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Sunday, November 03, 2019

The Impeachment Debate--a Barometer

Last week I attended a talk by General James Mattis (ret.), the former Secretary of Defense, at the JFK School in Cambridge.  General Mattis is a history buff, and he talked a great deal about how history can enhance your perspective and help you make better decisions.  His host was Prof. Graham Allison, the head of the school's applied history project, whose roots I helped grow myself about 40 years ago.  He also talked about the crisis in our democracy and the problems of tribalism and partisanship.  He did not specifically discuss his tenure as secretary of defense, although he alluded more than once to the great difficulty of making or executing any coherent policy in this administration.

I decided to participate in question time.

I began by introducing myself as a former member of the Strategy and Policy Department in Newport. "General," I said, "I share you concerns about the crisis in our democracy.  Recently it seems to have entered another phase.  During the next year, both the House and Senate and the American people will have to decide whether our President should continue in office.  One critical question bearing on their decision--and I don't think that it should be a partisan political question--relates to his intellectual and managerial competence and whether he is really capable of doing the job.  It seems to me that men like you, and General McMaster, and General Kelly, and Mr. Tillerson have a lot of information bearing on that point.  Whether or not you want to comment on this now, I hope that some of you will take an opportunity in the next year to make the information you have available to the Congress and the public so that they may make a more informed decision."  (That's a paraphrase but it is certainly very close to what I said.)

The general replied emphatically, making clear that he had already settled this question in his own mind.  The American military, he said, has a non-political tradition going back to the Newburgh conspiracy during the Revolutionary War.  It must not set itself up as some kind of Praetorian guard.  I certainly did not think that I was asking him to do that.  I suspect that if Donald Trump were a serving officer commanding a battalion in General Mattis's division, that he would understand that he had to be relieved, but he still feels that his years of military service debar him from exercising his rights as a citizen to pronounce upon his fitness as commander in chief.

General Mattis, then, refuses for his own reasons to enter into a discussion of whether Donald J. Trump can adequately perform the duties of President of the United States.  Yet the issue of why that question isn't at the forefront of our political discussion generally, and why it seems very unlikely that it will be the specific basis for an article of impeachment, goes well beyond his personal views of the duties of military officers.  It goes to the question of whether the citizens of the United States now have enough understanding of, or belief in, our government, to make it work effectively.  I feel more and more forced to believe--by evidence--that they do not.

The Constitution grew directly out of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement of the 18th century that held that human reason could, and should, order human affairs.  It also reflected the experience of the unwritten British constitution, which it incorporated in many ways.  Many of the words used in our constitution--including "impeachment"--can only be understood with reference to British precedents.  It also reflected the experience of Greek city states and the Roman empire, which the founders had studied, and which come up in some of the federalist papers.  Today, only lawyers--not students of history--know anything about British legal and constitutional precedents, and almost no one knows anything about the political history of ancient Greece and Rome.  Our fellow countrymen, I would suggest, do not know about this history of legislative inquiry as a check on executive power. They see only a war between a Democratic House of Representatives and a Republican president in which they will take sides.

Our federal government as it evolved during the twentieth century is also a child of the Enlightenment, reflecting the idea that impartial bureaucracies can regulate our economy and provide public services that we all need.  Neither Donald Trump nor the Republican Party, however, still believes in that model of government, and the President does not even believe in the role of the modern foreign policy and defense establishment which has taken on so many responsibilities around the world.  The Republican party has been unraveling the achievement of the Progressive era and the New Deal for the last 40  years, and the Democratic party has joined in this process on crucial occasions.  Bernie Sanders, who must remember Franklin Roosevelt's death, and Elizabeth Warren, who learned about some of the problems the New Deal tried to solve during her legal career, still believe in this model of government, but how many voters do?  How many of them care that the Trump Administration is ignoring much of the bureaucracy and turning some of it--such as the EPA--into obedient servants of the corporate America that they were designed to regulate?  Going further, how many Americans--especially better-off Americans--have a real commitment to the public educational system that Betsy DeVos is trying to dismantle?  And how many of us believe in the interventionist foreign policy that has wasted so much blood and treasure and wreaked so much havoc around the Middle East since 2001?  That last cohort of skeptics includes yours truly.  Those of us who remain devoted to American ideals of politics and government are standing for what was, and what they feel could be again--not for what its.

