EP119/120: what trumps acquittal could mean

On The World As I Like It To Be podcast we discuss what the acquittal of President Donald J Trump means for our country, the Iowa caucus and the democratic debate happening tonight. 

The debate will air on ABC beginning at 8pm est. Bernie Sanders and mayor Pete enter the debate stage virtually tied for first coming out of the disastrous Iowa caucus.

Elizabeth Warren is still struggling. Latest polling has the Massachusetts Senator in third place in New Hampshire. In addition, reports surfaced yesterday 1/2 dozen women left Warren’s Nevada campaign complaining of “a toxic work environment in which minorities felt tokenized and senior leadership was at loggerheads.”

Is Warren’s campaign a dead woman walking?

Speaking of which, if there is one clear loser in Iowa it is Joe Biden. The dominance of Bernie Sanders and the late entry of Michael Bloomberg maybe hurting the former vice president who is dropping in the polls everywhere.

Bloomberg, reportedly, will be on the debate stage in Nevada.

For now, Denise from California and I give our views on what to expect and what the candidates should do tonight.

Episode 120
Episode 119

What to make of impeachment

Just a side note: this blog post is an opinion piece. These are my own musing and thoughts. It is a point of privilege I bestow upon myself.

Just a warning.

Wednesday the president was acquitted in his senatorial trial. How to make sense of this, I thought? Trump’s party admitted to the president’s wrong doing and seemingly did not care. Only one brave soul was willing to stand up to him and yesterday he was getting destroyed over it.

I had been thinking about what it looks like when a democracy dies. Most of this reasoning comes from the seriousness with which this podcast takes the 2020 election.

We (on the left) think we are fighting not just for the soul of this country but for democracy itself.

But is that really what’s going on here? Will it be so devastating if democrats lose in November? How would we know it if Donald Trump’s corruption really is the end of democracy? What would it look like?

I was able to find my answers in an article I posted on my twitter feed (@ericdsmall). Answers to questions, in my mind, provides a relief in times like these.

When in Rome…

Listeners of The World A I Like It To Be podcast have, hopefully, read previous posts, and know I have talked in the past about Biblical prophesy.

I will not go into all the details about that here, but let’s just say the Roman Empire figures greatly in understanding what the world will look like when things come to an end (according to scripture).

I also recall Paul Krugman writing about the Roman empire in a blog post some time ago. In the essay he wrote about how America and Rome are on similar paths in many ways and how the roman government switched, seemingly overnight, from democratic rule to an imperial one

I admit I either forgot or never knew (which makes no sense) that on paper the roman empire was a republic (like we are today), but in practice was very much an autocracy.

How did that happen? That’s what this post is all about.

the Roman Republic

How ancient Rome’s republic died

In a post at theconversation.com  entitled “This is how ancient Rome’s republic died – a classicist sees troubling parallels at Trump’s impeachment trial” the writer looks at Trump’s acquittal as similar to the beginning of the end of the roman republic.

It says:

The Republican senators’ speedy exoneration of Trump marks perhaps the most dramatic step in their capitulation to the president over the past three years.

That process… recalls the ancient Roman senate’s compliance with the autocratic rule of the emperors and its transformation into a body largely reliant on the emperors’ whims.   

…there was another development that links the era of the Roman Republic’s transformation into an autocratic state with the ongoing political developments in the United States. It’s a development that may point to where the country is headed.

The writer goes on to make striking comparisons to Trump and the Republican party (republic no more) and the emperor of Rome and the Roman senate. 

From the cover of Time Magazine

The president is the United States

First, was the notion that the leader, in this case the president, was in fact the nation state.  This way, any attacks or constrains on the president is an attack on the nation.   

Alan Dershowitz, arguing for the president’s acquittal, all but makes this clear. Dershowitz says, if the president believes he is what is best for the country and the constitution empowers him to do what is best for the country, any attempt the president makes to hold on to power is permissible under the law.

It is a frightening view of presidential power that would make the president, in effect, a king. It’s feasible the republican party believes this as well.

As I argued in the podcast, Mitt Romney (of all people), in his Axios interview last year, said that he/conservatives believe liberalism/democrats are so dangerous and harmful to the country, conservatives will not move against Trump for fear of losing power (to an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders).

It is no great leap to then believe, as Dershowitz argues, anything, including breaking the law, would be permissible if you truly believe the opposition is dangerous for the country.

The writer goes on to write…

This inability to separate the personal interests of a leader from the interests of the country he or she leads has powerful echoes in ancient Rome.

There, no formal change from a republican system to an autocratic system ever occurred. Rather, there was an erosion of the republican institutions, a steady creep over decades of authoritarian decision-making, and the consolidation of power within one individual – all with the name “Republic” preserved.

This gets us to a phrase Donald Trump has become fond of using.  Presidential harassment. Any investigation into his becomes not lawful but harassment.

How can that be? Is the president above the law? Well, yes.

