To impeach or not to impeach? Devil’s advocate in Trump’s defence

Reflections on the American presidency, populism and democracy.

Trump Reuters
If populism is the 'bad conscience of a liberal democracy', Trump has already opened a Pandora's box, writes Bishara [Danny Wild/USA TODAY via Reuters]

As Congress takes on the impeachment of President Donald Trump, citing charges of obstruction of Congress and abuse of power, it is becoming clear that members of this law-making body, who are supposed to debate the issue on its legal merits, are judging Trump primarily, if not exclusively, on a political rather than legal basis.

As all Republicans have thus far voted in favour of Trump and almost all Democrats against him, the Democrat-controlled House considers him guilty as charged, and the Republican-controlled Senate is certain to consider him “100 percent” innocent.

Regardless of whether Trump abused the office of the presidency for personal political gain, or whether what he did merits congressional censure or is an impeachable offence, the bottom line is: Democrats and their associated bureaucrats, elites and media outlets hate him and want to see him removed from office one way or another, and Republicans and their associates adore him or at least embrace him and want him to stay in office at any cost.   

This leaves it to the American people to decide the fate of the US president. But how will they judge him and on what basis? 

Trashing Trump: The liberals double down

Liberal media elites never really accepted Trump as a legitimate candidate or president. They perceived, and repeatedly depicted, him as a racist, chauvinist, liar and a traitor – the devil incarnate.  

In his book, Media Madness, seasoned US journalist Howard Kurtz labelled the unprecedented campaign of ridicule and hostility directed at the American president “Trump Trauma”. How could the media be objective, he argued, if it considers Trump to be a “demagogue” who plays to the nation’s worst racist and nationalist tendencies, a “traitor” who cosies up to anti-American dictators and a “dangerous” leader who cannot be trusted with the nuclear codes? 

Hatred of Trump, rightly or wrongly, has blurred the judgement of so many news outlets and bright media professionals that they no longer seem capable of a sober or objective assessment of the president’s policies. They have become no better than the conservative media outlets they have long criticised for rejecting and vilifying the Obama presidency.  

This is why, when they publish or broadcast extraordinary investigations and revelations about the Trump presidency, they are usually met with scepticism or indifference.

Indeed, it is unclear whether the major media organisations advocating rather convincingly in favour of Trump’s impeachment will be effective in changing public opinion or whether they will find themselves merely shouting at the rain.

Like their media counterparts, the liberal elites who are part of the establishment, including those in the FBI, the CIA and the State Department, have taken a cynical view of Trump. Weary of this disruptive outsider bent on undermining them, they expressed their discontent and resistance in a manner that can only be described as a bureaucratic rebellion against an elected president.

They first pinned their hopes for the early demise of the Trump administration to the FBI’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. When that probe failed to unearth anything that could bring him down, they focused their efforts on impeaching the president over the rather flimsy allegations that he improperly sought help from Ukraine to boost his chances of re-election.

Likewise, the establishment liberal (and some conservative) elites in think tanks and universities, who have long-designated themselves guardians of the US as a benevolent empire, have resisted the hyper nationalist president, deeming him disruptive to the US-led liberal order. They have attacked him relentlessly when he has expressed reservations or even opposition to America’s traditional role as the global policeman. And although he has injected many billions of extra tax dollars to further build up the US military, they still consider him a reckless isolationist for questioning NATO and criticising burdensome alliances with the likes of Japan and Korea.

Indeed, many of the public intellectuals who supported and defended George W Bush’s wars have been criticising Trump for “weaponising the dollar” or relying mainly on sanctions, tariffs and currency fluctuations to contain Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and a host of other countries, despite this strategy proving, as a matter of fact, less costly and more effective than open-ended military interventions and war.

Embracing Trump: Republicans double down

For all his faults, faux pas and follies and despite his relentless attacks on some of their elders like the late senator John McCain and former president George Bush, Republican establishment figures who were suspicious and resentful of Trump at first, have coalesced solidly behind him since his election. Even those who, like Senator Ted Cruz, refused to endorse him at the 2016 Republican Convention, and those who, like former House Speaker Paul Ryan, trashed him up until his election, ended up embracing him unequivocally.

The liberal-moderate and the conservative wings of the party, or the so-called Rockefeller and Reagan Republicans, and most of their associated elites rallied along with the ultra conservative Tea Party movement in support of him. 