Last but not least, in the last half century we have lost our belief in the superiority of reason, rather than emotion.  The emotional and moral restraint of the American people struck foreign observers like Tocqueville in the 19th century, and they saw it as critical to our democracy. In the civil war, the passionate, emotional aristocrats of the South lost to the more rational merchants and teachers of the North.  Now the screen has replaced the printed page as the primary medium of the circulation of information, and the educational system--especially at the highest levels--no longer forces young people to learn the experience of spending many hours with books.  Without the right training, few Americans can make sense of our complex government and our complex world. 

Donald Trump would never have won the Republican nomination, much less the general election, if a good majority of Americans still understood and believed in our system of government.  And because we now lack any non-partisan belief in our system of government, the impeachment inquiry will most probably lead to impeachment by the House, followed by trial and acquittal by the Senate.  20 Republican Senators would have to vote to remove him to reach 67 votes, and I do not see how that could happen at this point.  That will leave Donald Trump's fate--and the nation's--in the hands of American voters.  Elizabeth Warren remains my candidate, but I regret that she released a detailed plan for Medicare for all.  I support that policy in principle, but it seems very unlikely, in our current climate, that she can convince more than a small minority of voters, at this point, that she can make this happen and that it will be a good idea.  Some restoration of trust in our system and some sense of common national purpose must come before such a sweeping change, however right and necessary it may be.  The previous great crisis of our national life--the revolutionary and constitutional period, the Civil War, and the era of the Depression and the Second World War--played that role. Our own crisis has completely failed to do so.  We must begin the work of restoration calmly, patiently, and slowly.


Matthew E said...

I don't know if you remember, but back when I was on Facebook I once raised the point of whether Trump would be forced to leave office if there was any kind of consensus that he lost the 2020 election. I didn't then, and don't now, have a specific prediction for how this *would* play out, because it's all balancing right on the knife-edge of who-the-hell-knows, but one of my concerns was that the armed forces, including the military and Secret Service, would refuse to remove him from office physically if it came to that, because they wouldn't want to act as the Praetorian Guard. I was vigorously opposed in this discussion, but Mattis's response to you is *exactly* the kind of thing I had in mind.

If the 2020 election is allowed to proceed fairly, I have no doubt that Trump will lose in a landslide. But a) I'm not sure that it will be allowed to proceed fairly, b) if it proceeds at all, Trump and his people are certainly going to kick up a lot of dust to obscure the legitimacy of any results that tell against Trump, and c) even if all that is overcome I can't see Trump willingly turning over power to his successor. Someone would have to make him do it. And I think there are serious questions about whether anybody has the guts to do that. I think there are a lot of people in positions of responsibility like Mattis, who will seize on any rationalization for doing nothing, rather than stick their necks way out (and, to be sure, make themselves the bitter enemy of the entire right wing forever) to do the right thing. It's the only play in Trump's playbook, after all: push for everything it's possible to push for and make your enemies go to the trouble of stopping you, because they probably won't.

Energyflow said...

Trump is a personal catastrophe. But take a look at all those fortune 500 companies. Professional management. They run it into the ground, buy back stock. GE went from industrial giant to hedge fund. Similarly our military cannot, literally, be audited. The weapons programs are overspecified technical just to make money for corporations. Big picture outsider thinking is needed at this point not a professional manager doing best inside the box thinking. The system is broken. Best economics theories of hundreds of Phds working for Fed have created a disaster. This is hard to overstate. DOD is no different and US health system. Basically common sense low level average guy unafraid to speak his mind is needed. Not an insider proud of doing best in system. System is broken. Basic reason for impeaching Trump is this perspective difference. You might recall phrase 'british disease' as term for 70s stagnation in UK. Then came Thatcher(butcher's daughter gone to oxford). Next wave of reform on hand now. In USA obviously massive reforms are needed. If the security apparatus literally supports the social welfare state party in a soft coup then we have both big ticket items, guns and butter, opposing change on the assumption that the gravy train can roll on indefinitely. Wake up and smell the coffee. It ain't gonna happen. Install another bureaucrat, delay the inevitable. 'Let's talk real politics'to quote REM, one of my favorite 80s bands. Soviet Union went bankrupt with big military, centralized system. Look at Japan. Central bank buys up bond market, stock market. It all fake market in west since 2008 not free matrket accrding to profiits but zombie companies. Walking dead. Private is supported by central bank just like govt. No real solutions actually but Trump is not the villain. Start thinking outside box. Any ideas? Crikey!

