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These Truths are “Self-Evident” No Longer

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Our nation’s Declaration of Independence begins with its famous preamble and then commences in earnest with the following ringing statement:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.[1]

Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of these lines, and our other Founders adopted this language believing it expressed the American population’s desire for rights, freedom and self-governance. They imagined that the regime should serve its sovereign, voting-eligible population writ large, and that when that government’s leaders went awry, that larger group could demand that it shift course so as to ensure citizens’ rights and capacity to pursue happiness. Our Founding Fathers could not and did not foresee an age of Republican Party extremist politicians and followers who would be willing to jettison human and civil rights in favor of a demagogue and would be just as willing to take any action to maintain power. But the recent GOP-led acquittal of President Donald Trump of the impeachment charges of corruption and obstruction of justice leveled against him by the House of Representatives demonstrated that is exactly the challenge now confronting our country. Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, of Ohio, a participant in this historic national moment, has described what occurred within the Republican Party concerning it:

For the stay-in-office-at-all-cost representatives and senators, fear is the motivator. They are afraid that Mr. Trump might give them a nickname like ‘Low Energy Jeb’ and ‘Lyin’ Ted,’ or that he might tweet about their disloyalty. Or — worst of all — that he might come to their state to campaign against them in the Republican primary. … In private, many of my colleagues agree that the president is reckless and unfit. They admit his lies. And they acknowledge what he did was wrong. They know this president has done things Richard Nixon never did. And they know that more damning evidence is likely to come out.[2]

I cannot imagine how these Republican senators rationalized their votes not to convict an individual they knew was guilty not only of breaking this nation’s laws, but also of breaching the trust of its citizens in a profound way as he sought to influence the coming 2020 national election in his favor, and further, sought to prevent Congress from discovering that fact. Nonetheless, as Brown noted, the GOP’s senators, his colleagues, knew Trump was guilty and still voted to keep him in office out of fear of their constituents, a share of whom have so far supported this demagogue no matter what he says or does.

It is also important to emphasize that these GOP legislators were not ignorant. They specifically and knowingly chose not to address an opportunity for reasoned deliberation for the good of the nation. Instead, they searched for rationales they hoped would provide cover for Trump. For example, they elected to espouse and parrot fallacious arguments that suggested that the President is unaccountable to any other branch of government, in complete contradiction to our Constitution.[3] Many also suggested that a President may undertake any action that he perceives to be in the interest of the nation (any claim could nominally be legitimated in such terms) without accountability of any kind.[4] These propositions are nonsensical and clearly undermine democratic possibility and accountability. Yet, as Brown argued, the facts of this impeachment scenario never mattered to these elected officials. These Republican courtiers desired power above all else, and in making that choice, they were willing to undermine the rule of law and the tenets of the Constitution they were otherwise sworn to serve out of fear they could not retain their most desired perquisite without supporting Trump.

Accordingly, they followed lockstep toward a travesty as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called on them to ignore evidence, foreswear their oaths of office and self-consciously lie to the U.S. citizenry. These Senators acted in this way despite their awareness, according to Brown and others, that their behavior was unjust, unethical and immoral as well as anti-democratic. The end result of this collective exercise in disingenuousness was a mockery of the American people. A person clearly unfit for his office who had broken the law and acted corruptly in egregious ways, was allowed to remain in that post because the lawmakers who had responsibility to hold him accountable cowered in fear for potential loss of power if they acted with honor and justice.

The loss to our society of this poisonously partisan choice is profound and it revealed a deep incapacity among those leaders and followers responsible for it to demonstrate moral courage. As Robert Kennedy observed in his address at the Day of Affirmation at the University of Capetown in South Africa on June 6, 1966:

Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change the world which yields most painfully to change. Aristotle tells us ‘At the Olympic games it is not the finest or the strongest men who are crowned, but those who enter the lists … so too in the life of the honorable and the good it is they who act rightly who win the prize.’[5]

When pressed privately, as Brown observed, many of the GOP Senators who voted to acquit Trump knew him to be guilty as charged, and were aware too that their “arguments” supporting his actions were likely only to fuel more of his obvious demagoguery, but only one—Utah Senator Mitt Romney, on one charge—showed the moral courage to vote to convict. These legislators proved the aptness of Kennedy’s insight into human character and possibility. As if to underscore the fact of their callow cowardice and moral turpitude, Trump has, since the Senate vote, publicly attacked the prison sentence recommended by federal prosecutors for his long-time advisor Roger Stone, who was convicted on corruption charges in the Muller inquiry into the Trump campaign’s relationship to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. He has also openly sought to intimidate the sitting Federal judge responsible for that case in the hope of preventing her from proceeding as recommended. In addition, he has retaliated against witnesses who testified before the House under subpoena in that body’s impeachment proceeding. I share these examples of Trump’s behavior to suggest that far from tempering his actions, the GOP Senate’s support appears to have emboldened him to believe he may now proceed with still more obvious contempt for the law and Constitution. The Republican vote to support his acquittal has apparently convinced him that there is no reason now to behave in lawful ways, particularly when rewarding friends and punishing enemies to shore up power. He is now acting aggressively on the basis of the complete lack of accountability that his party colleagues fecklessly supported.

History will not treat these GOP senators, supporters or Trump kindly, but the current situation is nonetheless a perilous one for American democratic institutions and it seems plain that a corrective remedy cannot arise in the Congress, even as Trump tests whether he can control the courts as well. The nation’s constitutional regime is at risk as the country moves into the final months before its general election. As that period begins, the U.S. population has no guarantee that Trump will not repeat and deepen his already proven corrupt behavior. In sharp contrast, citizens have much evidence that the GOP’s nominal leaders will follow Trump down whatever path he may choose. One must now look particularly to the courts and the body politic as a whole in November for reasoned action to protect our democratic institutions and rule of law. Indeed, Republican party leaders and a share of the GOP’s supporters have ensured that no other recourse remains.

Notes

[1] United States Government, National Archives, “Declaration of Independence: A Transcription,” https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript, Accessed February 11, 2020.

[2] Brown, Sherrod, “In Private, Republicans Admit they Acquitted Trump Out of Fear,” The New York Times, February 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/05/opinion/trump-senate-acquittal-impeachment.html, Accessed February 11, 2020. 

[3] Kinkopf, Neil. “The Barr Memo and the Imperial Presidency,” American Constitution Society, January 17, 2019, https://www.acslaw.org/expertforum/the-barr-memo-and-the-imperial-presidency/, Accessed February 12, 2020.

[4] Savage, Charlie, “ ‘Constitutional Nonsense:’ Trump’s Impeachment Defense Defies Legal Consensus,” The New York Times, January 20, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/20/us/politics/trump-impeachment-legal-defense.html, Accessed February 10, 2020. 

[5] Kennedy, Robert, “Day of Affirmation Address, University of Capetown, Capetown, South Africa,” June 6, 1966, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/the-kennedy-family/robert-f-kennedy/robert-f-kennedy-speeches/day-of-affirmation-address-university-of-capetown-capetown-south-africa-june-6-1966, Accessed February 13, 2020.  

Publication Date

February 17, 2020

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