Republicans decided early on that Trump would implement much of their agenda, and that by itself outweighs any personal faults he may have. The philanderer who had sex with porn stars and paid them for their silence became the guru of the party of family values. 

Hypocritical? Perhaps. But they were proven right.

Among other things, Trump cut corporate and wealth taxes for the rich, imposed strict limits on immigration and refugees, appointed conservative judges to the supreme and federal courts, relaxed and removed regulations to further liberalise the economy, and supported conservative evangelical agendas domestically and internationally, notably concerning unequivocal support for Israel’s settlements and recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. 

In sum, Trump has promoted and empowered the conservative and ultra conservative Republican agenda with unmatched success. He championed national security conservatism, social conservatism and, to some degree, fiscal conservatism, making this populist pragmatist entrepreneur, “the conservative of the conservatives”. 

Unlike many other Republican leaders, he also delivered on his campaign promises; fulfilling those many thought were empty, such as building the wall on the border with Mexico and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.

Trump packs football stadiums, where he preaches economic protectionism, nativist nationalism and foreign policy isolationism through entertaining theatrics, derisions and mockery.

He became the Republicans’ Obama, but whiter and more effective. If Obama killed Osama bin Laden, saved General Motors and stimulated the economy in his first term, Trump has already killed Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, slashed Obama-era unemployment rates by half, and grown the economy while cutting taxes “bigly”. He has also undone most if not all-things Obama and declared war on big government programmes like Obamacare and the Green New Deal – all of which makes for a Republican dream come true.

That is why hardly a single Republican congressperson wishes or dares to side against Trump in the impeachment trial, even if they believe he is guilty. Not only will that lead to their isolation in Congress, it will endanger their chances for re-election as Trump’s approval rating among Republicans remains strong, hovering around 90 percent

In fact, since taking office three years ago, Trump has managed a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Instead of the party absorbing the president, as many moderates hoped, Trump has so far absorbed and begun to restructure the party and shape it around his image.

If it works, why fix it?

Trump doubles down

Trump is a prototype populist and he is proud of it. He is arrogant, “charismatic”, divisive, disruptive, rude, politically incorrect, an instigator, anti-intellectual, and yes, macho and sexist. He is also a “political animal” with Machiavellian and populist reflexes. He uses provocation and confrontation in order to dictate, divert and shape the news agenda. What he lacks in intellect and oratory, he makes up for in stamina and shrewdness.  

Trump also has a unique gift for detecting and exploiting the two fundamental pillars of power politics: “what hurts whom” and “who hates whom”.

He is clearly a brilliant sensor and exploiter of people’s vulnerabilities and insecurities. The best testament to this are the nicknames he made up and successfully used against his rivals such as “Little Marco”, “Low-energy Jeb”, “Sleepy Joe” and “Crooked Hillary”, which have proved dispiriting to their supporters and uplifting to his. Mention “Pocahontas” and most Americans know it’s the senator from Massachusetts. 

Whether it is racial, gender, class, cultural or ideological divides, Trump has a talent for exploiting hatred, differences or conflict to his advantage. Although a billionaire with intimate relationships with powerful people in politics and business, he has successfully branded himself as a Washington outsider who speaks for the “common man” against the corrupt establishment, and who fights for the real (read white) patriotic Americans against the cosmopolitan, globalised elites. 

Trump has mastered the art of provocation to distract gullible ratings-seeking newsmakers. As soon as the media pays some attention to one “scandal”, he provokes another distraction, all the while using the smokescreen to quietly implement his more consequential agendas.

A TV and social media consummate, populist Trump not only uses the media’s obsession with him to his advantage, but also clearly enjoys the adrenalin rush that comes with being in the limelight. He revels in clashing with the media and even targets the conservative media at times. He is thrilled by the commotion, even if it is negative, as long as he dominates the news cycle. As a branding tycoon, he understands all publicity is good publicity, and aspires to be infamous where he cannot be famous in order to stay relevant. 

Always on the offensive, he has badgered media owners and star journalists, and vilified the liberal media outlets as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people”. He has even managed to undermine the mainstream media’s usually unchallenged claim to independent journalism by portraying them as lackeys of the Democratic Party. 

