The definition of appeasement, according to Dictionary.com, is “to bring to a state of peace, quiet, ease, calm, or contentment; pacify; soothe: i.e. to appease an angry king” and to “yield or concede to the belligerent demands of (a nation, group, person, etc.) in a conciliatory effort, sometimes at the expense of justice or other principles.”
That’s where we are aren’t we? We are appeasing an angry king. And the usual result of appeasement is that the angry king banks every concession and, empowered and emboldened by his success, gets more aggressive and more power hungry. Far from restraining him, appeasement gives him time to amass strength, until there’s no restraining him at all. By the time it’s absolutely clear that he is a tyrant, it’s too late. That’s the core narrative of every Shakespeare play that charts a historical bid for absolute power. And every one of those plays is a tragedy.
This week, in the face of Democratic appeasement and Republican complicity, Trump has upped the ante once again. He is lying about the devastating proof of obstruction of justice in the Mueller report, as is his attorney general, the person supposed to defend the rule of law. He is again attempting to intimidate a witness to his abuses of power, this time Don McGahn. He is refusing to let anyone in his administration testify before the Congress, in an unprecedented act of contempt for the legislative branch. He is constantly hinting in his tweets that the DOJ should investigate what he has deemed “spying” on his campaign in 2016; he’s tried multiple times to get the Justice Department to go after his political opponent, Hillary Clinton; and he has retweeted a list of those who should be targeted — including Obama and Clinton — for investigation. And now that he has a toady in the Justice Department, he may well get what he wants. (Can you believe we actually miss Jeff Sessions?) For good measure, his spokesman has said, revealingly, that the president is “not inclined” to release his tax returns at this moment, despite what appears to be a constitutional obligation. In the immortal words of Mel Brooks, it’s good to be the king!
More to the point, he has refused to protect the American election system from the malevolent designs of a foreign enemy. Thanks to leaks, we know now that he has been doing this for the last two years, even though other members of the administration, like Kirstjen Nielsen, were prepared to take strong, defensive measures. Why? Because any mention of Russian interference reminds him of the question of his legitimacy, and that enrages him. Which is to say he has openly put his personal amour propre before the interests of every citizen in this country who wants to preserve our electoral integrity. This alone is an unambiguously impeachable offense. Congress should immediately subpoena Nielsen to testify about the president’s deliberate refusal to perform his core duties. I see no way Trump can actually stop her now she is outside the administration — if she has the courage to expose the ugly truth.
On Wednesday, the president again attacked the justice system, by impugning the integrity of a by-the-book investigation, lying about the lawyers who did their duty, and appealing to the Supreme Court (of all places) to stop impeachment: “The Mueller Report, despite being written by Angry Democrats and Trump Haters, and with unlimited money behind it ($35,000,000), didn’t lay a glove on me. I DID NOTHING WRONG, If the partisan Dems ever tried to Impeach, I would first head to the U.S. Supreme Court. Not only … are there no “High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” there are no Crimes by me at all. All of the Crimes were committed by Crooked Hillary, the Dems, the DNC and Dirty Cops — and we caught them in the act! We waited for Mueller and WON, so now the Dems look to Congress as last hope!”
This is, of course, deranged. Robert Mueller is neither an Angry Democrat, nor, so far as we can tell, a Trump hater. The Supreme Court has no role in impeachment. Obstruction of justice is a textbook case of a high crime and misdemeanor, as the articles of impeachment for both Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon quite plainly show. Mueller — it is vital to keep repeating — demonstrates that Trump attempted to obstruct justice on six occasions, and argues that several more cases of obstruction need to be taken seriously. In the case of Paul Manafort, it appears the president succeeded in thwarting the investigation by encouraging him not to cooperate. (Mueller: The evidence “supports the inference that the President intended Manafort to believe that he could receive a pardon, which would make cooperation with the government as a means of obtaining a lesser sentence unnecessary.”) But it’s telling, it seems to me, that in this tweet, Trump clearly regards the Supreme Court as his ultimate backstop — because he has created a majority that he assumes will always defend him. His intent is to get another branch of the government “on his team,” i.e. under his direct control.
That’s how he sees the federal courts — as an extension of a strongman’s will. So far, that hasn’t been the case (in some instances, especially on immigration, the judicial pushback has actually been excessive) but with more and more judges chosen precisely because they do not believe in challenging executive power, it is seemingly Trump’s intention that the judiciary will be his. In other words, he’s slowly neutering the judicial checks and balances and defying the congressional ones. (As a way to nullify the Senate’s “advice and consent” function, for example, Trump increasingly relies on “acting” secretaries, appointed with no Senate approval and thereby even more vulnerable to Trump’s personal leverage. As Trump explained, “I like ‘acting’. It gives me more flexibility. Do you understand that?” Yes, Mr. President, we do.)
