I depart from my typical local focus this week – unless you make an allowance based on the adage that all politics is local.
This is a viewpoint on presidential politics, in any case.
I offer it with a sense of urgency about our democracy and rule of law. My concerns have grown rapidly ever since a most careless – or perhaps calculated – comment from President Donald Trump went largely overlooked by the legacy, digital and social media.
The remark is on record from February 6, the day after the U.S. Senate voted to acquit Trump of impeachment charges.
The president told a room of ardent supporters that a vote in favor of convicting him might have led to “a different story – maybe we’d be celebrating something else.”
I cannot know for an absolute fact what the president meant by “something else.”
I believe, however, that it’s nothing more or less than responsible to take his remark as a threat to the legislative branch of the federal government and the U.S. Constitution.
I further believe that coming to such an understanding is now our collective responsibility because Trump makes a practice of floating audacious and illegitimate ambitions under cover of plausible deniability.
Logic of Listening
One path to plausible deniability is to frame a notion that naturally brings along, for the logical listener, a set of reasonable assumptions such as we all make in conversations of any length.
Here’s an example: If I’m in LA and I tell you that I’m heading out the door to go to Chicago, and say I will call you from there later today, you would assume I’m taking an airplane – and you would be correct.
It’s more complicated with Trump, who has been known to base illegitimate ambitions on some assumption he’s inserted amid superlatives and smirks. He’s happy to leave the assumption hanging there, supported by nothing of any actual substance, unless and until some objection is raised.
Trump’s routine leaves him the option of making a tactical retreat by denying the logical assumption, waving off any objection with a claim that the listener assumed this or that and is putting words in his mouth. Then he can call it fake news, point his finger at the legacy media, and dump the mess into the maelstrom of social media.
The same setup also gives Trump the option of pushing ahead with whatever illegitimate ambition he’s floating as long as no one raises an objection – much like a bully or abuser who pushes until someone pushes back.
How else, after all, can an abuser know how much power he or she has accumulated?
Now consider again the illegitimate ambition floated via Trump’s claim that he might have been celebrating “something else” if the Senate had voted to remove him from office. The reasonable assumption those words leave hanging is that he would have disregarded the U.S. Constitution and defied the judgment of the Senate to remain in office.
Do you think that assumption is unfair? Am I putting words in the president’s mouth? Is this fake news?
Then tell me what else Trump might have been suggesting.
A celebration of his conviction?
A going-away party?
A thank-you banquet for the loyalists who stuck with him all the way to his removal from office?
That shouldn’t make sense to anyone who has observed Trump as president or person.
What should make sense is the cold logic that points to Trump’s publicly floating the ambition of violating the U.S. Constitution and claiming autocratic powers.
The fact that Trump did it on the heels of a victory that rendered such a move unnecessary offers no comfort. He was, in any case, suggesting that a political win gave him raw power, a distinction he understands more keenly than anyone else in the room. He was pushing for more power than his office is allowed under the law by floating the ambition that he, personally, should be above the law.
And you can bet that Trump has noticed that nobody seems to have pushed back on the claim.
I was no fan of Trump from the start, but I have never failed to give him and his office proper due. I expected him to be less than dignified or personally honorable as president, but I didn’t anticipate his outright lack of regard for the vocabulary, institutions, standards and values of our democracy.
I certainly didn’t anticipate that his lack of regard would be allowed to grow into an aggressive challenge to those same standards and values.
I now must realize that his careless or calculating comment – and either is unacceptable – the day after his acquittal cannot be reasonably taken as anything other than a dry run in case he loses his re-election bid.
I recently talked with a friend who is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and fan of free markets. He isn’t a natural follower of Trump, but he told me the president still has his vote at this point.
This friend did mention that he was worried that Trump might tempt a crisis by using any pretense as a basis for refusing to leave the White House if he loses a close election – a concern that has grown in various quarters recently.
My friend is at a reckoning, whether he realizes it or not. He and everyone else should look at the video or transcript of Trump’s post-acquittal performance and consider how he suggests there would have been a celebration one way or the other.
Then they should take a deep breath and ask themselves if there is any justification for voting for a candidate they believe might refuse to participate in a peaceful transfer of power.
That should be a shadow of a doubt that’s too dark to ignore. No one else seeking a place on the ballot, regardless of political affiliation or ideology, poses a greater threat than a losing candidate who refuses to yield.
That leaves my friend in a difficult position that many of us face – because it is time to act as patriots and cast a vote against Trump even it it means making a sacrifice.
And here’s the hard part about sacrifice: You actually have to give something up.
My friend would have to give up a sense of ideological certitude that has provided him guidance and comfort for decades – and so would many others from the other side of the political spectrum who might not see their preferred candidate nominated to run against Trump.
Some very wealthy voters would have to give up the benefits that come with a president who views the world from a perspective similar to theirs when it comes to taxation and other financial matters.
Voters who count global warming chief among their concerns would have to sit still if they don’t hear the fiery rhetoric they favor in backing the best candidate to beat Trump.
A lot of working-class white people who have felt downtrodden for good reason would have to wave goodbye to a president who raises their spirits whenever he sticks a thumb in the eye of the well-heeled, tone-deaf political dilettantes who regularly lob insults from both coasts.
Many voters who sincerely hold certain religious beliefs would have to do without a president who has elevated their priorities in our courts.
None of any of these concerns will matter if the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution are undermined.
I firmly believe President Trump would undermine both in a second term.
He told us so on February 6.
And I believe the effects of coronavirus will make that more likely, not less so.
About Our Founding Document
A final note to consider, because I think it has much to do with why our democracy and rule of law are threatened.
A questionable interpretation of presidential duties has taken hold in our political culture. The process has certainly been ongoing since the September 11 terrorist attacks and probably before then. It holds – as you’ve likely heard from several presidents, not just Trump – that their first duty is to keep the American people safe.
I believe that claim runs parallel to an audacious assumption that’s sometimes called the “Unitary Executive Theory” and underpins illegitimate ambitions that amount to an ongoing presidential power grab and have taken on downright regal tones under Trump.
The oath of office calls on presidents to “faithfully execute the office” and “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
That’s all the oath specifically requires.
That’s enough, because everything from freedom to opportunity to safety follows from our founding document, which provides the rule of law that has accommodated the long and imperfect arc of our Great American Experiment for 231 years.
The Constitution must take precedence as our constant source of hope in the face of this president or any other who seeks to profit from fear.
The fundamental flaws of President Trump do not mean that the culture of corruption engendered by LA’s so-called progressives is acceptable, as the federal indictment unsealed earlier this week indicates – and you can expect more on that when I swing back to the local landscape next week.