When the Senate of the United States voted on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, not to call John Bolton or any other witnesses in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, death rattled in the throat of the American republic.
It’s over now. We will, of course, continue to be a great and powerful nation, a rich nation, with all the Walmart’s full and plenty of inexpensive gasoline at the pumps, but we cannot any longer even pretend to be a republic. Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a nation in which the legislative branch was first among equals, where Congress watched the executive like a hawk, where no individual or individuals got their hands on much power and every nexus of power was checked and balanced by another nexus that existed to protect the Constitution, to protect due process and protect the liberties of the people, where power and sovereignty were “diffused” not concentrated in the hands of the few or the one, where we preferred liberty to governmental efficiency and where we would never approach monarchy and autocracy again, even from a distance — all that has breathed its last gasp in the triumph of one of the least self-restraining men in American history.
The Founding Fathers are turning over in their graves. What Jefferson said about the Missouri Compromise in a letter to John Holmes on April 22, 1820, seems to apply perfectly to this sad moment:
“I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves, by the generation of ’76, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it.”
Now exonerated, without a whisper of Republican condemnation, just watch what President Trump will undertake. Where there is no penalty for wrongdoing, wrongdoing will set up housekeeping and begin to undertake even bolder violations of our constitutional order. President Trump’s now famous call with Ukrainian President Zalinski occurred one day after he seemed to be exonerated by the Mueller Report this past July. He had learned nothing. Or rather he had learned that he was right about what he said about Fifth Avenue in New York. He was not chastened but emboldened to take greater risks with the Constitution.
You may think I am overreacting. I hope that’s true. But I have spent the past 30 years trying to understand what we mean by the magical word republic, trying to understand what went wrong in the Roman Republic in the century that culminated in Julius Caesar and then his grandnephew, Augustus, who became the first emperor of Rome.
Over many years, from my vantage point as a lover of Jefferson, I have watched the erosion of our republic in the loss of civility and citizenship training, in our satisfaction with world empire, in our willingness to let money buy representation in legislative chambers throughout America, including the U.S. Capitol, and the emergence of a smug class system in which about 150 families now own most of the wealth of America. But through all of that decline, I felt that we somehow were still holding on to some last filaments that made it possible for us to say we were still at least marginally a republic.
Those filaments were cut by Republican senators on Jan. 31. They were the last guardrail, the last backstop. If they had called witnesses and learned the starkness of the truth, let the American people hear the truth from an unimpeachable witness like John Bolton, who was in the room, and who fled the Trump administration because it was so reckless and lawless; if they had concluded by condemning Trump’s actions, warning him in the severest terms not to repeat such antics and perhaps even voting to censure him as a way of showing how very serious they were, how much they loved the U.S. Constitution, more than the cult of an individual who is not, at heart, even a Republican, we might have been saved or the republic prolonged.
But they refused — in a trial about official wrongdoing at the highest levels of American public life — to hear from the single-most material witness, indeed a staunch Republican like themselves. In other words, they refused to take an impeachment trial of a president of the United States seriously — and America will rue the consequences for decades, if not simply forever. It is that serious. A staggering, probably fatal blow to the Constitution. And the worst of it is that about half of the American people are feeling glee while all that this country uniquely has stood for is cheerfully tossed in the dumpster of history.
I am going to save this warning and read it to you again when we have been engulfed by the tsunami of wrongdoing that is sure to follow. Everything we know about Donald Trump — and we have known him for decades — is that every narrow escape from nemesis emboldens him to greater recklessness and arrogance.
The argument of the Republicans in Congress was that the president of the United States can do whatever he wishes — legal or illegal — as long as he says he is doing it for the good of the country. The president has said that his reading of Article II of the Constitution gives him unlimited and unchecked executive power. That is not what the Founding Fathers intended. That is precisely what they feared worst.
It was the crabby republican John Adams who said, in America no man is above the law. But the Republicans of the U.S. Senate have endorsed, in even starker terms, what Richard Nixon said to David Frost. When the president does it that means it is not illegal.
My unbearable pessimism — the worst of my long lifetime — is not that President Trump has been acquitted of abusing his trust as the 45th president of the United States. I do think he committed clearly impeachable offenses, but honest people can disagree about whether his actions rise to the level of impeachment. There has never been a successful eviction of a president of the United States in the Senate. Perhaps the Ukraine affair, though appalling, is not quite enough to warrant that grave constitutional remedy. Honest individuals can disagree.
My pessimism and fear come from the fact that nobody in the Republican Party condemned President Trump’s actions. No Republican said that Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation of his chief political rival in the 2020 election was wrong, a violation of public trust, an offense against fair play and an assault on our system of elections.
When President Clinton was impeached for perjuring himself over his extramarital affairs, including one with a White House intern half his age, his fellow Democrats voted not to evict him, but scores of them condemned his actions and said he had broken trust with his oath of office. Clinton himself said that he had done was wrong and he threw himself on the mercy of the nation. That was 1998. Do you think Trump will apologize to the American people in the next weeks and months? That alone tells you where we are.
The Republicans of 2020, who with the help of eminent constitutional scholar Alan Dershowitz, formed a perfect phalanx to protect an individual they all know is guilty of an offense that would throw them into a frenzy of outrage had it been performed by a Democratic President. They may think they are protecting this president at this moment, but they have trampled the U.S. Constitution and we will all reap the whirlwind.
This is the darkest day of my lifetime as someone who believed we were different from other nations because we continued to believe that — for all of our weaknesses as a civilization — we would be vigilant to protect ourselves from incipient tyranny.
Mitch McConnell and the Republicans of the Senate kicked over the last guardrail Jan. 31. As Shakespeare says in Troilus and Cressida, now Hark what discord follows.