When you combine this looming scenario of a completely unaccountable president (outside presidential elections) with the powers of the presidency as they have evolved since the Second World War, you have a Turkey scenario. The GOP will not stand in the way of strongman rule, and will, in fact, try to buttress it. Even when Trump usurped the Congress’s power of the purse by declaring a fake national emergency, 182 out of 195 Republican House members eagerly backed him, surrendering their constitutional power in favor of Trump’s diktat. Just look at that sad sack, Lindsey Graham. He’s a man who insisted that perjury in a civil suit on sexual harassment was impeachable — and led the prosecution in the Senate trial of president Clinton no less — but that dangling pardons, intimidating witnesses, attempting to fire a special prosecutor, and threatening “the integrity of the justice system,” in Mueller’s devastating words, is no big deal. That’s the power of the Trump cult in the GOP base.
The House Speaker, for her part, reacted to a report outlining ten cases of obstruction of justice (ten more than Clinton was accused of) by immediately dissing the idea of impeachment. Steny Hoyer firmly ruled it out. Their response to Mueller was, to my mind, incredible, but telling. I can fully understand taking your time. No one is asking for an impeachment vote yet — just hearings including Trump officials who spoke with Mueller, in a consideration of impeachment. The Dems too often assume a defensive crouch, even when our Constitution is at stake. Against the Big Lie of “No Collusion. No Obstruction,” their message is muddled. They are beginning to wake up, but if a president wantonly obstructs justice and the opposition party immediately worries about the political cost of impeachment, we’re in deep trouble.
I’m no more optimistic about the likely result of impeachment than I ever have been. Even if the House were to approve articles of impeachment, I doubt Senator Mitch McConnell would follow what are the obvious constitutional obligations. McConnell has ripped up Senate rules when they might hurt the GOP’s interests before — remember Merrick Garland? Or the Supreme Court filibuster? And there is some wriggle room here. The Constitution does not explicitly mandate a trial in the Senate if the House approves articles of impeachment. It simply says the Senate has “the sole power to try” a president. You think McConnell would hesitate to use that nuance to shut any trial down before it started? Bob Bauer has noted: “The question presented in some form would be whether, under the relevant rules, the Senate is required to hold an impeachment ‘trial’ fully consistent with current rules — or even any trial at all. A chair’s ruling in the affirmative would be subject to being overturned by a majority, not two-thirds, vote.” If you think McConnell would ever convene a trial, or that a majority would vote for it, you’re underestimating the radicalism of the current GOP.
Trump didn’t invent the powers he is now abusing. The slow accretion of powers vested in the executive have been growing for quite a while, from the Second World War onward into the Cold War. But the 21st century has broken new ground. We know, for example, that the last president once stated he could not unilaterally change immigration law to prevent Dreamers from being deported because he is “not a king,” and then, in his second term, went ahead and did it anyway. We know he launched a new war against ISIS in 2015 based on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force of 2001 because the Congress abdicated its constitutional duty to declare war. What Trump demonstrates is that a brilliant demagogue with one party’s cultlike support can use these extraordinary powers to install a version of a strongman presidency in the model of Erdogan in Turkey or Orban in Hungary.
Only a massive public insurrection against strongman rule can begin to reverse this. It’s not happening, but it needs to. The shock and zeal and passion so many felt in 2016 needs to be summoned again. The Congress needs to subpoena Don McGahn and Kirstjen Nielsen to testify about their experiences in the White House. They need to tell the story that Mueller has laid out, in vivid testimony day after day. They may well have to go to court to enforce their oversight role. The focus should be on Trump’s claim to be beyond the rule of law. The Democratic candidates need to be clear about domestic policy and focus on it as a way to remove Trump by the ballot box — but they shouldn’t duck the gravity of our current constitutional crisis. It’s real and it’s important.
More sane right-of-center voices — like that of the admirably sane Andrew Napolitano and David French — need to explain that this is not about right or left, or Democrats or Republicans, but about the preservation of our republic. Mitt Romney has to do more than simply feel sickened. It took a long time for Nixon’s crimes to sink in with the public. But eventually they did.
Yes, Trump’s hegemony is strong, and getting stronger. He can bypass the television networks in ways Nixon couldn’t have dreamed of. He has a very strong economy. He has successfully marginalized much of the mainstream media for half the country. He has a shamelessness that is rarely found, even the most vulgar and venal. He is prepared to push buttons in the national psyche that few sane or decent people would. He can seem, in his demagogic genius, intimidating.
No one should be intimidated. And of course appeasement in the past has not always led to defeat. With a long, bitter, damaging campaign of resistance and counterattack, it can end in victory as well. Let’s put aside all our differences on policy and politics, and together do our constitutional duty. Every hour. Every day. Until we have not only defeated this president’s assault on America but cast him and his party into the rubbish bin of history.