As the House of Representatives moves forward with impeachment, it will seem to many Americans that Donald J. Trump, the president of the United States, is on trial. Of course, that is true. Impeachment is not a legal proceeding but a political one. More importantly than Mr. Trump being on trial, I believe, we, as the American people are on trial. We have an opportunity in this moment to decide if we stand with our own tribalistic notions or with our core democratic principles and the rule of law.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, no one is entitled to their own facts. Here is a brief snapshot of what we know about Mr. Trump and his conduct:
- From the Mueller report we know he coordinated his 2016 election campaign with the Russian government.
- We know he asked for Russia’s help in investigating his opponent.
- We know he lied about his campaign coordinating with the Russians.
- We know he objected to the independent counsel’s investigation on these matters.
- We know he obstructed justice at least 10 times trying to derail the investigation.
- We know he lied about his campaign funds in regards to paying off a porn star and his faux charitable organizations.
- We know he lies about many things. including his taxes.
We know he has now engaged in a quid pro quo with the Ukraine, threatening to withhold military aid unless they investigated his current political rival.
As dismayed as I am that someone like Donald Trump could ascend to the presidency, I am more worried about those who defend his actions. I am worried that we have moved to an era of partisanship and tribalism that takes precedence over reason and principle. Thomas Pepinsky does an excellent job describing this in his sobering Politico piece about regime cleavage:
For decades, Republicans and Democrats fought over the same things: whose values and policies work best for American democracy. But now, those age-old fights are changing. What was once run-of-the-mill partisan competition is being replaced by a disagreement over democracy itself. This is particularly evident as the president and many of his allies crow about the illegitimacy of the House impeachment inquiry, calling it an attempted coup, and as the White House refuses to comply with multiple congressional subpoenas as part of the probe. This marks a new phase in American politics. Democrats and Republicans might still disagree about policy, but they are increasingly also at odds over the very foundations of our constitutional order. Political scientists have a term for what the United States is witnessing right now. It’s called “regime cleavage,” a division within the population marked by conflict about the foundations of the governing system itself—the population marked by conflict about the foundations of the governing system itself—in the American case, our constitutional democracy. In societies facing a regime cleavage, a growing number of citizens and officials believe that norms, institutions and laws may be ignored, subverted or replaced.
It is completely healthy for us as Americans to disagree on how to move forward with agreed-upon problems. How you address the nation’s challenges is political, and fraught with disagreement. What becomes more troubling is when we are willing to suspend the rule of law or disregard our democratic principles because of our loyalty to a particular ideology, tribal identity, or even individual.
Mr. Pepinsky continues:
As Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have argued, democracy can manage political conflict only if citizens and politicians allow the institutions of democracy—elections, representative bodies, the judiciary—to do so. Parties and politicians must not be rewarded for refusing to adhere to laws and institutions. Decades ago, a regime cleavage divided Chileans, with conservatives aligning against the elected government of Salvador Allende and eventually leading to a coup that replaced him with General Augusto Pinochet. The United States has confronted a regime cleavage, too: The last emerged in the 1850s, prior to the Civil War, when many in the slave states began to advocate secession—a clear challenge to the legitimacy of the Union. …But what distinguishes the current moment under Trump from the normal, albeit worsening, politics of executive-legislative relations in the United States is the politicization of the very notion of executive constraint in the face of an impeachment hearing—this is the source of the regime cleavage.
…American politics is not yet fully consumed by this current, emerging regime cleavage. But if it continues without a forceful, bipartisan rebuke, we can expect that politics in the United States will increasingly come to be characterized by the kinds of intractable conflicts between populist outsiders, old-guard politicians, and the machinery of the state that have characterized presidential democracies in countries like Argentina and, more recently, Taiwan. Our regime cleavage has not yet hardened to the extent that it has in these countries, but if it does, it will not be possible to elect a president who can “end the mess in Washington” because both sides of the regime cleavage will argue that the other is illegitimate and undemocratic. Voters, understandably, will lose what faith they have left in the value of democracy itself. In the worst-case scenario, presidents and their supporters would be entirely unaccountable to Congress, while their opponents would reject the legitimacy of the presidency altogether.
So the question I find myself asking is, how did we get here? What has caused so many of my honest well intended friends and loved ones to ignore the rule of law and defend that which seems indefensible? For one, there seems to be a deep sense of mistrust in institutions. The sense that the country has radically changed from what it was before. That the idea of American greatness has been co-opted by a frightening move to the left. That somehow the greatness we once had has been replaced by a new world order concerned more with individual rights than community values. I often hear the phrase “I want my America back”.
The more I talk to people who support Mr. Trump, the more I have come to understand that they are fully aware of his flaws and shortcomings, but still see him as more inclined to restore the order than others. With that in mind it is not surprising that roughly 50% of White Americans feel like they are racially discriminated against. Of course I think white fragility plays a large role here, however it is more complex than that. It’s about narrative, identity, security and what many view as patriotism. The idea that what we were is what we should be and that where “they” want to take us is unrecognizable and scary and may exclude me. So even if the facts don’t bear out this narrative it feels true. It’s easy to blame immigrants, the media, career politicians and liberal elites for the change we are seeing in the country. Growing wealth inequality, changing demographics the AI revolution and the displacement of rural America is disorienting to be certain! All of which should engender our sympathies. It makes a move to regime cleavage understandable and terrifying. In an American narrative steeped in the idea that hard work equals prosperity it’s almost impossible to blame wealth and greed as the disruptors of the order. So many Americans view themselves as potential millionaires, thinking if only cumbersome government regulations, entitlement seeking minorities, immigrants and educated elites would get out of my way, I too could have my American dream.
Donald Trump knows this very well. He exploits it! But, make no mistake, he is not the problem! He is a manifestation of it. We, as a nation have to do a better job of seeing each other, understanding each other, and helping each other. The blinded partisanship exhibited by the Republicans currently is perhaps no more shameful than the dismissive liberal coastal elites disdain for the fly over states but no doubt we are all on trial! No one is coming to save us. This is our democracy, our republic. if we’re going to fix it it will require our own efforts. Blaming and only consuming information which confirms our own bias only compounds the problem. We have risen to the occasion in the past we can do so now, but it will require honestly soul-searching and hard work.