Doctor Franklin, The Answer, Sadly, May be No

Benjamin Franklin

“A republic, if you can keep it,” was Benjamin Franklin’s catchy answer to the query shouted at him — “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” — as he left Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787. America has preserved its republican form of government for over two centuries, surviving numerous trials, most grievously the attempted severing of the Union by the slave states. But, Senate Republicans’ pending acquittal of President Donald Trump may pose the most serious challenge yet to the American experiment in self-government.

Fifty-one senators voted last week against hearing relevant evidence of Trump’s abuse of power, and those same senators, perhaps joined by others, will vote Wednesday to enable the president to continue abusing power. These enablers checked reason, logic, and fairness at the door of the upper chamber to engage in pure sophistry in lame attempts to explain their votes. Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander admitted Trump’s guilt in a statement issued by his office: “There is no need for more evidence to conclude the president withheld United States aid, at least in part, to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens; the House managers have proved this with what they call a ‘mountain of overwhelming evidence.’” Alexander went on to call Trump’s actions “inappropriate,” and indicated the proper remedy is to “let the people decide” in the coming election.

How illogical! Alexander believes Trump cheated in the election, but his fate should be decided in the election in which he already has cheated. How irrational! How rigged!

So, here we are: The Senate accepts that Trump cheats but refuses to punish him for cheating. Why would Trump not continue to cheat? Why should the American electorate have faith that the 2020 election will be fair?

Senator Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, interviewed Sunday

Alexander had an answer for that as well, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “If a call like that [Trump’s July 25 phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky] gets you an impeachment, I would think he would think twice before he did it again.” Really, senator? Is that the lesson you think Donald Trump will take away from his acquittal? If history is a guide, Trump will not be chastened by his impeachment. He will be emboldened by his exoneration.

Remember, Trump had his infamous call with Zelensky the day after special counsel Robert Mueller’s bumbling appearance on Capitol Hill to explain his report on the Russia investigation. Even a sketchy reading of the Mueller report would lead most culprits to tread carefully in the future. But, not Trump, who obviously took away the opposite lesson.

Trump has sent us numerous signals over the years: He does what he does because he can — because he gets away with it, because there never is any penalty for the improprieties, abuses, and illegalities he commits. He cheats in business, he has a history of stiffing vendors, he lies, he abuses and bullies people and always gets away with it. He even cheats at golf! Trump told us his ethos in the “Access Hollywood” tape. Everyone focused on his notorious admission of grabbing women’s genitalia, but the far more revealing statement was this: “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything!”

There is no bigger star than the president of the United States! Why would Trump not try to steal the next election, especially when the polls are so gloomy? After all, the Senate vote gives him a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio

Other Republican senators besides Lamar Alexander conceded Trump’s guilt in the Ukraine scandal. “I assumed what is alleged is true,” said Florida’s Marco Rubio. True, but not “in the interest of the nation to remove the president.” Sorry, senator, but that argument flies in the face of why the drafters of the Constitution gave the Senate the power to remove from office a president guilty of abuse of power. Impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate are not in the Constitution because the Framers wanted to keep most presidents from behaving badly. The Framers assumed most presidents would not abuse power because most presidents not named Trump would be guided by moral and political restraints. The reason for the constitutional impeachment clause is because of extreme cases (such as Trump) of a renegade president who is so dangerous (attempting to rig an election qualifies as dangerous) that he or she must be removed from office. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The dangers to the American Republic exceed this lawless president. His devoted base — the millions who engage in a “cult of personality” — and the spinelessness of the Republican Party will further convince the amoral president that there are no restraints, that he can break any law in pursuit of personal power and private gain. As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” House Democrats struck at the president, but the Senate abdicated its responsibility, emboldening not only Trump but his sycophants in the Republican Party. 

It is a dynamic, as Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times, that has unwound multiple times in the last few decades: Democrats trying to play fair, Republicans ruthlessly doing whatever it takes to win. The dynamic played out in the election of 2000 and the aborted recount in Bush versus Gore; repeated when George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld lied their way into war in Iraq; and recurred when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stole a vacant Supreme Court seat. And, it happened again last week when the GOP did Trump’s bidding and shut down the Senate trial.

Americans once took pride in the belief that ours was a “government of laws, not men” (pardon the sexist terminology, but that was the statement). The age of Trump teaches us a different lesson: If men and women are not willing to play by the rules, if they are permitted to disregard the law, “If right doesn’t matter,” as California Representative Adam Schiff said in his closing argument in the Senate trial, then “we’re lost.”

So, Dr. Franklin, the answer to the question posed to you in 1787 is, we still do not know if we can keep the republic you and your colleagues bequeathed us.

Posted February 4, 2020

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