Trump Till 2020: A Republican Vision

This presidency’s end stage has been talked about ever since the election results came in on that depressing ninth day of November, 2016. There has been much hopeful talk of impeachment, and of ‘the final days of the Trump presidency’ as each administration official resigns, is indicted, or is implicated in some sordid scandal or the other. The Robert Mueller Investigation grinds on as the slow wheels of justice must; and the nation has turned its lonely eyes to FBI Bob, waiting for him to bring political manna to the masses. Now, Stormy Daniels has entered the frame and talk of firing Bob Mueller has received new life thanks to the repeated invocation of that mantra by Fox and Friends. Indeed, the Stormy Daniels affair has finally lent some teeth to this embarrassingly frenzied speculation about the eviction of the current tenant of the White House. Unfortunately, such hopes and prognostications run up some unrelenting political and cultural realities.

First, as Iran-Contra reminds us, as Americans, we are too embarrassed to punish the truly powerful; it would be too déclassé, too sordid, in excessively poor taste. It would be a reminder that our judgment was flawed, that we were wrong to trust the rich and the powerful, that we had once again, mistakenly put our faith in the powerful, trusting that their ‘magic’ would rub off on us. For us to punish the powerful would be to punish ourselves; after all, we have ambitions of becoming powerful too, one day, and we do not want to set a bad precedent. Our tastes run more to punishing lackeys and assistants, the ones who usually take the fall and then mumble, hopefully publicly, some words of contrition and repentance.

There will be no premature end to the Trump presidency; he will serve out his term till the 2020 electoral season, during which at some point, he will dramatically declare that with all his work ‘done’ he will now retire to spend more time with his family. (That is, he will seamlessly and smoothly move on to a new television talk show, the lecture circuit, and a ginormous advance from the trade house ‘lucky’ enough to publish his memoir. This is a classic American tale and it will only get better in the retelling.)

Why is this so? Because little has changed in the American political landscape–despite the air of mounting scandal and electoral disaster. The Republicans will not impeach him as long as they control the House of Representatives, for reasons too often made to bear repeating there. The Democrats, for their part, remain unlikely to launch impeachment proceedings even if they come to power; they will be too easily distracted by talk of how they should ‘move on,’ not deepen the ‘partisan divide,’ not practice a ‘destructive politics,’ or ‘give the appearance of being vindictive.’ The electoral calculus predominates here as it has always; despite prognostications of a ‘blue wave’ in 2018, the President’s own approval ratings remain solid. No matter how his brand may affect others, his own remains relatively pristine.  The best, least damaging electoral strategy, one that minimizes their losses, is for the Republicans to keep Trump in power in return for a quiet promise that he will not seek re-election in 2020. This is something Trump can be easily persuaded to do; he will have spent enough time in the limelight to ensure himself a quiet retirement, and ensured enough money to secure his children’s future. He will also have realized that the presidency can be an unpleasant business.

The legal ground has been prepared for such a move. The presidential pardon has been tested and found to be adequate; it has been used on undesirables like Joe Arpaio and Scooter Libby; there has been no opposition to its use; Trump now knows he can line up a few lackeys to take the fall for him, once they have had the  prospect of a presidential pardon held out for them. No revelation from the Stormy Daniels case, other than a good to honest legal indictment, will trouble Trump even remotely; his ‘base’ already thinks he has acquired baller status for having slept with a porn star–no matter what came afterwards. Trump’s legal advisers will undoubtedly put him on notice that his legal jeopardy is greater with him outside the Oval office than inside it; and Republican Party pollsters will support them in this claim by noting that no matter how bad the defeat in 2018 in the House, they will not lose by too big a margin thanks to Republican gerrymandering and vote suppression efforts. This is a party whose main platform is ‘stick it to the liberals!’; this party will not expel the man who won them the 2016 elections on this platform.