Trump also has attacked Congress, denounced the CIA, the FBI and the Federal Reserve, targeted hi-tech and digital conglomerates, berated allies while complimenting dictators, threatened nemeses with decimation and extinction, and instigated crises domestically and internationally, while boasting of his terrific, brilliant success in … (fill the blank), all of which seems to further infuriate his detractors and blur their judgement.

The message, not the messenger                                  

All of these Trumpian (read populist) characteristics and transgressions may be contemptible to his detractors, but not for the many who continue to support the president. 

Populism may be distasteful and even poisonous for many, especially the elites, but it is not a crime; not in any legal or political sense. Neither is it undemocratic per se. In fact, in some settings, such as in authoritarian states, it has certain democratic merits, as it encourages neglected constituencies to participate in the democratic process. But it generally tends to be illiberal in the context of a liberal democracy like the United States because of its assaults on the very institutions that are tasked with oversight over majority rule to protect minorities’ rights and other fundamental civil rights like free speech. Populism deems these institutions elitist and infringing on the popular will of the people. 

Indeed, many of Trump’s detractors in the Democratic and Republican establishments have themselves flirted with populism and used similar populist tropes against each other and against Trump, but failed miserably because they could not distance themselves from, well, themselves – the establishment.

More importantly the Republican and Democratic parties’ establishments, elites and the media have focused primarily on the messenger while neglecting to address the message. 

They attacked Trump’s boorishness, unruliness and hyperbole but neglected to address the reasons why many common Americans, “the real Americans”, or what former president Nixon called the “silent majority”, support such a politician.

Many Americans, notably working and middle-class Americans, like their European counterparts across the Atlantic, are increasingly responsive, even supportive, of right-wing populists, regardless of their character and style. 

Why? Because populists like Trump merely tap into the fears, disappointments and grievances of working Americans, who feel neglected or even betrayed by an elitist establishment that has turned its back on them. They have been losing faith in their state institutions and political parties, as demonstrated by their low approval ratings. The more Trump has attacked these elites and institutions, the more popular he has become. 

Moreover, Trump’s special brand of “nationalist populism” is highly effective but is hardly new. He has been preaching it since he first hinted at running for the presidency in 1987 when he published his populist nationalist manifesto as an ad in the New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe at a cost of nearly $100,000. Then, America was getting ready to become the undisputed world super superpower, and Trump’s ill-timed ideas fell flat.

But circumstances have changed after three decades and two major crises – the 2008 financial crisis and the 2003 Gulf war fiasco. 

Trump’s populist America First strategy, summarised in the successful campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” (MAGA), has gained currency after the notable economic and strategic decline of the previous decade, and after a divided and dispirited Republican Party that lost two elections turned on itself and became prone to accepting new leadership.

MAGA gave greater voice and legitimacy to the Tea Party movement assault on big government, and to white nationalism and economic protectionism that Obama vehemently opposed. Obama may have acted responsibly but was seen as elitist. Trump, on the other hand, has acted responsively and is seen as a patriot. In fact, in Trump’s MAGA agenda, one can detect traces of 1950s and 1960s white supremacist populism – which rooted against the civil rights movement, competition-stifling big government and the allocation of taxpayers’ money to “undeserving” minorities. 

Trump understood that, Americans who supported the US-led liberal world order, free trade and globalisation, when these clearly benefitted them, no longer feel that way. Today, they believe such policies harm them and, as a result, reject the appeal of “bleeding heart liberals” for greater US involvement in nation-building and humanitarian intervention abroad.  

Will Americans double down, too?

Despite the media’s instigation and hyperbole and in spite of the elites’ reservation and hostility towards Trump’s candidacy, or perhaps because of it, in November 2016 America made its choice with its eyes wide open, knowing all too well who Trump was and what he stood for when it voted him president. 

America knew he had never held a public office; and that he was a draft dodger who solicited five deferments during the Vietnam War. They heard him denigrate Muslims and Latinos, objectify women, and knock down America’s long tradition of championing democracy and human rights around the world. Many were also aware of his lack of experience in national security affairs. But they elected him anyway.

They agreed with his claim that “free trade” is unfair, that climate accords are an unnecessary burden on the US economy, and that nuclear accords are a hindrance to national security. And they nodded when he attacked Europe and called NATO “obsolete”, and when he accused foes and friends alike of cheating America. 

They knew of his suspicious personal wheeling and dealing, his gold-plated home and plane, his refusal to release his taxes, of his past shady deals and his questionable business practices from Trump Casino to Trump University. 

