interesting times

This Is No Ordinary Impeachment

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

This is not just an impeachment. It’s the endgame for Trump’s relentless assault on the institutions, norms, and practices of America’s liberal democracy for the past three years. It’s also a deeper reckoning. It’s about whether the legitimacy of our entire system can last much longer without this man being removed from office.

I’m talking about what political scientists call “regime cleavage” — a decline in democratic life so severe the country’s very institutions could lose legitimacy as a result of it. It is described by one political scientist as follows: “a division within the population marked by conflict about the foundations of the governing system itself — in the American case, our constitutional democracy. In societies facing a regime cleavage, a growing number of citizens and officials believe that norms, institutions, and laws may be ignored, subverted, or replaced.” A full-on regime cleavage is, indeed, an extinction-level event for our liberal democratic system. And it is one precipitated by the man who is supposed to be the guardian of that system, the president.

Let us count the ways in which Trump has attacked and undermined the core legitimacy of our democracy. He is the only candidate in American history who refused to say that he would abide by the results of the vote. Even after winning the 2016 election, he still claimed that “millions” of voters — undocumented aliens — perpetrated massive electoral fraud in the last election, and voted for his opponent. He has repeatedly and publicly toyed with the idea that he could violate the 22nd Amendment, and get elected for three terms, or more.

He consistently described a perfectly defensible inquiry into Russia’s role in the 2016 election as a “witch hunt” and a “hoax,” demonizing Robert Mueller, even as Mueller, in the end, couldn’t find evidence to support the idea of a conspiracy with Russia (perhaps in part because Trump ordered no cooperation, and refused to testify under oath). Trump then withheld release of the full report, while his pliant attorney general distorted its content and wrongly proclaimed that Trump had been entirely exonerated.

In the current scandal over Ukraine, Trump is insisting that he did “nothing wrong” in demanding that Ukraine announce investigations into Joe and Hunter Biden, or forfeit desperately needed military aid. If that is the president’s position — that he can constitutionally ask any other country to intervene on his behalf in a U.S. election — it represents a view of executive power that is the equivalent of a mob boss’s. It is best summed up in Trump’s own words: Article 2 of the Constitution permits him to do “anything I want.”

We have become so used to these attacks on our constitutional order that we fail to be shocked by Trump’s insistence that a constitutional impeachment inquiry is a “coup.” By any measure, this is an extraordinary statement, and itself an impeachable offense as a form of “contempt for Congress.” We barely blink anymore when a president refuses to cooperate in any way, demands his underlings refuse to testify and break the law by flouting subpoenas, threatens to out the first whistle-blower’s identity (in violation of the law), or assaults and tries to intimidate witnesses, like Colonel Alexander Vindman.

He seems to think in the Ukraine context that l’état c’est moi is the core American truth, rather than a French monarch’s claims to absolute power. He believes in the kind of executive power the Founders designed the U.S. Constitution to prevent. It therefore did not occur to Trump that blackmailing a foreign country to investigate his political opponents is a classic abuse of power, because he is incapable of viewing his own interests and the interests of the United States as in any way distinct. But it is a core premise of our liberal democracy that the powers of the presidency are merely on loan, and that using them to advance a personal interest is a definition of an abuse of power.

There are valid criticisms and defenses of Trump’s policy choices, but his policies are irrelevant for an impeachment. I actually support a humane crackdown on undocumented immigration, a tougher trade stance toward China, and an attempt, at least, to end America’s endless wars. But what matters, and what makes this such a vital moment in American history, is that it has nothing to do with policy. This is simply about Trump’s abuse of power.

He lies and misleads the American public constantly, in an outright attempt to so confuse Americans that they forget or reject the concept of truth altogether. Lies are part of politics, but we have never before seen such a fire hose of often contradictory or inflammatory bald-faced lies from the Oval Office. He has obstructed justice countless times, by witness tampering, forbidding his subordinates from complying with legal subpoenas, and by “using the powers of his high office, engaged personally and through his close subordinates and agents, in a course of conduct or plan designed to delay, impede, and obstruct” both the Mueller and now the Ukraine investigations. (I quote from Article 1 of Nixon’s impeachment.) Trump has also “failed without lawful cause or excuse to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas issued by the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives … and willfully disobeyed such subpoenas.” (I quote from Article III of Nixon’s impeachment.) He has declared legal processes illegitimate if they interfere with or constrain his whims and impulses.

