Trump’s Impeachment Trial Already Shows How Far US Democracy Has Been UnderminedRoundup
tags: democracy, impeachment, Donald Trump
Jim Sleeper, a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics and a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). More of his articles and commentary are available at jimsleeper.com.
Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial is as confusing to many Americans as it is to others who are following it from abroad. The US Senate, which will try him, is not a criminal court, much less the International Court of Justice that some people wish it were on this occasion. Although Trump’s offenses are more egregious than those that were charged against him in the first, failed trial in 2020, he’s no more likely to be convicted now than before. That’s true even though the Senate chamber itself was part of the crime scene this year, as a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, and senators were among the targets and witnesses.
The present confusion has two fundamental causes, one constitutional and divisive by design, the other more opportunistic than malevolent.
The constitutional cause, which arises from the fact that the US is a federation of 50 semi-sovereign states, frequently leads to institutional obstruction in national politics. When a president is impeached, charges are brought by the House of Representatives, the lower house of Congress, but tried by the Senate, the upper body. Senators can remove the president for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but only if two-thirds, 67 of them, agree. But unlike jurors elsewhere, senators are elected to their positions, and each represents a particular state. They tend to be bound less tightly by their individual consciences, by the evidence, or by deliberation with other senators than by the voters who elevated them to their six-year terms in office.
Rational deliberation is skewed also by the fact that senators’ votes count equally, even though they can represent vastly different numbers of people. California, whose 40 million residents tend to elect relatively liberal Democratic representatives, sends two senators to Washington. So does Wyoming, whose population of less than 600,000 tends to be heavily right-wing and Republican. Whatever that imbalance does for state sovereignty, it produces a polity in which roughly 70% of US citizens, who live in states such as California, New York, Texas, and Florida, are represented by only 50% of senators.
The present Senate, controlled narrowly by Democrats, will need to find 17 Republicans to achieve the two-thirds vote to convict Trump. It won’t find them in today’s bitterly polarized polity, no matter what evidence and arguments Trump’s prosecutors present.
The consequences were anticipated by Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and a manager of Trump’s first impeachment trial in 2020, when he warned senators that if they don’t allow clear evidence and reason to determine what’s right, “it doesn’t matter how good the Constitution is. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the framers were. Doesn’t matter how good or bad our advocacy in this trial is ... If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost.”
If the Constitution facilitates deep division, so does an even more powerful sower of confusion. Trump’s characterization of impeachment proceedings as “political theater” mirrors the performance that he himself has staged ever since his defeat in the 3 November election. He staged it most fatefully on 6 January, at the rally that preceded the assault on the Capitol, showing his swooning, raging devotees a chillingly powerful film (assessed as proto-fascist propaganda by the Yale philosopher and scholar of fascism Jason Stanley) just before they began their assault, many of them videotaping it, unintentionally providing their and Trump’s prosecutors with useful documentation.
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