Friday 28 July 2017

Faulty Mechanism

Six months in, the pattern of the Trump presidency seems clear, for however long we continue to be subjected to it.

Trump blusters, rants and tweets. He combines swaggering arrogance and pathetic insecurity, often in the same speech. He can't manage to address the Boy Scouts of America without making it all about him and the many things he hates. He appears not to understand what health insurance is, let alone have any ability to direct health policy. He is unwilling, and probably unable, to perform even the most basic duties of his office.

Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States.
If this fact does not terrify you, you are not paying attention.

Already, there are more than sufficient grounds for Congress to impeach Trump. Since day one of his presidency, he has defied the so-called emoluments clause of the US Constitution:

No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them [the United States], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

His business interests include plenty of kickbacks and dubious payments from authoritarian governments, so that he is almost certainly in violation of this clause.

Meanwhile, there is a more than plausible argument that Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey constitutes obstruction of justice.

Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton was impeached for less. If Obama had committed one tenth of Trump's sleaziness, the current generation of Republicans would have gleefully nailed him to the wall. Of course, Trump is at least nominally a Republican, and the Republicans control both houses of Congress. Naked partisanship keeps Trump safe, at least for now.

How might this change?

Midterm Election Blues

It's possible the Democrats could take control of Congress in 2018. Possible, but not very likely.

All members of the House of Representatives are up for re-election; but districts were heavily gerrymandered by Republican-controlled state governments in 2010, so that the Democrats will need a substantial edge in the popular vote to win a bare majority.

One third of Senators are also up for election; and they are elected by a statewide vote, so gerrymandering of boundaries is not possible. Here the Democrats face a different problem: They and their allies already hold 25 of the 33 seats being contested, so potential gains are very limited. They need a net gain of three seats to secure a majority of one, which would require victory in unpromising states like Texas and Arizona; meanwhile they face tough fights to defend seats in places like Missouri and North Dakota.

Even if the Democrats win majorities in both houses, removal of a President is a two-stage process. Impeachment by the House is by simple majority, but conviction by the Senate requires a two-thirds majority. It is not even theoretically possible for the Democrats to win enough seats in 2018 to have a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Trump will not be impeached before 2020 without Republican help, which may not be forthcoming.

Degeneracy of Morals

Let's imagine that after 2018, the Democrats take the House; and they hold 52 of 100 seats in the Senate, a net gain of four. This is an extremely optimistic scenario; but it still means they need 15 Republican votes in the Senate to reach the required majority of 67.

Getting those votes would be difficult, perhaps impossible. At best, voting to convict Trump would split the Republican party. They would risk losing office; even the most senior Senators have proved vulnerable to primary challenges from the right. Given the heavily armed and belligerent nature of Trump's most devoted supporters, it might endanger their very lives. They haven't yet found the backbone to turn on Trump. Changing their minds would take something more than what we have seen so far.

Given a Democratic House which had voted for impeachment, a handful of Republican Senators might vote to convict out of principle, or personal dislike of Trump. Three or four or even half a dozen might do it, but fifteen? I think not. They will move as a group only if Trump leaves them no choice.

Maybe more revelations about the Trump campaign's ties to Russia will do it; or the special prosecutor Robert S Mueller will find shocking proof of illegal behaviour by Trump, in politics or his personal business affairs. Maybe that would cause such public outrage that even partisan Republican senators were forced to turn on him.

It would be nice, but I very much doubt it will happen. In today's online environment, facts are mutilated and defiled from the moment they are discovered. I fear Trump was right: He could personally commit murder on a crowded street, and it wouldn't bring him down.

The one exception might be if the Senators felt that Trump threatened to ruin the United States itself. If Trump was blundering into an utterly disastrous war or national security crisis, it might motivate his party to turn on him.

Then again, it might not. People rally round their leaders in times of crisis, even one as loathsome as Trump. As in the old joke about George W Bush, you shouldn't change horsemen in mid-apocalypse.

By the time it became obvious Trump had instigated a national disaster, I fear it would be too late for too many. The Republican leadership are so morally bankrupt, they might not act until they see millions slaughtered as a direct result of Trump's actions, and perhaps not even then.

President Pence

If Trump is removed from office, via impeachment or his Cabinet invoking the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, he would be replaced by Vice President Pence.

Pence is a far more disciplined and capable individual than Trump, and at least as horrifying in his beliefs. Trump believes in whatever makes Trump feel good; Pence is a creature of the extreme Christian right, with all the hateful ideology that entails.

Nonetheless, I feel Pence would be an improvement as President.

It is true that Pence would be more able than Trump to pass horrifying legislation. But if Trump is impeached, it is likely to require Democrats to control the House of Representatives at the very least. Pence's ability to wreak damage would be constrained.

Furthermore, even the current Republican majority in Congress are a fractious lot. The previous Speaker of the House, John Boehner, resigned in disgust because he grew tired of trying to manage their antics. There is no reason to suppose Pence would do any better.

Finally, and most importantly, I am reasonably sure Pence wouldn't conduct diplomacy like a spoiled child, or risk nuclear war to stroke his own ego.

All in all, I don't think it will come to that. The most plausible chance to remove Trump from office is the 2020 presidential election. We can only hope he does not do too much damage in the meantime.

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