This is not just another kind of presidency; it is a rolling and potentially irreversible assault on the legitimacy of the American regime. If the CIA finds something that could reflect poorly on him, then the CIA is part of the “deep state coup.” Ditto the FBI and the State Department. These are not old-fashioned battles with a bureaucracy over policy; that’s fine. They are assaults on the legitimacy of the bureaucracy, and the laws they are required to uphold. These are definitional impeachable offenses, and they are part and parcel of Trump’s abuse of power from the day he was elected.

And most important of all, Trump has turned the GOP — one of our two major parties with a long and distinguished history — into an accomplice in his crimes. Senator Lindsey Graham, perhaps the most contemptible figure of the last couple of years, even says he will not read witness transcripts or follow the proceedings in the House or consider the evidence in a legal impeachment inquiry, because he regards the whole impeachment process as “BS” and a “sham.” This is a senator calling the constitutional right of the House of Representatives to impeach a president illegitimate.

And the GOP as a whole has consistently backed Trump rather than the Constitution. Sixty-two percent of Republican supporters have said that there is nothing Trump could do, no crime or war crime, no high crime or misdemeanor, that would lead them to vote against him in 2020. There is only one way to describe this, and that is a cult, completely resistant to reason or debate. The tribalism is so deep that Trump seems incapable of dropping below 40 percent in the national polls, and is competitive in many swing states. The cult is so strong that Trump feels invulnerable. If Trump survives impeachment, and loses the 2020 election, he may declare it another coup, rigged, and illegitimate. He may refuse to concede. And it is possible the GOP will follow his lead. That this is even thinkable reveals the full extent of our constitutional rot.

Trump has fast-forwarded “regime cleavage.” He is appealing to the people to render him immune from constitutional constraints imposed by the representatives of the people. He has opened up not a divide between right and left so much as a divide over whether the American system of government is legitimate or illegitimate. And that is why I don’t want to defeat Trump in an election, because that would suggest that his assault on the truth, on the Constitution, and on the rule of law is just a set of policy decisions that we can, in time, reject. It creates a precedent for future presidents to assault the legitimacy of the American government, constrained only by their ability to win the next election. In fact, the only proper constitutional response to this abuse of executive power is impeachment. I know I’ve said this before. But on the eve of public hearings, it is vital to remember it.

None of this presidential behavior is tolerable. If the Senate exonerates Trump, it will not just enable the most lawless president in our history to even greater abuses. It will deepen the regime cleavage even further. It will cast into doubt the fairness of the upcoming election. It will foment the conspiracy theory that our current laws and institutions are manifestations of a “deep state” engineering a “coup.” It will prove that a president can indeed abuse his power for his personal advantage without consequence; and it will set a precedent that fundamentally changes the American system from a liberal democracy to a form of elected monarchy, above the other two branches of government.

I wish there were another way forward. But there isn’t. And this, though a moment of great danger, also contains the glimmers of renewal. Removing this petty, shabby tyrant from office goes a long way to restoring and resetting the Constitution as a limit on power and a guarantee against its wanton future abuse. It must be done. With speed, with vigor, and with determination.

Brexit Blindness

Nick Kristof is altogether a better human being than I am. But his recent column on Brexit is a perfect distillation of the strangely incurious mind-set of too many in the elite press. For Kristof, Brexit means simply that “Britain has gone nuts,” and it is “baffling” that somehow Boris Johnson’s Tories are leading in the polls. (The score right now is Tories at 38 percent, Labour at 26, Liberal Democrats at 17, Brexit party at 10.) Only the Liberal Democrats are unequivocally against Brexit and would nullify the referendum result. Labour says it respects the 2016 result, will renegotiate Johnson’s deal, and then back a second referendum; the Tories will implement the current deal and be out of the E.U. before the end of January; the Brexit party wants a “no deal” Brexit. So 74 percent of the populace supports at least respecting the result of the 2016 referendum. So, according to Kristof, three-quarters of the British electorate have “gone nuts.” They beg to differ.

