What makes this scandal unique in American history is that, while it is an offense that is impeachable, and that makes both Watergate and the Clinton scandals that brought about his impeachment, but not his conviction, look like a day at the beach, it all occurred and was known before the election. Other presidents committed offenses that drew attention, scrutiny and even impeachment once they were in office. Trump did it all in the year preceding the election. This has brought him immunity of a sort, because if he is impeached, it will be very easy to bring down much of the Republican Party with him. This is the Faustian, and poorly thought out, that the Republicans made when they nominated and then rallied behind this more than slightly unhinged kleptocrat with authoritarian, and perhaps treasonous tendencies.
We are now at a place politically where if the President goes a few days following a legal decision without sending an abusive Tweet, we see it as a victory for democracy, but we should be a little cautious here as well. The White House has suggested there will be another executive order that will reflect the court’s decision. While this order is being crafted, Trump will continue to rally his base, the 35 or so percent of the population that matter for Trump’s short term political future, by saying that if the courts continue to rule against him, it is proof of the liberal conspiracy against him and, implicitly, for the terrorists.
When Netanyahu consistently aligns himself with the Republican congress, and gratuitously attacked President Obama — a man who despite right-wing talking points remains extremely popular with American Jews — and most egregiously embraces a new President whose campaign associated itself with anti-Semites, he sends a clear message that he cares little about the majority of American Jews.
The White House is working to ensure the 2020 election will be unlike any other in American history and a step backwards for American democracy. A Jeff Sessions led Justice Department will enable, and indeed probably encourage, Republican controlled states to further limit voting rights through requiring identification, limiting the number of polling places, scaling back polling hours and other shenanigans. Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch will join the Supreme Court and give a solid five votes to the conservative position on any challenge to these laws. His impressive Ivy League credentials will no doubt be very comforting to those Americans who will be unable to vote in 2020 because of the laws he will undoubtedly vote to uphold from his new position.
It is apparent from the first few weeks of the Trump administration that many fears of what this would look like were well founded. This administration has been vitriolic, angry, reactionary, patently dishonest, unconcerned about democratic norms, rarely competent and very dangerous. The bad news is that this is not likely to stop soon. The Republicans in congress have shown no interest in checking executive power or probing Trump’s financial conduct, the role of Russia in our election or anything else. Those hoping to impeach President Trump misunderstand this political environment where that is almost impossible. Others, promising that the President will soon snap and lose all contact with reality thus forcing somebody’s hand, are missing the key fact that Donald Trump snapped months ago.
Most significantly, the drumbeat to celebrate the peaceful, but not quite democratic, transition is an effort to stifle dissent. It is a way tell people who are still upset because the election was not what should be expected from a democratic country in 2016 to shut up. In the last few days when progressive pundits, analysts and protestors have raised these concerns, they have been told to simply focus on the peaceful transition. When a Republican tells somebody to focus on the peaceful transition or respect the dignity of the office of the presidency, and to stop presenting all the evidence that there is something very amiss in our democracy, it is is the political equivalent of Charlie Brown telling Linus “Tell your statistics to shut up!”
Some of the most important issues in the Trump Russia mess are in danger of being lost in waters now muddied by unproven stories about prostitutes, less than plausible assertions that Trump is some kind of semi-sleeper agent and what amounts to little more than kvetching by the DNI about RT. The first of these is that Trump benefited from a Russian effort to swing the election, not by having their state run media support him, but through Russia breaking into the DNC emails and leaking damaging information about Hilary Clinton. The second is that there is reason to believe, not least because of Donald Trump’s steady refusal to dispel concern by releasing his tax records, that the Trump Organization has a financial relationship with Russia that will lead to conflicts of interest once he becomes president. Moreover, these potential conflicts of interest may drive US policy towards Russia. These are the two issues that raise deep concerns for the country and that any congress, regardless of party, that understood its role in our system of checks and balances as central to our democracy, would have begun investigating already.
