Friday, December 13, 2019


As an old student of history, I am compelled to comment on today's momentous event. For only the fourth time in the 230-year life of our constitutional republic, the House of Representatives is set to impeach a president. The resolution was adopted in committee today and sent to the House. The House will probably vote on this next week and almost certainly will impeach President Trump by majority vote. This is a grave and somber day. Two presidents (Andrew Johnson and Clinton) went on to be put on trial in the Senate. Both were acquitted. One president (Nixon) resigned before the House moved to a certain vote on impeachment.

This is a dramatic moment in the contemporary culture war raging in America, and to some extent in the world. It should be put in context of the larger struggle at hand. According to the theory of revolution promoted by historians such as Crane Brinton, all revolutions go through phases. After a radical time of sweeping change, there is a conservative backlash before a settling down in a sort of compromise between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. However, it is also chilling to note that three revolutions led to dictatorships: English>Cromwell, French>Napoleon, Russian>Stalin. 

As I have said repeatedly on this blog, the schism in South Carolina is part of the larger culture war in America. The diocesan leaders led the majority of the old diocese out of the Episcopal Church in 2012 as a direct result of the Church's reforms of equality for and inclusion of homosexual persons and women in the life of the church. The breakaway entity is now in a new denomination (2009) that was also explicitly created to keep gays and women from equality and inclusion.  

President Trump has masterfully consolidated the counter-revolutionary forces behind his personalized regime. He is now leading the counter-revolutionary charge against the great democratic revolution of post-World War II America.  He has combined economic conservatives (Wall Street) and social conservatives (the angry white working class man and evangelicals). These elements have become fiercely devoted to him. Wall Street loved his drastic reduction of their taxes. The AWWCM-Evangelicals loved his racism and his packing the federal courts with young right-wing judges. His acolytes have become so enthralled with him they have turned blind eyes to his challenges to long established norms and constitutional restraints. Perhaps most important of all, the Republican party has become slavishly devoted to Trump. For example, note the case of once critic Senator Graham of SC. Along the way our political system has turned into a game of personal destruction of people who criticize the Trump regime. It would not be unfair to say President Trump has drastically changed our political ethos, in my opinion for the worse. 

Did President Trump commit impeachable offenses? Yes, according to a consensus of constitutional scholars and independent commentators. It is clear to me he did. He attempted to get a foreign regime to contribute dirt on his political rival in return for money, which had actually been appropriated by Congress. The attempt did not actually work. However, the attempt to commit a crime is a crime even if the attempt fails. Then, to cover this up, he obstructed justice, particularly documents and witnesses legally called by Congress. In the face of indisputable facts, Trump and his allies insist the president did nothing wrong.

If the House impeaches, a virtual certainty, the president will be put on trial in the Senate which is equally certain to acquit. Meanwhile, the presidential election campaign goes on. The effects of these events on the campaign remain to be seen and will be fascinating to watch.

Trump and his economic-socio-cultural conservative allies are driving the counter-revolutionary backlash against the great democratic revolution of the late Twentieth Century and early Twenty-First Century. The backlash is turning out to be stronger than anyone could have predicted. In the long run, these elements cannot undo the democratic revolution but they can eat away around the edges. For instance, they are making it much harder for women to get legal abortions.

Polls show that Trump has an even chance of getting reelected. If he does win a second term we can expect an accelerated push of counter-revolution on many fronts. The anti-democratic rollbacks of the past three years will be small potatoes. 

We Americans are more divided than we have been in memory. Trump has masterfully stoked these divisions. They are not all our fault. We are victims of our own success. Since 1990 we are alone as the great power of the world. Since the Cold War ended, we have no unifying external threat such as we had with the old U.S.S.R. This has left us exposed to our internal divisions which are becoming ever more obvious and dangerous. Trump did not create these divisions. He simply had an innate genius at how to exploit them. 

Trump would have us turn away from two centuries of a constitutional republic and veer to an authoritarian regime where the president would assume enormous powers to the diminution of the traditional governmental structure. Hence, he has attacked the established power centers such as the Congress, the courts, the intelligence agencies, the diplomatic corps, and the law enforcement bodies as well as the media. He has said he can do whatever he wants as president. This is the challenge he is giving the country today. This is what led to impeachment. He is asking the country to validate his extra-constitutional dictatorship. If the voters do this next November, it will substantially change American history, away from egalitarian democracy toward fascist authoritarianism.

Democracies depend on the will of the people. The great thinkers who devised modern democracy in the Eighteenth Century, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, knew this system would have an Achilles heal. Society could use its majority vote to end democracy. The philosophers never came up with a remedy for this danger. Thus, democracy is always fragile and subject to termination from its own people. This is essentially what Trump is asking Americans to do, trust him to make decisions that are beyond the bounds of the established constitution.

Will we survive the centrifugal forces of clashing divisions in America and the political forces capitalizing on them? Will traditional American democratic republicanism survive Trump? Will we remain one nation, or go off into our tribal corners? All good questions that call for much contemplation.

History has many examples where democracy failed, although the circumstances are all different. The Roman Republic, although not very democratic, lasted 500 years before Rome became the sole great power and its internal divisions were left exposed. The result was the death of the republic and the rise of the emperors. In the end, the empire fell because its citizens did not care enough to save it. Then there is the case of post-First World War Germany. At the end of the war, the kaiser fled and Germany was declared a democratic republic (the Weimar Republic). Germany had never been either a democracy or a republic. Through the 1920's this fledgling democracy struggled to deal with vast obstacles. When the Great Depression came along, it could not survive the threats to it as people reverted to their authoritarian roots. The Nazis came to power legally in 1933. The German people threw off a democratic republic they never really wanted anyway. The point is that democracy is not necessarily a permanent system, even in advanced societies. It must be protected by the citizens of the state to survive.

That is the challenge Trump is handing us. Do we keep the democratic republic we have struggled so hard to develop in this country, or do we hand over power to a strong man who may serve our momentary desires but leave us devastated in the end?

If history has taught me anything, it is to be an optimist. I see uplifting signs all around us. I see devoted statesmen and women who are committed to our democratic principles. I see courageous and impressive public servants who are devoted to the greater good. I see a society steeped in 230 years of an evolving democratic system that is the shining city on the hill and the beacon of hope to the world. We weathered the worst of storms, as the Civil War, because the majority of Americans were devoted to the democratic republican principles given to us by our founding fathers. I believe most Americans are still devoted to those principles. And so, I have confidence we will weather this storm too.