In the Broadway mega-hit “Hamilton”, creator Lin Manuel Miranda depicts the British shock at their defeat at Yorktown through the song “The World Turned Upside Down.” It’s hard to think of a more apt description of our political world in the Age of Trump.
Many Americans are still struggling to decide how to respond to a president who so flagrantly disregards the norms and conventions that have served politics reasonably well for much of our history. We keep expressing surprise at each most recent action long after we should have learned not to be surprised by anything that he does. His comments in the aftermath of the ugly white supremacist march in Charlottesville dismayed even some of his supporters, including members of his administration. How much longer some of them can continue to compromise their values and self-respect is an open question.
Trump certainly signaled that he was going to pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio well before he acted, but the decision still shocked many observers including some prominent Republicans. He is so far beyond the boundaries of normal that many of us are still floundering in our efforts to fashion a meaningful political response.
Indeed, Trump’s trampling of political conventions has called into question whether our constitutional system is adequate to the challenge of constraining him. He openly discusses the possibility of pardoning himself. It’s not clear that our system would prevent that outrageous act. His pardoning of Arpaio raises the specter of similar clemency for individuals who obstruct inquiries into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and into Trump’s financial dealings. No one will be totally surprised if, as the investigation gets closer to the president, he fires Robert Mueller, but it will be quite a jolt for the rule of law in this country.
The presidency of this unhinged and unrestrained individual has become a national civics lesson. What should be apparent to any serious observer is that our ability to govern ourselves depends on much more that a single document, as much as we all pay homage to the U.S. Constitution. In that respect, Originalists miss the point all together when they argue for a strict historical reading of that text. Trump has vividly demonstrated that the stability of our system depends on much more than the words that were written in 1787 however they are interpreted.
Tradition, norms, conventions, precedent, rules, laws and application are also part of the fabric of American democracy. What that means, however, is that nothing works automatically. When you hear references to the impeachment process or invocation of the 25th Amendment, remember that neither of them is self-enforcing. Either would require courageous action by political figures who may have conflicting loyalties and interests.
Can you imagine Vice President Mike Pence and any member of Trump’s Cabinet declaring that he is unfit to hold office? As Andy Borowitz might point out, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would probably have to consult Google to find out what the 25th Amendment says.
Members of the Republican Party in Congress, even though they are elected independently of the President, have shown no more indication of backbone than the Cabinet. Between worrying about the 25% of their base who will support Trump even if he shoots someone in broad daylight in Times Square and continuing to calculate that he will be receptive to their policy and ideological goals, the idea of Republicans impeaching Trump regardless of what he does is incredibly far-fetched.
Our political world really has been turned upside down. Just as we are hearing that it will take years for the Houston area to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, the damage to this country caused by this administration will last well beyond its time in office. In both cases, we are still in the midst of the storm with no relief in sight. How do you start rebuilding when the flood waters are still rising?
I’m looking for rays of sunshine, but it isn’t easy to find them. If the level of political activism that we are seeing today can be maintained through the 2018 election, there is a chance that the political balance in Congress could be sufficiently altered to place additional constraints on the President. Maybe there will be an outbreak of political courage as a result, but I’m not holding my breath.
Treating Trump’s presidency as normal is not an option. Neither is the false optimism that assumes that the system will self-correct. We are facing the greatest challenge to this country since the Civil War. The outcome is far from certain.