the national interest

Impeachment Exposed Trump’s Authoritarian Ambitions

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

One of the few live debates of the Trump era between intellectuals who remain on speaking terms is whether Donald Trump poses a real danger to the republic. His election spurred a burst of warnings from democracy scholars that Trump fits at least an early pattern of “democratic backsliding,” in which populist authoritarians would lead previously healthy democracies into dictatorship (or something closer to it). This warning — the most influential of which was How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt — was met with skepticism from both the far left and the center-right. Even some conservative Trump critics, like Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens, insist the Republic remains safe from Trump’s predations, due to a combination of his own ineptitude or restraints imposed by his fellow partisans.

But his rapid defeat of impeachment charges is a flashing red light. It is not mainly the final verdict, which has seemed inevitable for weeks, that should concern supporters of democracy. It is the entire sham process, which seemed to ratify Trump’s command of his party and encourage his belief in untrammeled power. The Trump who emerges vindicated from his trial is a dangerous man. The behavior of the president and his party should make this more clear to those who have denied it.

When the Ukraine scandal was first exposed in September, it shared important traits with presidential scandals that have come before (Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Bill Clinton’s affair): Both parties agreed the alleged conduct was serious and wrong. While many Republicans denied that Trump had withheld aid and a meeting to pressure Ukraine to investigate his opponents, but at first, very few of them defended such behavior. Lindsey Graham said, “If you could show me that Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing”; Steve Doocy — Steve Doocy! — said, “If the president said, ‘I will give you the money, but you have got to investigate Joe Biden,’ that is really off-the-rails wrong.”

Nixon’s misconduct was revealed, and he resigned. Ronald Reagan was never shown to have ordered the covert arms sale and aid to the contras, but apologized for failing to stop his subordinates from doing it, cleaned house, and was not impeached. Clinton apologized, was impeached anyway, but stayed in office.

Trump’s scandal has followed a novel track. The quid pro quo scenario that most Republicans initially said would be totally unacceptable has been borne out. But unlike Clinton and Reagan, Trump offered no apology, and unlike Nixon, his party did not abandon him. Trump managed a feat his predecessors (who were far more popular) could not, and probably would not have dreamed possible: to redefine his misconduct as acceptable, even “perfect.”

A handful of Republican senators did concede Trump’s behavior was less than perfect. But the two decisive votes, Lisa Murkowski and Lamar Alexander, also concluded that since they had decided not to convict, they would block any further evidence that would discomfit their Republican colleagues who refused to admit Trump had even committed the acts he was accused of. And so Trump can walk away insisting his actions were perfect, and the Senate has vindicated him, while dismissing as irrelevant testimony that proves he is lying. The handful who agree Trump is lying decided to cooperate in a cover-up that will enable him to sustain the lie.

The key development in Trump’s defense turned out to be his legal team’s introduction of the audacious argument that “abuse of power” is not an impeachable offense. The legal reasoning allowed Trump’s softest supporters among the Senate Republican caucus to find their way to the conclusion that more evidence would be unnecessary. After all, since abuse of power is not itself a federal crime, it simply doesn’t matter how thoroughly Democrats prove it.

Before the impeachment trial, hardly anybody endorsed this novel constitutional doctrine, which had the idiosyncratic support of Alan Dershowitz. (Dershowitz argued that even if Trump allowed Russia to occupy Alaska, he could not be impeached, an extreme scenario that ought to have illustrated the absurdity of his logic.) But as Republicans embraced it out of sheer necessity, the idea that a president can only be impeached over clear illegality, and not the abuse of legal powers, quickly gained wide acceptance. “It isn’t legitimate to toss a President from office because the House thinks otherwise legal acts were done with ‘corrupt motives,’” editorialized the influential Wall Street Journal. The Journal and Dershowitz did not say a president can commit crimes, but they did say he can use any formal powers afforded the office in any way he sees fit.

This is an argument that would enable almost limitless abuse. Presidents could not only dangle aid to foreign countries in return for investigations of their opponents, they could do the same with domestic aid. (Want that disaster aid, governor? Let’s talk about an endorsement, or maybe an investigation into my opponent’s “corruption.”) They could offer pardons in advance to allies who commit crimes on their behalf — voter fraud, murdering reporters or opposition-party leaders, you name it.

