Impeachment and What it Tells Us About the State of American Institutions

I stopped writing about politics a few months ago.

If you take the long view of things and incorporate enough history and objective thought into that sort of work you start to realize that most of what we see from politics on a daily basis isn’t much more than churn. And that part of the trick for those that benefit from that churn is making it seem new.

It took me about four years to get to the point where I was just pushing a newer version of the same story. I’d said all I had to say. It was time to step off the treadmill.

Congress voted to impeach the President of the United States this past week though. And as someone who has both enjoyed and benefitted from having an audience for my opinion on political matters, it’s fair to expect that I owe a take on it.

I’ve been a critic of President Trump since he announced his candidacy in June of 2015. I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about my criticism over the last few months. I don’t often single out a specific person to criticize. I do my level best to focus on giving perspective on policies or events. President Trump, in this regard, represents a very specific departure for me.

I’ve come to a reckoning that the departure was a failure.

Donald Trump the person simply didn’t square with what I viewed the American Presidency to be. This is how the evaluation system in our heads works. There is no objective quantification of skills. There is no better than worse than comparisons. There’s simply how close something or someone comes to our ideal image of things.

Billions of dollars of ad spending a year will tell you that’s how brand management works.

I’m a veteran. I served the Presidents of past who behaved a specific way and perpetuated specific norms. I had, and still have, a very specific standard for what I wanted to see out of who sat at the very top of my chain of command. Few less resembled the men I served under who met that standard than Donald Trump.

At the core of my criticism was my inability to reconcile Trump the man with my view of what the Presidency was. It wasn’t political.

Stopping there is the failure. Why presidents behaved the way they did is closer to the point.

The process of impeaching President Trump enabled some clarity; clarity on exactly why presidents of the past were the way they were. And why presidents of the future should be too.

The strength of America and the centuries of growing prosperity and increasing inclusion that Americans have experienced is not in our founding principles. One can write down any principles one wants and glean neither strength nor weakness from their existence. What has made America the story that we are, are the institutions that formed through the activities of making good on the once distant promises of those principles.

It was our institutions that withstood attempts by European imperialists to turn our then colonial society into an extractive economy. It was our institutions that ended slavery and stopped the extractive, immoral, dual economy of the ante-bellum south. It was our institutions that responded to the great depression. And it was our institutions that ended state sanctioned apartheid.

Elected officials guided them. Democracy held them accountable. But the framework of execution of the American dream is enabled by American institutions.

They are imperfect. As are we. But the trajectory towards expanded participation in politics and the economy that has made America the grand Hegelian Synthesis it is did not come from the vacuum of liberty alone. Our institutions were set with a path dependence that ensured an inclusive, pluralistic society. They create a great check against the whims of populist hysteria or despotic rulers that might shift the momentum.

Democracy alone won’t do it. Nor will capitalism. It’s the American institutions that have developed over the often too slow progress of history that ensure limits to government. A gutted, weak state provides little protection to pluralist liberty.

What the impeachment process has shown, clearly and unambiguously,  is that President Trump insists on deprecating our institutions in service to eliminating checks to his administration. Moreover, in those instances where he has weakened our institutions enough to forward his initiatives unabated, he has succeeded in violating his oath to uphold the Constitution.

There is no credible case that counters the factual evidence that shows the president withheld aid from a foreign ally in order to trigger an investigation by a foreign government into his primary political opponent in the upcoming election. And there is no precedent that says this sort of behavior is normal, acceptable or legal. The institutions, grounded in the rule of law of our founding documents that ensure a pluralistic and inclusive society, stopped him.

But not by much.

It took front line civil servants to blow the whistle. The institutional might of the State Department, the Justice Department, the Intelligence Community, the Department of Defense or the free press no longer impact the decisions of the Oval Office. And while that may sound like a welcome change to supporters of the current administration, I suspect they’d mind that check less when another party holds the office.

The switch doesn’t flip that easily though.

That’s why presidents of the past held the norms that they did. And why they viewed the institutions of the United States as entities which needed to survive their tenure in office, even if they didn’t quite make things easy on them.

Throughout the five decades President Trump has been in the public eye, he has, as a rule, never existed in any sort of harmony with anyone or anything that did not offer unconditional loyalty. Critics are not tolerated. He allows no space for anyone to be a little bit for or a little bit against him. That not a single GOP Congressman voted in favor of impeachment is not a sign of a weak case. It’s a sign of the weakness of the institution of our conservative political party of the American two-party system, just another in the long list of American institutions greatly weakened over the last four years. That one man holds that power, is not the design.