Unknown said...

Regarding your opening story: I agree with SecDef Mattis that military officers should avoid politics, in general. But if Mattis wishes to not comment on his time in government and his experiences with Pres. Trump BECAUSE of his military background, then he has a moral and philosophical duty to condemn those former generals and admirals who do endorse a political candidate. He cannot have it both ways and still be considered rational or moral. If he wants to take his govt pension and ride off into the sunset, that's fine, but writing a book based on that experience means he is profiteering off of our tax dollars to him and means he has an obligation to the people of the US to be consistent.
He is the one drawing lines in the sand and then ignoring his own platitudes. Institutions like the JFK School degrade themselves and contribute to the lessening of our institutions if it allows him to have it both ways - a result I fully expect.

Unknown said...

In the wake of the President’s decision to remove US forces from N. Syria, an unfathomable decision, it seems that there are exceptions to what Gen. Mattis has implied concerning a praetorian guard. One would be where to draw the line, e.g., if the President ordered a nuclear attack without consultation with the NSC and others in the national security departments, a decision that might have as much forethought as the Syrian one (unless the President’s decision was one based on counterattack). This is not far fetched. We might hope for a contrary praetorian guard under that scenario. Additionally, there are historical incidences where the military “slow crawled” obedience to an order from civilian superiors until that order was favorably tempered or withdrawn. These did not result in a warning about a praetorian guard, nor does the speaking of truth from a knowledgable, senior military officer whose oath to the constitution does to lapse in retirement. It is not disloyal to voice a legitimate objection to the orders of those appointed (or elected) over a military officer and not everyone is afforded the luxury of resigning in protest that a retired, four-star general enjoys. There is legality and then there is morality. Military officers are bound by both to the extent that they can uphold the oath of office and the dictates of their conscience within their actions. One can adhere to the principle of civilian rule of the military and that military members cannot disobey lawful orders while admitting that the President in his role as Commander-in-Chief is not sovereign. Which is more dangerous? Failing to execute a lawful order, or, blind obedience to every thoughtless order emanating from an ignorant or malign superior.

David Kaiser said...

Nice to hear from you, Matthew E. The Constitution and subsequent laws provide that the House and Senate, sitting together, certify the results of the presidential election. If they certified Trump's opponent a year from January, then surely the military officers' oath to "defend the Constitution," which they take very seriously, would come into play. I think they would begin taking orders from the certified winner at noon on January 20. And if the Congress had certified a new winner that certainly implies that they would go along with the new President as well. It was because Congress certified Hayes in 1876, when there were disputed results in three states, that he took office. I believe the law calls upon the House and Senate to vote jointly. If the Republicans had retaken the House and held onto the Senate, though, given the way they are behaving now, they might try to seize on some excuse not to certify a Democratic winner. But what would the excuse be? I don't think we're going to see states with two competing governments and two sets of returns, which is what happened in 1876.

Matthew E said...


I'm sure everything you're saying is accurate, but Trump and the Republicans have no respect for the law and there's no particular reason to expect them to follow it unless they're forced to. And in an environment where the results of the election are going to be controversial and disputed? (Because the media is certainly going to take any claims the Republicans make about the election results being invalid seriously. Even if they don't accept the claims, they will treat them as worthy of evaluation.) It's not going to seem clear-cut to anyone who has to decide what to do.

Again, I don't know what's going to happen. But rules and laws will never stop Donald Trump. He doesn't even see them. Only people will stop him. And if all the people can bring themselves to do is point at the rules and laws, that won't be enough.

Bozon said...

Great stuff.
Carefully molded narrative.

This for me was the stand out whopper, suave confection: "...In the civil war, the passionate, emotional aristocrats of the South lost to the more rational merchants and teachers of the North...." DK

Why focus on impeachment? The Maryland bill excluding candidates from the Presidential ballot seems to me a great direction to go, state by state. A return to states' rights!

"Can States Ban Trump From The Ballot If He Doesn't Release His Tax Returns?" The New Republic.....

All the best