During the impeachment trial, Maine senator Angus King posed a clever thought experiment. What if the president privately warned Israel he would hold up military aid unless its prime minister denounced the president’s rival as an anti-Semite? Under the Republican legal reasoning, wouldn’t such an action be completely legitimate? (The president could simply claim to be concerned about anti-Semitism, just as Trump purports to be concerned about corruption.) Trump’s lawyers dismissed it as a hypothetical case, not even attempting to show how their constitutional principles would exclude it.

How Democracies Die actually devotes significant attention to this very possibility. A — perhaps the — main threat it identifies is that a president will abuse his powers through legal means, not by violating the law. For that very reason, it identifies democratic norms, not laws, as the defensive wall against autocracy. The powers of government simply offer too many possibilities for abuse to foreclose all of them through explicit laws. Norms are necessary to prevent a president from entrenching himself in power, by using it to reward allies or smearing or intimidating critics.

It is therefore especially chilling that Trump’s impeachment not only centers on exactly such an action (Trump using his authority to steer foreign policy to discredit domestic rivals), but that his fellow partisans got around to defending the violation of norms as a general practice. By insisting that only an explicit crime is impeachable, they are defending not only Trump’s actual misconduct but the entire category of norm violation. The Republican impeachment defense is an almost-literal reprise of the arguments in How Democracies Die, but in reverse.

Nearly as discouraging as their license for presidential abuses of power is their unanimous support for Trump’s refusal to acknowledge congressional oversight, the second count of impeachment. Trump’s lawyers have claimed that he is merely defending presidential turf, in the same manner all modern presidents have. “It was not simply absolute defiance and not simply a blanket assertion that we won’t do anything,” protested Pat Philbin during the Senate trial.

Trump himself has not even bothered with this pretense. “We’re fighting all the subpoenas,” he has boasted. His reasoning for his absolutist position is telling. “These aren’t, like, impartial people,” the president declared of Congress. “The Democrats are trying to win 2020.” The whole structure of the Constitution assumes Congress will maintain political rivalry against the president, so that the ambitions of one branch counteract those of the other. Trump has dismissed the entire logic of the constitutional system. His logic is that of the populist authoritarian. Congress’s political interests make it inherently illegitimate. Through his misleading red maps, constant invocations of his “landslide” victory, reminders of his 63 million votes, Trump is reinforcing his belief that he alone represents the will of the people incarnate.

Yet even the handful of Republicans who expressed a modicum of concern over Trump’s extortion of Ukraine have contemptuously waved away the second article of impeachment, which Lamar Alexander called “frivolous.” Combined with their dismissal of abuse of power, they are arguing not only that the president cannot be impeached over any behavior that isn’t criminal, he can withhold all documents and testimony into any investigation that might establish behavior that is criminal. Between the two, what enforcement mechanism is there against misconduct — other than the president blurting out his crimes in public? (And perhaps, given Trump’s propensity to do exactly that, not even then?)

In the wake of the Mueller investigation, Trump has pushed for, and received, investigations into the investigators. He will almost assuredly do so again. His allies are already working to expose the whistle-blower — a vindictive move that serves the sole objective of intimidating anybody else in government who might report Trump’s wrongdoing. Lindsey Graham is vowing to open the investigation of Joe Biden that Trump tried to get Ukraine to do for him. Trump is trying to block the publication of John Bolton’s book, and Gabriel Sherman reports Trump is trying to gin up a criminal investigation.

Impeaching Trump for his high crimes did not cause or even exacerbate the threat. It exposed a threat that was already there — the president’s authoritarian ambitions, and the complicity of his party. With the honorable exception of Mitt Romney, the Republican Party has engaged in what Levitsky and Ziblatt call “ideological collusion,” the partnering with autocratic politics in order to advance their policy goals, rather than break ranks and join the opposition. Trump has taken note. His next high crime is probably already underway.

Impeachment Exposed Trump’s Authoritarian Ambitions