Part I -- Debate
I recently took part in a debate on whether the Democrats were setting a good or bad precedent by impeaching Donald Trump. I argued that they were setting a good, and indeed necessary, precedent. My opponent, who was an ex-diplomat living in Washington D.C., argued the other way. I have a feeling that the reasons he gave, though they were quite weak, will be ones that the common citizen may assume to be true. Here, in paraphrase, is what he said:
- The Democrats are behaving like hypocrites. Most presidents serving from the last half of the 20th century onward have committed crimes -- for example, waging undeclared wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Neither the Democrats and the Republicans challenged these criminal acts, which it should be noted, were paving the way for an imperial presidency. Now, because Democrats feel they were robbed of the 2016 election, they have become over-sensitive to President Trump's behavior and are trying to oust him from office. That is a bad precedent that is being set because opposition parties will be tempted to use impeachment as a common weapon against sitting presidents.
You can see in this position the commonplace notion that all those politicians in Washington are crooks. Presidents have been out of control for a long time and this really makes the situation we face with Trump kind of normal. So why get upset? In fact, there is plenty to get upset about, and the ex-diplomat's point of view is dangerous and flawed. Here is why:
(1) The fact that others have committed impeachable acts (we are assuming here that attempted blackmail and obstruction of Congress are also such acts) without being held to account, cannot, logically, be used as an argument against prosecuting President Trump's crimes. One can just imagine a person accused of murder citing as a defense the fact that others had done the same thing and not been held to account. Therefore, accusing him or her now is just hypocritical -- a lot of "hot air." This sort of excuse usually makes its first appearance in the playgrounds of elementary schools and rarely gets much further.
(2) It is untrue that Congress has not tried to rein in the drift toward an imperial presidency (unlimited executive power), particularly in terms of waging undeclared wars. That is what the War Powers Act, passed by both houses of Congress in 1973, is all about.
(3) The fear that the present Democratic impeachment effort will set the precedent of impeaching a president every time the opposition party feels like it, is not entirely without basis. But you deal with that eventuality through more precise criterion for the impeachment process, not by ignoring present criminal behavior.
Part II -- Two Types of Wrongs
We are presently confronting two interrelated types of wrongs:
(1) Actual criminal acts: Trump's well-demonstrated attempt to blackmail the Ukrainian government into libeling his probable political opponent, and then attempting to obstruct a congressional investigation into this effort.
(2) Complicity after the fact. In the present case, this complicity will involve the practice of jury nullification. Jury nullification happens when a sworn jury exonerates or condemns someone despite the lack of evidence or strong countervailing evidence. This tactic was most prevalent in the American south, where white juries would find whites innocent when charged with crimes committed against blacks, and condemn blacks charged with crimes against whites, even when, in either case, the evidence strongly pointed in the opposite direction.
It would seem that the Republicans in the Senate are about to play this gambit. Despite their sworn oaths of impartiality and the damning evidence presented by the Democrats, they will let President Trump get away with his criminal behavior.
Part III -- Fallen Republicans
How can we account for this attitude on the part of the Senate Republicans? Here are some suggestions which, if accurate, mean the U.S. is in deep trouble:
(1) The Republican Party has become, with but very few exceptions, a group of authoritarian politicians who are more interested in holding on to power than winning it in any fair democratic fashion.
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