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.