He goes further, suggesting that Johnson would one day be seen perhaps “as the 21st-century version of Guy Fawkes,” the Catholic terrorist who, in 1605, attempted to blow up the House of Lords with dynamite. This seems, shall we say, a stretch, since Johnson is the lawful prime minister, seeking to implement the results of a legitimate referendum campaign, and not attempting mass murder. Kristof believes that the 2016 Leave campaign was so “foolhardy and mendacious” that it should be nullified. He even cites Johnson’s hope of winning a majority as a “sordid calculation,” in which case every politician who aimed at a majority in Parliament — which is every single party leader in British history — was and is motivated by “sordid” calculations.

It is instead baffling as a distant friend of Kristof’s to see that he has “gone nuts” over Brexit. He cites the various projections of lower economic growth, which are plausible. And yet, far worse scenarios of economic calamity were broadcast prior to the referendum by the Remain campaign — it was known as “Project Fear” — and they still lost. It is as if (and I hope Nick is sitting down) the British were prepared to sacrifice some wealth in order to ensure that the British Parliament will have the sole say in how Britain is governed. He cites the possibility of breakup, ridiculing the idea that the English, whose nationhood is just as deep as the Scots and the Welsh and Irish, might actually end up as a “little” nation of 53 million, as opposed to a “great” nation with almost 67 million people. (Here’s a map of the British Isles, according to population density.)

But what precisely would be wrong if the U.K.’s separate nations —English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish — become separate countries at some point? It’s not as if we’re in an imperial stage of British history; we’re very much postimperial. We are also far away from the Cold War, which justified European unity. These national fissures have been building up for decades. Nobody questions that a future English state would be prosperous and very friendly to the U.S. The U.K. is the highest-spending member of NATO outside the U.S. And I don’t see why the English state that was last ruled, independently of Scotland, by Elizabeth I, was so terrible in comparison. I mean we got Shakespeare, religious moderation, and decades of stability. Is bigger inherently better?

The key thing that Kristof doesn’t seem to want to understand is why a narrow majority of Brits voted for Brexit in the first place, in a massive turnout. They wanted their lives to be governed by their own democratically elected Parliament rather than by an increasingly zealous band of unelected E.U. bosses. They wanted their courts and legal system accountable to the Crown rather than to a European super-court. They’d rather be one self-governing nation than one of 28 separate member states in some Euro-blended supernation. They want their borders to be secure and immigration to be controlled by their own Parliament, rather than be mandated open to all citizens of the E.U., whether they like it or not. Disagree with this all you want, but to write about Brexit with no mention of the core reasons a majority of Brits voted for it seems, well, negligent.

Kristof is so anti-Brexit he now hopes for a Corbyn-led Labour coalition government, in alliance with the Scottish nationalists or the Liberal Democrats, to find a way out. This crusade requires Kristof to back a Labour Party leader who would reverse Britain’s alliance with the U.S., back terrorist leaders across the globe, and revert to the crudest borrow-and-spend policies since the 1970s. He is hoping for a new prime minister whom 87 percent of British Jews, according to one March poll, regard as plainly anti-Semitic. Moderate Labour parliamentarians regard him as unfit for office. As for keeping the U.K., it is Corbyn, and not Johnson, who backs an independence referendum for Scotland in his first year in power.
Dismissing Brexit, alas, has now become a tribal signal in the elite American discourse, and not a considered argument about costs and benefits for the U.K. and the U.S. It’s time to end what is in fact a prejudice and begin an actual debate.

