Nation To Republican Party: Fool Me Twice, Shame On…Oh, Forget It.

Around the nation, there is much talk of Donald Trump firing the special prosecutor Robert Mueller, whose charge is the so-called ‘Russia investigation,’ and whose acquisitions of ‘top criminal lawyers’ has resulted in him putting together a prosecution ‘dream team.’  These are merely rumors for the time being–and strange rumors for liberals and progressives to be getting so excited about given that this is a nation which has generated a human rights crisis for itself through its mass incarceration policies–but speculation based on rumors is always quite delicious, so let me be a little self-indulgent. This firing is eagerly anticipated by, for instance, Rick Wilson and Adam Schiff, both of whom wrote and posted variants of what I will call the ‘bring-it-on rant.’ Please, Donnie, fire Mueller, because that act, and I really mean it this time, will bring about the impeachment we all so fervently desire, and if not, something even better will  happen: the American people will finally, and I mean it this time, finally, realize that we are a nation without laws, that the republic is dead, that the Republican Party is morally and intellectually bankrupt and so on.We haven’t gotten the memo yet, but once you fire Mueller, we will, and then we can get on with the business of rescuing and reconstructing and restructuring the American Republic.

There are camels and there are straws and there camel’s backs and last straws. Never has the meeting of the twain been so elusive in American politics.

Trump can fire Mueller, in broad daylight, on Fifth Avenue, and nothing would happen to him. Nothing, that is, from the folks that some Americans think should be doing something about it: Congressional and Senate Republicans. As Paul Starr makes clear, having a weakened President–and let there not be any doubt about it, Trump is a weakened President, incapable of asserting and securing power in the ways that the pros of old knew how to–is the best news possible for the Republican Party’s legislative agenda. Moving legislation along is the least such an enfeebled leader can do; prop me up, he says, and his minions comply, even as they press a quill into his hands and place an ink pot nearby, while they lick their fingers and turn over the pages, all the while pointing to the dotted lines to be initialed and signed.

We should remember that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton survived scandals that–in their time–were just as bad, just as ‘fatal’ to the presidency. Trump’s survival is all but guaranteed because he is a popular president among a vital, electorally crucial, demographic, and because by functioning as the dysfunctional, drunk, senile, grandparent, he can be propped up to provide cover to the real wrecking crew.

Moreover, let us not forget, the 2018 elections are in, er, 2018, which is a long ways away. Memories are short these days; the outrage over the Mueller firing, like all the other ‘this-is-gonna-sink-Trump-sure’ events, it will produce its ripples and then sink beneath the surface. The republic is politically unwell, and its malaise will not be healed by the mere removal of the most superficial pathology visible.

Machiavelli On The Unjust Republic’s Susceptibility To Treason

In Book I, Chapter VII of The Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli writes:

[N]othing makes a republic so stable and strong as organizing it in such a way that the agitation of the hatreds which excite it has a means of expressing itself provided for by the laws….whenever one finds foreign forces being called in by one faction of men living in a city, it may be taken for granted that the bad ordinances of that city are the cause, for it does not have an institution that provides an outlet for the malignant humors which are born among men to express themselves without their resorting to illegal means.

The laws of the republic are, for Machiavelli, part of its leader’s political toolbox for maintaining its stability and ensuring its longevity and prosperity. A crucial and indeed, essential, function of the laws is the channeling of discontent toward safe and speedy resolution. Where such channeling does not take place, the citizens “have recourse to illegal means, which cause the eventual ruin of the entire republic.”

These passages remain instructive. As I read them, I scribbled the following note in the margins of my copy of The Portable Machiavelli (Penguin Classics, Bondanella and Musa trans., 1979):

Treason is more likely in an unjust state.

Indeed. Where there is no forum for the expression of discontent with the republic, we might come to see, through a Freudian or Nietzschean lens, that this repressed desire or drive for amelioration of injustice will find expression through some other means. If the republic is lucky, this drive will be directed inwards and result only in the destruction of the discontented. If not, that drive will find outward expression, directed against the republic, by any means necessary. Violence and treason will come to seem reasonable alternatives to the oppressed; aid will be sought wherever it may be found, and then pressed rapidly pressed into service. Allegiance to the republic will fall away; redressal of oppression and injustice will come to occupy center stage in their politics of those who protest. The republic will come to stand for something other than its republican ideals; its laws, supposedly its most noble possession, will appear debased and unworthy of commanding obligation.