Putin did not create Trump; nor did he create a situation in the US where a candidate like Trump could get so much traction. Rather, in an election that was won on the margins, Russia was deeply and undeniably active in those margins; and that was enough to influence the outcome. That much should be clear to anybody who has spent time around campaigns, appreciates how close this race was or simply can do long division, or frankly, addition and subtraction.
Significantly, most of the strategies employed by civil society such as mobilizing people for elections, seeking to put pressure on members of congress, lawsuits and the like, rely upon functioning, and sometimes even sympathetic, political institutions. In the US, civil society has drawn much of its strength precisely from being able to operate in relationship to consistent and rational government institutions. After January 20th, the political space for this will continue to shrink. We already see a Republican congress that is extremely reluctant to look into conflicts of interests, and the ties between Trump and Moscow that would, in previous eras, be major and enduring scandals. Because of Republicans in the Senate who refused to do their constitutional duty and hold hearings and a confirmation vote for President Obama’s Supreme Court appointee last year, Trump will inherit a vacancy on the court. It is all but certain he will fill that vacancy with a very conservative judge, thus making it more difficult for civil society organizations to win cases in front of the country’s highest court. Lastly, that court will very likely support GOP efforts in key states to pass more voter suppression laws, making electoral strategies less likely so succeed.
The scope and unprecedented nature of this development has raised challenges for both parties. It is clear now that President Obama should have risked accusations of playing politics and more aggressively drawn attention to Russia’s hacking in October when the intelligence agencies became more certain that Russia was, indeed, doing the hacking. The Republicans, with a few exceptions, have made the mistake of simply denying the findings of the intelligence agencies and of supporting Donald Trump, the beneficiary of this hacking, as he tries to distract and bully his way out of this scandal. For both parties, and all Americans, the question of what to do now is not an easy one to answer.
Treating Trump like any other President is exactly what is needed for Donald Trump to gain initial successes in his efforts to rollback American democracy, follow through on his threats to limit constitutional rights and to make sure nobody looks to hard at that Russia issue. However, to cover these, and other issues properly, journalists and others in the political class will need an entirely new way of thinking about politics. Understanding what terms like democratic elections, election fraud, international democratic standards, conflict of interest, kleptocracy and democratic rollback, semi-authoritarianism really mean, and what they look like in the American context is absolutely essential to understanding, and properly covering, the coming Trump presidency. These are the concepts that will provide the best guidance for understanding the Trump presidency.
The revelations about Russia’s role in our recent election confirm what many suspected during the campaign. The revelations answer some questions that have been raised in recent days. For example, it is now clear that Jill Stein, who is also cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, took such an active role in calling for recounts to take attention away from the real story. Similarly, we now know that people like Senator Bob Corker and Mitt Romney, whose views on Russia are firmly in the mainstream of Republican foreign policy opinion, were never really in the running for Secretary of State, but were fodder for media speculation before President-elect Trump decided upon Rex Tillerson, a man with a close relationship with Putin, for that key position.
Move beyond the Clintons. For a few aging Democratic insiders, the Clinton name is still magic, but for everybody else, for better or for worse, the brand is strongly identified with scandal and ethical shenanigans. Additionally, thanks to this recent campaign, there are probably many female voters younger than 40 for whom Bill Clinton is primarily viewed as a sexual predator. Despite this, there are some in the Clinton’s world who think Chelsea Clinton should run for Congress, presumably as the first step in a more ambitious political career. The main reason, however, that the Democratic Party must move beyond the Clintons, is that the brand of center right politics on which Bill got elected and reelected in 1996 has no place in today’s Democratic Party, or for that matter in Trump’s Republican Party. The sooner the Democrats can finally get beyond the Clintons, the sooner the Party will stop having to defend what a decade of Democratic governance that looks much more problematic from 2016 or 2017 than it did from 1999 or 2000. For this reason, the only Clinton who should even appear at the next Democratic convention is George.