When a Dog Is Ready to Die

Owning and loving a dog is one of life’s greatest joys. It’s also, inevitably, one of life’s deepest woes when it comes to losing one. I’ve been here before, with my beloved beagle, Dusty, and now, again, with Eddy. She was a rescue dog that my husband fell in love with 14 years ago. She has an elegant, refined face, and a basset-hound temperament — sweet, friendly, clumsy. Almost everyone thought she was a beagle at first, including us, but she isn’t. We did a DNA test and she came out of it as a blend of basset, bloodhound, and a New England breed, Chinook. She has a long body and stubby little legs that give her a somewhat comic affect: all refined beauty in the face, followed by a slinky-style torso that seemed to mock that very beauty. She trots rather than walks. At least she did.

She was and is food-obsessed, always tugging on the leash, sniffing out and then immediately eating all sorts of horribles before you could catch her: dead minnows on the beach, human poop, empty Popeyes chicken containers, pizza slices, sea shells, and once an entire quarter of an ounce baggy of weed. I got home that night and didn’t notice anything at first. Then she jumped suddenly in her crate and ran out, and around, occasionally shuddering, or lying down. When I approached her, she jumped out of her skin. Sounds from the television had her cowering. That was a long, late night at the animal hospital, but she was fine in the end. Like father, like daughter, I guess.

Her stomach was made of iron: She managed to consume and digest anything at all, very rarely puking. And she always had a goofish quality to her, banging into walls and closets, hurtling herself inelegantly down the stairs, but with a smile so broad it melted me every time. She had a little jump for joy before her walk, and she even managed a little one last week. And she was kind to her sisters, first Dusty, who treated her with the contempt she held for most living creatures, and now my little three-legged beagle, Bowie, who snuggles with her elder sister every night when she’s boarding. The name Eddy was Aaron’s choice: after Edina Monsoon from Absolutely Fabulous. Yeah, I know, gay! Originally called Cinderella (awful name), she was surrendered to animal control by her first owner, who declared her uncontrollably aggressive. We saw no evidence of this at all.

We assumed she had been abused; and our intuition felt right over time. She was friendly to all humans, although some men could set her off. Maybe they reminded her of her first owner? But who knows with rescue dogs. My little scamp, Bowie, was, we’re told, a working hunting dog who went off-trail as a puppy and got hit by a truck. Her back leg was so mangled they had to amputate it. What kind of trauma must that have been for her? I don’t know, but like so many rescue dogs, including Eddy, she seemed all the more grateful for our love and care when we took her in.

And now Eddy has lost almost all her sight and hearing; her back legs can give way unexpectedly; yesterday morning, I saw her emerge from my writing room only to fall headlong down the stairs, with her diaper clogged with pee and diarrhea. She’s still obsessed with food, perhaps more so than ever, because smell is her only vital sense left, with her functional body almost gone apart from that nose. I can only walk her so far now; she tends to stop suddenly, nose to the ground, caught by a whiff of something, but unable to see it. With Bowie pulling energetically on one leash ahead of me and with Eddy stopped, blind, behind me, walking them has become like an act from Cirque du Soleil. I have to pirouette, arms outstretched, oftentimes with both leashes wrapped around my legs and body, like a scarecrow in a BDSM scene. Hounds do not walk in a straight line. Nor are they easy to toilet train; they are smart and know what they’re not supposed to do, but do it anyway, which is why I like them so much. A beagle is always her own person, always willing at some point to tell you to piss off.

With Dusty, we waited until she stopped wanting to eat and then made a final visit to the vet. With Eddy, I’m stricken. She still loves her food, but I wonder what her quality of life now is. At least 15 years old, she’s always tired. Diapered and exhausted, she has fewer and fewer good days. She looks at me with her brown eyes, seeing deep into me, and I don’t know what to do in return. I just kiss her and tell her it’s all going to be all right. And maybe it will be.

I’m taking her to the vet this afternoon to get an objective assessment of her quality of life. Her death is inevitable, of course, but it’s an agony to be the one who brings it to her. As I write this, my eyes are suddenly bleary with tears, my throat caught in a spasm of grief. This doesn’t get easier, as so many dog owners know. I’m waiting for her to tell me when it’s time, to give me some kind of permission. Dusty did that. Maybe Eddy will too.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: This Is No Ordinary Impeachment