One response to such a claim is that the electoral and political calculus has changed over the course of the Trump presidency: the main tax bill has been passed, the Obamacare mandate has been rolled back, electoral losses in ‘red districts’ indicates the famous ‘blue wave’ – and so Trump is expendable, to be replaced by the doltish Mike Pence. This response does not add up; the Republicans might be facing a ‘blue wave’ in 2018, but they know that: a) the ‘blue wave’ is more swell, less tsunami and b) that the ‘blue wave’ they face in 2018 will be nothing compared the massive abandonment they will face from Republican voters in 2020 if Trump is made to resign or impeached. To hand a victory to the progressives, the libtards, the alt-left, the bleeding hearts, the Democrats, the left, liberals is political suicide. The many surprising electoral wins for Democrats in recent months, indeed, ever since Trump came to power, are less the result of Republicans abandoning Trump or suddenly developing a conscience or some compassion; rather, it is because energized Democrats have turned out in greater numbers. There is no indication that any Republican ‘defection’ has taken place.

America is stuck with the Trump presidency; it will be stuck with the Republican Party much longer.

The Trump-Republican Legacy: Institutional Capture And Degradation

There might be some disputation over whether the Donald Trump-Republican Party unholy alliance is politically effective in terms of the consolidation of executive power or actual legislative activity–seasoned political observers consider the Trump administration to have been an utter failure on both fronts–but there can be little doubt about the extent of the damage the combination of the Trump administration and the Republican Party have done to American political institutions. They have done so in two ways: first, they have systematically captured components of the electoral and  legislative process, exploiting their structural weaknesses and their dependence on good-willed political actors (which the Republicans most certainly aren’t); second, they have engaged in a wholesale rhetorical condemnation and ridicule of central and peripheral political institutions like the judiciary and the press.

In the former domain, we find a bag of dirty tricks that includes gerrymandering of state electoral districts, wholly fraudulent investigations into voter fraud, repression of voter registration, filibusters, supermajority requirements to call bills to vote on the floor, the stunning refusal to vote on a Supreme Court nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia, and so on. In the latter domain, we find the ceaseless vilification of judges who do not align their votes in the ideological dimensions preferred by Trump, an utter disregard for all manner of ethical proprieties (c.f. the absence of any sensitivity to the non-stop conflicts of interest that are this administration’s trademark political maneuver), and a wholesale rejection of any standards of truth or evidence in the making of substantive factual political claims.

The American polity will be rid of the Trump administration via resignation or electoral rejection soon enough; perhaps it will even remove the Republican Party from power  from all three branches of government. It will not, however, be rid of the damage caused to its political institutions any time soon; it will take a long time to for this damnable stain to be removed, if at all. Cynicism about political institutions and practices is as American as various species of fruit pies; it is the natural result of a systematic effort by the political class to bring about widespread disengagement with national and state-level political processes, thus clearing the field for those seeking greater control over them. That effort has been spectacularly successful over the years; low voter turnout is its most visible indicator. The efforts of this administration and the Republican Party, aided and abetted, it must be said, by the Democratic Party, have pushed that cynicism still further, into realms where the abdication of political responsibility and the loud proclamation of moral bankruptcy has come to seem a political and intellectual virtue.  So overt has the abuse of the political system been that a collective weariness with politics has prompted an ongoing and continuing abandonment of the field; better to walk away from this cesspool than to risk further contamination. That abandonment clears the way for further capture and degradation, of course; precisely the effect intended (see above.)

The Trump Presidency And The Iran-Contra Precedent

Perhaps because it has been over three decades, memories of the ginormous political clusterfuck that went by the name of Iran-Contra seem to have faded from our collective memory. As our nation’s polity lurches from one scandal to the next, and as cries of ‘impeachment, if not now, then when?‘ fill the air, it is worth reminding ourselves of just how badly things seemed to be going–back in the 1980s–for another US President, and how, miraculously, he survived:

The scandal began as an operation to free seven American hostages being held in Lebanon by Hezbollah, a paramilitary group with Iranian ties….Israel would ship weapons to Iran, and then the United States would resupply Israel and receive the Israeli payment….a portion of the proceeds from the weapon sales was diverted to fund anti-Sandinista, or Contras, in Nicaragua.Reagan was aware of potential hostage transfers with Iran, as well as the sale of Hawk and TOW missiles…. large volumes of documents relating to the scandal were destroyed or withheld from investigators by Reagan administration officials….Several investigations ensued, including by the U.S. Congress and the three-person, Reagan-appointed Tower Commission. Neither found any evidence that President Reagan himself knew of the extent of the multiple programs….the sale of weapons to Iran was not deemed a criminal offense but charges were brought against five individuals for their support of the Contras. Those charges, however, were later dropped because the administration refused to declassify certain documents. The indicted conspirators faced various lesser charges instead….fourteen administration officials were indicted, including then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Eleven convictions resulted, some… vacated on appeal. The rest of those indicted or convicted were all pardoned in the final days of the presidency of George H. W. Bush.