During the raft of protests following Donald Trump’s election victory, one of the frequent chants was “this is what democracy looks like.” Protesters chanting that were correct to remind us of the centrality of freedom of speech and assembly to any meaningful notion of democracy. Unfortunately, almost two months before Donald Trump will be sworn in as president we are beginning to see what democratic rollback looks like as well. A lot has been written about what might happen to democracy during a Trump administration, but we should not let that overshadow what is already happening to our democracy.
The truth is that the Democrats continued to reach out to white working class voters, and to offer policies aimed at helping them, long after these voters abandoned the Democratic Party. What the Democratic Party did not do, is walk away from their, admittedly sometimes inadequate, commitment to civil rights for people of color, women and LGBT voters. Those commitments, and the willingness of an increasingly emboldened Republican Party to exploit hatred and fear at every turn, are what has cost the Democrats white working class votes.
The last reason I got this wrong is the most upsetting. My 16 year old self, the one with hair halfway down his back, running around San Francisco spouting radical political slogans would have gotten this right, but I didn’t. The things I believed then, that a big majority of white America was racist, that a clownish authoritarian could get elected president and would surround himself with white supremacists, made many see me as some kind of left wing nut back then. Turns out that version of me was right.
Before we panic too much we should recognize the possibility that given how little Trump knows about governance, me may just turn the government over to Vice-President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader. It is an extraordinary reflection of what is happening in to our country that a lifelong left wing Democrat sees governance by what would be the most right wing triumvirate in American history as a hopeful outcome, but it is better than the enduring damage there is good reason to believe a more engaged President Trump will inflict on our democratic institutions. We have survived right wing governments led by the likes of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. They too seemed frightening and dangerous; and they did long lasting damage to our country, but our democracy survived. However, neither of those ideologues ran against the mores, conventions and attitudes that make our democracy function. Nor were they hyper-sensitive, angry at the world, or convinced that the world was rigged against themselves personally. Trump is, and he will go back to those wells of hatred and intolerance whenever he wants to mobilize his base, or perhaps simply when he gets bored.
That, unbelievably, is not the major problem the US will face even if Clinton wins. The most immediate challenge Clinton will confront is how to walk America back from the brink. She will come into office with a substantial minority who, encouraged by Trump’s irresponsible rhetoric, will believe that her presidency is not legitimate. Additionally, Trump’s efforts to undermine faith in American democracy and to embolden the most racist and bigoted people in the US could guarantee instability and an authoritarian movement that could get even bigger.
Although Friday’s events are not going to make Donald Trump the President, they are a reminder of some of the challenges Clinton will face when she gets in the White House, and not just from the Republican Party. The trust issues that have always dogged Clinton and the way she and her husband have long danced up to the line of what is illegal, while frequently crossing ethical boundaries, is real. It is true that much of this is exaggerated by conservatives who have hated the Clintons for decades, but these conservatives hated Barack Obama just as much and his administration was far less enveloped in scandal than Bill Clinton’s. It is also true that there is a no small amount of sexism that fuels this attitude towards Hilary Clinton, but her husband encountered much of it as well, and he is a man.
As this campaign, the nastiest in a very long time, comes to a close, activists, leaders and elected officials from both parties must wrestle with the lessons of this election and determine where to go from here. The lessons of this election, however, are contested and depend very much on how each party answers a similar, almost parallel question. For the Republicans, the key question about this election is whether Hillary Clinton is a pathological liar who prima facie should not hold high office and who represents a threat to the US, or whether she will be a President with whom they will disagree on many issues, but with whom they can work. Democratic leaders and activists are asking whether the abomination and threat to the democratic process that is Donald Trump is an aberration that grew out of the quirks of this year’s primary season or whether he is the natural development of a party that played footsie with bigots for more than a generation and through efforts to limit voting rights, massively increase surveillance and lead the US into a foolish and illegal war, has been betraying American democracy since the Bush administration.