We should keep this in mind when we rush to criticize those who would dare choose unorthodox means of protest. Merely urging them to legal forms of protest is not enough; it must also be asked whether the legal arrangements of the republic in question would allow their experienced injustice to actually be addressed, or will merely cause their protest to fizzle out. The wise ruler witnesses discontent in his state and wonders the republic law’s may be amended his laws so that future protests find a forum for expression and redressal; the unwise merely ratchets up the repression or becomes defensive, blaming the discontented for having the temerity to speak up and act.

Note: These passages led to a vigorous discussion today in my Political Philosophy seminar, an always gratifying response to an assigned reading.

Our Truly Messed-Up Constitution (And Those Dedicated To Keeping It That Way)

Sanford Levinson‘s Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We The People Can Correct It) is a truly depressing book. As I read it last night and this morning–in preparation for a meeting today with this semester’s Wolfe Institute Faculty Discussion Group–I grew increasingly enraged, perplexed, and then, finally, even more convinced that the excessive veneration shown to the US Constitution is a scam, one perpetrated on this nation by a political class determined to ensure the US will never become a true democratic republic. (I am only up to Chapter Three as yet, and dread what awaits me in the remaining ones.)

Much of Levinson’s critique in Chapters Two (Our Undemocratic Legislative Process) and Three (The Legacy of Article II: Too-Powerful Presidents Chosen in an Indefensible Process, Who Cannot Be Displaced Even When They Are Manifestly Incompetent), was familiar to me in its bare outlines: the bicameral, or rather, tricameral legislature, with its multiplicity of ‘veto points’ that may stymie majoritarian legislation, the unrepresentative nature of the Senate, (which without exaggeration may be termed as Levinson does, ‘illegitimate’), the misuse of presidential vetoes deployed on non-constitutional grounds, the all-too-frequent elections to the US House of Representatives, the idiotic Electoral College, the lame-duck Congresses, the delayed inauguration of the President. And so on. And on. But I don’t think I have ever had the Constitutions weaknesses and disastrous discordance with present-day realities laid out quite as infuriatingly well as Levinson does. (My familiarity with the outlines of Levinson’ critique should indicate part of the problem with the Constitution: most people, on being informed of its vagaries, are inclined to think it broke, and indeed scathing critique of the Constitution, given the dates on many of the commentaries and analyses cited by Levinson, is nothing new. But changing the Constitution is well-nigh impossible. We are, indeed, seemingly trapped in the ‘cage’ of its Articles and Clauses.)

A full reckoning of the Constitution’s problems as highlighted by Levinson requires a careful read of his book. Here is a tiny excerpt to get you started. Levinson cites Lynn A. Baker and Samuel H. Dinkin’s article ‘The Senate: An Institution Whose Time Has Gone?’ (Journal of Law and Politics, 1997) to offer a ‘terse summary of the practical consequences of the inequality of voting power in the Senate.’:

First, the Senate ensures  that the Federal Government will systematically redistribute income from the large states to the small states. Second, it provides racial minorities a voice in the federal lawmaking process that is disproportionately small relative to their numbers. Third, it protects diversity among the states by making federal homogenizing legislation more difficult to pass.

In case all that sounds too abstract, here is a little number of particular interest to me:

Over the period 1963-1999, New York taxpayers paid out $252 billion more in taxes than were received back in federal payments or services.

This is a mere sampler; besides the extant difficulties caused for the republic by the Constitution’s provisions, there are many crises waiting to happen in times of national emergency or even tied elections. It’s a clunker and a lemon rolled into one.  As Levinson notes, amending the Constitution is a near-intractable task, the difficulty of which may be gauged by revisiting John Roche’s paraphrasing  of Lord Acton‘s sagacious remark: It is not so much power that corrupts as the prospect of losing power.