My son wrote me an e-mail the other day. He was pointing out that Obama and Biden engaged in plenty of “quid pro quo,” and cited some references. So what’s the big deal with quid pro quo for Trump?
My son is very negative regarding the Democratic Party. I don’t actually disagree with him: the party is contemptible. I think the main difference between us is context. I view Obama — in particular — in the context of the Bush/Cheney: my expectations for Obama were very low, and he exceeded them by quite a lot. By contrast, my son was only thirteen when the Bush/Cheney was elected, and was still under twenty when the Bush/Cheney disintegrated in the mid-term election of 2006. Obama was his first president as an adult, and his expectations were very high. Obama disappointed him terribly.
But his question was a good one: what was this quid pro quo all about?
Well, it was never about quid pro quo at all. It was about separation of powers. It isn’t that Trump leaned on Ukraine. That would have been fine, had he been backed by Congress and all of the vested interests within his own executive branch. Instead, Trump went all cattle baron and hired a gunslinger — Rudy Giuilani — and a bunch of other politically-appointed thugs like Gordon Sondland and Mike Pompeo, to go rough up the Ukrainians, and he didn’t consult with the other cattle barons. Or, if you prefer, he didn’t give the other Mafia dons the respect — and the kickback — they expected.
Let’s back up. To understand the Constitutional separation of powers, you have to first understand that the Framers believed that people are assholes. They used the term “devils,” which — in the language of the eighteenth century — is considerably darker than “asshole.” So using metaphors like “cattle barons” or “Mafia dons” to describe the Washington culture is perfectly in keeping with the way they thought about matters while they were debating the Constitution.
They set up the government as a Mexican standoff, with three parties — the courts, the legislature, and the president — all pointing shotguns at each others’ heads. They did not believe that any of those three groups would behave honorably. Quite the contrary. But they did believe that they would always look out for their own self-interest.
This is the heart of the impeachment clause. It is the shotgun that Congress has pointed at the president’s head.
When Trump leaned on Ukraine, his sin was not what he did, but the fact that he went around Congress, and around all of the laws they had passed, and did it anyway — and then, when someone noticed and said something, covered it up. It was a direct subversion of the separation of powers, and it rightly caused Congress to pull the trigger.
Or rather, it caused half of Congress to pull the trigger.
One of the things that the Framers feared was the power of the political parties, and for precisely the reason that has just played out in front of us. What has happened is that the power of the political party — the winning party — is greater than the power of Congress, the executive, and the courts together.
The Republican majority in Congress is not supporting Trump because he’s the president: they are supporting him because he is a Republican. The courts, embodied by Republican favorite Chief Justice Roberts, will ratify their “trial” of the president, regardless of the level of sham it represents.
What this means is that, in practice, the structure of US government has changed at a very basic level. It is no longer a three-party Mexican standoff among courts, legislature, and executive. It is now a two-party standoff between two political parties, Republican and Democrat, both of which act to imbue the dominant party (their own) with absolute power in a no-holds-barred struggle for power.
The Bush/Cheney loaded the courts with Republican jurists, enabled by a Republican Senate, and that same Republican Senate blocked Obama from reversing that during his time: as a result, the courts, by-and-large, are now preferentially allied with the Republicans, with a full twenty-year lead. The current Republican Senate majority is fully-allied with the Republican president, and there is no imaginable crime or misdemeanor a Republican president could commit that they would not excuse. The only dissenting voice in the political system is the Democratic majority in the House — one-sixth of the elected government. They attempted to pull the impeachment trigger on the president over a clear transgression of separation of powers, and the Senate put its finger in front of the hammer. The shotgun did not fire. It will never fire while the Senate and president belong to the same party.
Note that this isn’t about “policy” or “conservative” or “liberal” political theories. This is simply a matter of raw power: who has it, and who does not. The Republicans are a disciplined group willing to do whatever it takes to take and maintain power. The Democrats are still divided, with many playing the old game of polity and negotiation and public will and “good of the nation,” which is why their primaries always look like a circus.
It doesn’t really matter who wins the 2020 election: not unless the Democrats take the presidency, and Senate, and hold the House, and spend the next eight or sixteen years reversing the de facto Republican takeover.
But that won’t really make any difference, either, because it remains the same two-party standoff, merely with a different party in power. The Democrats won’t get there unless they become as disciplined as the Republicans. And remember: they are all assholes. Or devils, if you prefer. Once they hold the power, they are not going to voluntarily go back to the Mexican standoff.
The only solution I see is to break the power of the parties. To shatter them both beyond any possible repair. We need third, and fourth, and seventh parties, and a voting system that supports that.