January 18, 2020

Today the impeachment managers for the House of Representatives released their trial memorandum for Trump’s impeachment, getting underway Tuesday. Written in simple language, it begins, “President Donald J. Trump used his official powers to pressure a foreign government to interfere in a United States election for his personal political gain, and then attempted to cover up his scheme by obstructing Congress’s investigation into his misconduct.”

The managers explain: “The Constitution provides a remedy when the President commits such serious abuses of his office: impeachment and removal,” and points out that “the Senate must use that remedy now to safeguard the 2020 U.S. election, protect our constitutional form of government, and eliminate the threat that the President poses to America’s national security.” It lays out where we now stand: “The House adopted two Articles of Impeachment against President Trump: the first for abuse of power, and the second for obstruction of Congress. The evidence overwhelmingly establishes that he is guilty of both. The only remaining question is whether the members of the Senate will accept and carry out the responsibility placed on them by the Framers of our Constitution and their constitutional Oaths.”

In 111 pages, the document lays out, in detail, with quotations and notes, the timeline of the Ukraine Scandal, making a clear case that Trump has abused the power of the presidency and obstructed Congress.

Trump answered. His lawyers, Jay Sekulow and Pat Cipollone, slightly cleaned up the same hysterical defenses Trump has been making since the Ukraine Scandal first broke. In just 5 and a half pages, with no footnotes or evidence, Trump argues that the Democrats are attacking “the right of the American people to freely choose their President.” He claims impeachment “is a brazen and unlawful attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election and interfere with the 2020 election.” He calls the articles of impeachment “constitutionally invalid on their face,” “an affront to the Constitution of the United States, our democratic institutions, and the American people.” The president, he says, “did absolutely nothing wrong.”

So there it is. On the one hand, we have a reasoned argument, based in fact, that can be challenged as we try to get to a shared agreement on what happened. On the other hand, we have our president telling us to accept what he says as true, despite the fact that he has provided no factual evidence and, indeed, much of what he has said is demonstrably false.

In the 1600s, European settlers to North America came from a land dominated by kings and aristocrats. Those men ruled because society was organized around the idea that God had made them to rule, and that the little people, who survived as best they could, had no choice but to be loyal to them. But changes in technology, religion, and the world economy were challenging the belief that society should be organized according to a traditional order, theoretically established by God.

Thinkers began to argue for the power of learning, scientific experiments, and argument to try to discover how the world worked. This “Enlightenment” led to new theories about government. In 1690, political philosopher John Locke argued that humans had an innate ability to learn based on their experience of the world, so all knowledge came from trying out new ideas and facts. As men learned, they would be better able to understand the natural laws that underpinned the real world. If a man’s understanding could change, though, that meant traditional patterns of society did not necessarily reflect natural law. One man was not necessarily better than another by virtue of his birth. Government, then, should not rest on birth or wealth or religion—all of which were arbitrary—but rather on the consent of the governed.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he quoted Locke almost exactly. Rather than establishing a new monarchy or even an aristocracy, Jefferson and his colleagues began America’s founding document with a startling new proposition: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” They added another proposition: “To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The Founders’ vision was badly limited. They enslaved native peoples and African captives and their African American neighbors, and they never imagined women could be equal to men. But the idea that all men are created equal, and that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, made the United States of America a shockingly radical step in human governance.

In 1787, the Founders created our Constitution, the body of laws on which our government rests. In it, they tried to bring the Declaration of Independence to life, basing their system on the idea that everyone is equal before the law. And, knowing from personal experience that politicians crave power, they tried to prevent the rise of an autocrat—especially an autocrat who was getting help from a foreign government—by separating power into three different branches. They believed that men (for, of course, they could not imagine women in Congress) would so jealously guard their own power that they would impeach a president who tried to become a king.

But once the government was up and running, what did it mean in practice to say that it depended upon the consent of the governed? It meant that leaders could not simply declare they were in charge. They had to appeal to voters with reasoned arguments, based in facts. For sure, politicians always spun the facts as best they could, but their opponents made their own arguments. It was up to voters to figure out which leader made the most sense
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Under no circumstances could a leader tell the voters what he was doing in office was none of their business.

It was PRECISELY their business.

Until the rise of talk radio in 1987 and the establishment of the Fox News Channel in 1996, we honored the Enlightenment values on which our government was founded: politicians had to attract voters with fact-based arguments or be voted out of office. But talk radio and FNC pushed a fictional narrative that captivated viewers who felt dispossessed after 1954, as women and people of color began to approach having an equal voice in society. That narrative—of a heroic white man under siege by a government that wants to give his hard-earned money to black and brown people and grasping women—has led us back to where we started in 1776: a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism.

Today, the House managers laid out a fact-based argument that honors our heritage. In contrast, Trump’s statement rejects not only facts but also the need to make a fact-based argument. He rejects the need to be accountable to the American people. He rejects the idea that no one is above the law. He evidently does not believe in American democracy: the great American experiment that says human beings can govern themselves.

What will happen in the Senate trial is unclear. How much it will matter is also unclear. More information is dropping daily that links Trump, members of his administration, and congress people to the Ukraine Scandal. In addition, the Supreme Court will decide in the spring whether Trump’s financial information must go to the House. He is also clearly deteriorating mentally. This administration will continue to surprise us.

But in the most crucial way, what happens in the Senate is important. Do our Senators believe in American democracy or are they willing to rubber stamp an authoritarian? Make no mistake: this is not about partisanship. Reasonable people can—and should—disagree about important policy decisions in our country. That's how we learn new things and gain a better view of how the world really works.

But if we abandon our Enlightenment principles, we will, after almost 250 years, have abandoned the American experiment altogether.

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Notes:

House memorandum: https://intelligence.house.gov/uploadedfiles/in_re_president_trump_house_impeachment_trial_brief_and_sof_1.18.20.pdf

Trump’s statement: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Answer-of-President-Donald-J.-Trump.pdf