democracy. It is what universities are for. More and more are deciding to back the Chicago Principles, which guarantee that no speech can be suppressed on campus, within First Amendment limits. Sixty-two other institutions of higher learning have now adopted this principle, and the list is growing. If you’re a student denied a free education by the social-justice fanatics, ask your college administrators if they would agree to sign on.

As I used to say: know hope.

‘I Was Merely Gliding on the Surface of Life’

There is a moment in Michael Brendan Dougherty’s piercing memoir, My Father Left Me Ireland, when he looks back on his life as a young man. He is tough on himself: “Was I worth knowing? Not only was I painfully insecure, I was shallow. Someone who approaches life like a curator will exchange his faith for merely believing in belief. He’ll substitute taste where conviction belongs. I was merely gliding on the surface of life.”

Dissatisfied with the shallows of our time, Dougherty becomes obsessed with the doomed Easter Rising in Ireland in 1917: the story of a crew of misfits and dreamers who dared to take a stand against British rule, and became icons of Irish history. They risked their lives for the idea of a free nation, a romantic, even mystical idea that he senses most of the elite in his generation, including in Ireland, find hard to understand at all. And throughout the short book, there is this deep longing for something ineffable, powerful, redemptive.

And all he wanted was his father not to abandon him. The way in which his mother was cast aside after she became pregnant wounded her, eventually killed her, and stung him. He only came to know his dad, who lived in Ireland, at odd moments, for a few hours, in between long interludes. Each visit became freighted with impossible expectations, and followed by intense and abiding anger and grief. He writes this brutal reproach of his broken family in a series of letters directed entirely at his dad, who broke it. In a world in which much writing has the power of a Bud Lite, he offers us a strong draft of Guinness — and not the kind they sell in Ireland today, which, he tells us, is crap.

He comes to find meaning in Ireland, where his roots are, where his dad lives, learning the Irish language, memorizing old Irish songs, and exploring the Irish language’s poetry which “teemed with Jacobite fury and dark prophecies of the English being brought low into disgrace as scholars of the Irish language retake their place at the top of society.” It was a way of connecting with his mostly absent father, and becomes a way, in due course, of connecting his newborn daughter to something wider and older than herself.

Dougherty has come to feel, like some other conservatives, that our world is full of what Nietzsche called the “last men” — aloof, materialist, smug, shallow moderns without sacrifice or even pain, anesthetized by prosperity and self-love. And he sees himself growing up as one of them. Upon his mother’s death — and this book is a heartbreaking poem to maternal love and sacrifice — he finds himself “alone. An atom that becomes separated from a larger chemical structure is called a free radical. And that is how I felt, supercharged with this urgent longing to reconnect to something larger.”

Dougherty writes beautifully, carefully, and with the kind of fluidity that the Irish have always been known for. The pain that our modern throwaway culture inflicted on him, and which is symbolized by his dad’s absence, drives this deeply personal story. It helps me understand the tenacity of his social conservatism — and the power of national myths that give us far more meaning than money or status or a “career.” He longs for the religion that once caused people to fear and sacrifice; the patriotism that used to bring people together, past, present and future; and the unsparing, brutal demands of the old family structure, ruptured by the sexual revolution, leaving numbness behind. And he proves, above all, that among these last men all around us, rebels can still be found.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: The Appeasement of Donald Trump