Trump and Barr

The unitary executive

Republicans, like Dick Cheney, for years has talked about the so called unitary executive theory.  This theory is the thing Donald Trump constantly talks about never talking about.  Reports are our attorney general Bill Barr believes in it which is truly frightening.

What is the unitary executive theory?  Well, it is the idea that article two of the constitution vests enormous power to the president.  This is not crazy assertion, it’s actually true. 

But the degree to which the president wields power and how much is important to note. Former White House Council John Dean reportedly once said:

“In its most extreme form, unitary executive theory can mean that neither Congress nor the federal courts can tell the President what to do or how to do it, particularly regarding national security matters.”

Wikipedia writes:

Proponents of a strongly unitary theory argue that the president possesses all of the executive power and can therefore control subordinate officers and agencies of the executive branch. This implies that the power of Congress to remove executive agencies or officers from Presidential control is limited. Thus, under the strongly unitary executive theory, independent agencies and counsels are unconstitutional to the extent that they exercise discretionary executive power not controlled by the president.

The judicial branch implications are that a part of the executive branch cannot sue another part because “the executive cannot sue himself.” If the federal courts were to adjudicate disputes between executive agencies, it would violate the doctrine of separation of powers.

First among equals

In the article on how Rome’s republic died, the writer’s second comparison between now and then is the ceding of power away from one branch of government to the next.

Augustus, the first emperor of Rome had no formal title.  He was only “princeps” or “first among equals”.  You will note our constitution has three equal branches.  The president, if he were princeps, would be the first of those branches.

The article states the Roman senate, while “equals”…

…ceded him both power (“imperium” in Latin) over Rome’s military and the traditional tribune’s power to veto legislation. Each of these powers also granted him immunity from prosecution. He was above the law.

In Augustus’ time the idea also emerged that the “princeps” and the Roman state were to a great extent one and the same. The identity of the one was growing to become inseparable from the identity of the other.

So, for example, under Augustus and then his successor Tiberius, insults against the emperor could be considered acts of treason against the state, or, more officially, against “the majesty of the Roman people.”

There are any number of articles and books written about how Congress has slowly ceded to the president the war making authority vested to it under the constitution. This has happened under republican and democratic legislatures.

The AUMF, which only Barbara Lee voted against, gave power to the president to make war against those who attacked this country after 9/11.

But since then republican and democratic presidents have used that power to excuse everything from drone strikes, to attacks on Iran and Syria to downright assassinations.

In addition, the idea that criticizing the president is an attack on the state is absurd to us now.  But with an attorney general so firmly in the president’s grip and a president who creates terms like “presidential harassment” and “fake news” when he doesn’t like press reports, is it silly to believe he would not sick the FBI or CIA on someone who made statements they deemed “threatening” to the president?

Maybe you’re not arrested and formally charged, but you’re just “interviewed” ….for three years.  Perhaps thrown in a holding cell or better yet shipped off Guantanamo bay and detained. 

At Gitmo, you are no longer on US soil.  Where are your constitutional rights then?

The Goddess Roma in Goddess Roma Statue at Altare della Patria in Rome, Italy © 2015 Richard F. Ebert All Rights Reserved

A theocracy in the making

Finally, an interesting note in the article I had to highlight. It plays to my ongoing feeling around the evolution of conservatism. It’s no longer about “owning the libs” or pushing back against the gains of the 50’s and 60’s.  It’s about creating a theocratic state.

Back in ancient Rome the writer notes:

A physical demonstration of the emerging union of the “princeps” and the state came in the construction of a Temple of Roma and Augustus in cities across the Mediterranean region.

Here the personification of the state as a goddess, Roma, and the “princeps” Augustus were closely aligned and, what is more, deified together. The message communicated by such a pairing was clear: If not quite one and the same, the “princeps” and the state were intimately identified, possessing a special, abiding authority through their union.

Many higher-ups in the Trump administration, from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to former Secretary of Energy Rick Perry to former Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, have spoken publicly of Trump as a divinely chosen figure. And Trump himself declared earlier this year, “I do really believe we have God on our side.”

To this point, however, a Temple of Lady Liberty and Trump along the lines of the Temple of Roma and Augustus has not yet been constructed.

But the Senate impeachment trial has shown us how far along the identification of leader and state has moved in the Trump era.

The movement toward “conservative” “rock ribbed” judges is a mission taken on by Mitch McConnell himself. No other activity is happening in the words most deliberative body. Reportedly McConnell has called for votes on several new judges now that impeachment trial has ended.

Those judges are sure the defend “religious” (in their view) institutions above the law and destroy the separation of church and state.

Josh Hawley of Missouri famously went after a Trump judge for representing a Michigan city against a catholic business owner. Hawley berated and bullied the conservative judge for his work as a lawyer. That judge withdrew his nomination.

None of this is coincidence.  We have been here before.  We know how it begins and we know how it ends. The only question we should ask is will we let it happen to us?

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