No criminal charges were ever laid against the US President, and then, as now, the only institutional pressure that could be brought to bear was a Congressional and independent investigation. It did not seem credible that Reagan would survive the scandal. But he did. Obfuscation, denial, selective loss of memory, underlings willing and able to cover-up; these all aided in the Gipper‘s Great Escape. Selling arms to Iran in 1986, six years after American hostages had been freed in Tehran was outrageous; doing so illegally, in order to aid another clandestine operation that involved negotiating with a ‘terrorist organization’ to release American hostages, was beyond the pale. It was that era’s ‘collusion with the Russians,’ that era’s ‘hacking of our elections.’ But after the smoke cleared, matters proceeded much as before; before the nation’s disbelieving eyes, no charges stuck. The capacity of the nation’s political institutions to pay host to, and absorb, considerable wrong-doing was demonstrated rather spectacularly then; and we may bear further witness to their capacity for doing so. Damaged, limping, presidencies that barely make it to the finish line are not unknown in American political history; this could be one of those. If we are lucky, its ability to wreak further damage on the polity will have been considerably diminished.

The ‘But The Supreme Court’ Argument For Hillary Clinton

One ‘hold-your-nose-and-vote-for-the-lesser-evil’ argument currently making the rounds for the Hillary Clinton candidacy–ostensibly intended to address the ‘schism’ in the Democratic Party, among the ‘Left’ and ‘progressives’–goes something like this. Vote for Hillary Clinton, even if you disagree with many of her policies, do not consider her entirely trustworthy, and would much rather vote for Bernie Sanders–because she will nominate the right person, the right Justice, to the US Supreme Court. (The Senate will not confirm a nominee put up by President Obama, so this will be one of the first tasks awaiting the new President next year.) No matter what you think, you cannot allow a President Trump to nominate a right-wing ideologue to the Supreme Court, who will then roll back years of hard-won legal victories in many domains: perhaps abortion restrictions, perhaps voting rights, perhaps the power of regulatory administrative agencies to keep our work spaces safe and our drinking water clean.

It is worth noting how much this argument presumes and concedes.

First, and most importantly, the American political system is broken. There is no separation of powers; the judiciary and the executive branch are the new legislatures. The Supreme Court is now a full-blown political institution. Political change will not come about because people’s representatives will legislate their desires and demands into existence; rather, an unelected group of Yale and Harvard educated lawyers will respond directly to petitioners who seek to address some perceived injustice. Persuade the justices; do not bother with the ballot box. Unless you are voting for President.

Second, it places too much faith in the ability of the Supreme Court to drive substantive social and political change. The poster child for this sort of claim is Brown v. Board of Education, which left segregation intact; and as a vigorous debate among professional court watchers–a motley crew of legal scholars and political scientists–confirms, supporting examples can be found quite easily. Despite the expressive impact of the courts and their rulings, political change does not happen because courts direct the polity to change; rather, it occurs because citizens organize and exert pressure at and on the right places and the right actors–in a variety of political domains and institutions.

Third, it suggests–as if acknowledging the unprecedented obstruction of a sitting President by the Republicans over the last eight years–that the President is a lame-duck from the moment he or she drops his or her right hand on being sworn in. No substantive legislation can be driven by that office; the Constitution offers no escape; a recalcitrant House of Representatives and Senate cannot be forced to do perform their legal duties. The President can merely nominate a Supreme Court Justice; and that too before the final year of office (apparently the new normal now given what has transpired since Justice Scalia’s death.)

It is into this impoverished and diminished political landscape that we are steered by the ‘but the Supreme Court’ argument for Hillary Clinton. We are being asked to settle for an immensely diminished Republic.