Impeachment versus the demagogue

Damn this NYT Op-Ed from Obama’s White House Cousel, Bob Bauer, is really good:

The founders feared the demagogue, who figures prominently in the Federalist Papers as the politician who, possessing “perverted ambition,” pursues relentless self-aggrandizement “by the confusions of their country.” The last of the papers, Federalist No. 85, linked demagogy to its threat to the constitutional order — to the “despotism” that may be expected from the “victorious demagogue.” This “despotism” is achieved through systematic lying to the public, vilification of the opposition and, as James Fenimore Cooper wrote in an essay on demagogues, a claimed right to disregard “the Constitution and the laws” in pursuing what the demagogue judges to be the “interests of the people.”

Should the demagogue succeed in winning the presidency, impeachment in theory provides the fail-safe protection. And yet the demagogue’s political tool kit, it turns out, may be his most effective defense. It is a constitutional paradox: The very behaviors that necessitate impeachment supply the means for the demagogue to escape it…

As the self-proclaimed embodiment of the American popular will, the demagogue portrays impeachment deliberations as necessarily a threat to democracy, a facade for powerful interests arrayed against the people that only he represents. Critics and congressional opponents are traitors. Norms and standing institutional interests are fraudulent.

President Trump has made full use of the demagogic playbook. He has refused all cooperation with the House. He lies repeatedly about the facts, holds public rallies to spread these falsehoods and attacks the credibility, motives and even patriotism of witnesses. His mode of “argument” is purely assaultive. This is the crux of the Trump defense, and not an argument built on facts in support of a constitutional theory of the case…

The difference in Mr. Trump’s case is not merely one of degree. Richard Nixon despised his opposition, convinced of their bad faith and implacable hatred for him. But it is hard to imagine Mr. Trump choosing (and actually meaning) these words to conclude, as Nixon did, a letter to the chair of Judiciary Committee: “[If] the committee desires further information from me … I stand ready to answer, under oath, pertinent written interrogatories, and to be interviewed under oath by you and the ranking minority member at the White House.”

Mr. Trump has instead described Adam Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, as a “corrupt” politician who shares with other “human scum” the objective of running the “most unfair hearings in American history.”…

The Trump impeachment is headed toward a very different summation. A demagogue can claim that Congress has forfeited the right to recognition of its impeachment power, then proceed to unleash a barrage of falsehoods and personal attacks to confuse the public, cow legislators and intimidate witnesses. So long as the demagogue’s party controls one of the two chambers of Congress, this strategy seems a sure bet.

When this is all over, we will not hear warm bipartisan praise for how “the system worked.” The lesson will be that, in the politics of the time, a demagogue who gets into the Oval Office is hard to get out.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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