They knew he cheated the system, exploited loopholes and corporate privileges. They knew of his dirty and street-fighter style, his nationalistic leanings and his racism and sexism.

And yet, they voted for him. And they rejoiced when he pledged to bring his business experience and success to bear on the presidency until they are “sick of winning”.

No wonder that Trump has continued on the same path since his election. The more Trumpian he became, the more popular and more successful he was. So, he did what he does best and focused on the basic goal regardless of principles or values: in business that is the pursuit of profit, in politics it is the pursuit of power. And so, he went on to run America like a CEO, the same CEO who got away with doing business through unorthodox practices and shady deals. 

Central to this approach in business as in politics, is quid pro quo. It would not surprise me if Trump did not actually think he was saying or doing anything wrong when he asked the Ukrainian president for a personal favour or two in return for US military aid. That is how his mind works. He still insists the call was “perfect”, even if his aides warned him that, unlike business, government is a stickler when it comes to abuse of power. 

But what about his obstruction of Congress? Trump reckons the scheming Democrats left him no choice, considering they have long conspired to unseat him, when only the people who brought him to power could hold him accountable through the ballot box. Indeed, it will be the American people, not Congress, who will, once again, decide the fate of the Trump presidency come November. 

Because, and let’s be honest, if Trump is to be impeached, why not impeach the complicit Republican party or censure much of America who facilitated his victory and empowered his presidency, knowing all too well that he lied his way to the White House after spending a lifetime saying what he thinks without consequence. 

America will reap what it sows 

If polls are any indication in the shadows of impeachment, a Fox Network poll on whether the president abused power, obstructed Congress or committed bribery has shown a clear majority agreeing with all three charges. But it is not clear whether this will affect their voting choices and make them not vote for Trump. 

With the election almost a year away, it is still too early to predict what it may bring and it is not yet clear who the divided Democratic Party will produce as a presidential challenger, or how. Though the prospects of a ticket headed by two moderately progressive women, senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, may radically change the political dynamics. 

In the last elections, many Republicans and independents who voted for Trump were driven primarily by their hatred for “Crooked Hillary” and the jaded elites she represented. This time around, Democrats and many independents are driven by their hatred of Trump and his populist agenda, especially now that Trump is running on a record that can be assessed and judged. 

Americans, especially independents who may tip the election one way or another, are expected to vote not ideologically, but with their conscience and their pockets. 

Those who benefitted from Trump’s economic policies, including low unemployment, lower taxes and higher economic growth, may well vote for him, short of a major economic recession or financial crisis, which although widely predicted has yet to materialise.

Those who are more worried about the wellbeing of their democracy and the erosion of its liberal foundations, values and civic rights, and/or think Trump is guilty of abuse of power, may well vote against him out of fear of growing authoritarianism, racism and inequality.

As long as the election continues to revolve around the person of Trump, the Republicans are certain to emphasise his accomplishments, while the Democrats may be enticed to focus only on what they see as his populist transgressions. And that, I believe, could cost them the presidency once again.

The election should not only be about the candidate’s character, but also about the economy, culture and democracy. 

To win, Democrats must address the reasons behind America’s demand for a populist president, and appeal directly to those Clinton so cynically and foolishly called “deplorables”. 

The challenge will be to break the message down to exciting soundbites that an Ohio automaker and a Pennsylvania steel worker can relate to. Because, winning this election requires winning key battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, in which, despite the impeachment, Trump continues to beat every Democratic frontrunner. 

That was Trump’s 2016 winning strategy, and that will be his winning strategy for 2020. He will portray a situation where millions of bad immigrants came to the US while as many million good industrial jobs left for China and Mexico. And claims that while both Democrat and Republican leaders stood idly by, or even encouraged this process, he has brought jobs back and sent illegal immigrants packing.

Beyond the economy, the 2020 presidential election will also represent an historic choice between a pluralistic liberal democracy and a nationalist illiberal democracy and, unlike any previous election, it will be truly decisive, not to say monumental, for America’s future. 

If populism is the “bad conscience of a liberal democracy”, Trump has already opened a Pandora’s box and provoked enough uncomfortable questions to preoccupy the next president for years. 

The advocatus diaboli rests his case.

May the best man or woman win, provided liberal democracy wins, too.