It’s a bug; not a feature.

I hope the President’s impeachment has one singular impact on American politics. I hope it stops the assault on the American institutions that we depend on to sustain and protect the American pluralistic society that is growing more inclusive and pluralistic by the generation.

Whether this happens because the president is removed, loses in 2020 or simply learns the lesson that the state is deep for a good reason is less important.

Right now, we’re arguing with the National Weather service over the weather. Imagine what’s going to happen if we ever have to do something hard as a people again.

This is an apolitical position. The risk was similar when 80 years ago FDR, blocked by the Supreme Court to implement aspects of the New Deal, tried to diminish the legitimacy of that institution by passing legislation that would allow him to pack the court with political appointees. Our institutions, even in the face of the grave circumstances of the Great Depression, held.

It’s not obvious what happens if we expose American institutions to four more years of reckless assault from the office in which we trust their stewardship to.

Categories: Politics

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10 replies »

  1. Thanks for posting on this subject. I agree that our “institutions” are under attack; those that were established by our Constitution and our lawmaking bodies. I do, however, feel that our Corporate institutions have co-opted space in our culture that was never intended by our forefathers. Those institutions should be under attack, and limited in the damage they can do.

    Good to hear from you.

  2. Sean, I have missed your wisdom and perspective on the political morass we find ourselves in.

    I have also wondered, as a former Navy Seal and as one with years of service in Afghanistan, your thoughts on the revelations of the “Afghanistan Papers” published by Wash Post.

  3. Sean,
    came to this page after listening to an couple year old podcast with Andy Stumph during which you discussed your data driven approach as well as your rough experience with Trump and the possibility of impeachment at the time from the Russia investigation. You also addressed the importance of trust in our relationship to our government and the apprehension over not being able to believe anything the government and media.

    My impressions to the above post;
    1) definitely and somewhat understandably not driven by data
    2) Originally, you did not think there would have been any talk about impeachment if Trump hadn’t fired Comey – The IG report on FISA abuse and subsequent interview with Chris Wallace sure seems like he had reason to fire him and together with the Mueller report breaks the trust with the government in general, as did the IRS targeting, Bengazi and F&F.
    3)Another interpretation of the “phone call” was Trump was/is skeptical of aid in general and with Ukraine specifically for corruption and was centered on the 2016 campaign not the 2020
    4) The testimony by the witnesses were seemly more upset with the contrary action to their “consensus” of the agencies non elected policy than anything else,
    5) the fact that impeachment was on the minds of the democrats from before his inauguration, through the Russian hoax and for the first time for two non crimes can shake one trust in the government.

    All of the above leads me back to your earlier thoughts on the efficacy of any future dollars spent by the government ,the unsustainable increases in entitlements , the disappearing reasons to trust what our government says and does and back to a necessary wake up call from the status quo politician and sausage making process

    I do not have a ringing endorsement of Trump or even a like ( did not vote for him in 2016) but see no one running or in the current line of succession that I would prefer

    In any case , thank you for standing up and best wishes to you and your family.

  4. Sean, welcome back. I’ve missed your posts.

    I particularly liked the historical analysis, i.e., “the churn.” (Not a takeoff on the same term as used in the James S.A. Corey novels?) I remember once, long ago, reading and account by Livy of a debate in the Roman senate, when Rome was still a true republic. Something bugged me about it, and then I remembered reading news of a very similar debate in our own Senate!

    But the point I took away from this post is the value of institutions. I’ve always valued them, but your post put them in sharper perspective.


  5. I believe you are very intelligent and thoughtful and have read you for a number of years even though I often disagree with your conclusions. I was proud of your thoughtful conclusions in this op-ep until you resumed your previous thought course with: “What the impeachment process has shown, clearly and unambiguously, is that President Trump insists on deprecating our institutions in service to eliminating checks to his administration”…

    You are looking at current American Politics from the completely wrong perspective. There are really three currents at work in American politics.

    1. First is crony capitalism and lobbying on both sides of the aisle which disproportionately advantage the rich legislatively.

    2. Second is the large-scale monopolizing of American media by mostly rich left wingers and following left wing bias put forth as “the news”.

    3. Third and most anxiety inducing to everyday Americans (and largely why Trump was elected) is the fact that a small vocal angry minority of far left extremists taken over the Democrat party have thrown the American political system into complete chaos. They are in fact the ones doing concrete damage to not only our political system but all our western institutions. Read about post modernism and get back to me.

    I will give you that you try REALLY hard to justify your preconceived liberal notions and often have legitimate conclusions. It certainly is easier than transforming yourself with Truth.