January 21, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
The Democrats’ Best Move Is Highlighting Mitch McConnell’s Corruption of a Fair Trial
Prepare to lose the trial now, but win the Senate later.
Someone needs to invent an expression to describe the experience of being surprised by the surprise of others. Maybe the Germans have a long word for what I’m feeling. To me, it seems pretty clear Mitch McConnell does not care about the Constitution. He does not care about the rule of law. He does not care about the common good or commitments to a democratic covenant. These are nice things to pay lip-service to. These are impediments to get around. The point of politics is power. Power is all.
That the Senate majority leader is doing everything possible to create procedural conditions with which to expedite Donald Trump’s acquittal should not be surprising. It should be expected, especially by serious and sober intellectuals engaging in public affairs. And yet, on this opening day of the Senate’s impeachment trial, these same people seem to be downright shocked—shocked!—to witness McConnell’s cold-blooded and cynical moves to protect the most criminal president of our lifetimes.
Even as I expect the worst from a fascist Republican Party, I don’t feel hopeless.
But, even as I expect the worst from a fascist Republican Party, I don’t feel hopeless. The same people expressing shock also claim democracy is doomed if the president is exonerated for cheating. He will surely cheat again! Yes, indeed, that’s what lying, thieving, philandering sadists do. But that doesn’t mean the end of our democracy. That’s merely more of the same. As Jerry Nadler put it, Trump “welcomed” foreign interference in 2016 and he “demanded” it for 2020. Undermining the will of the people is treasonous, but that’s nothing compared to Vladimir Putin’s approval.
We could be entering a period of authoritarian democracy, similar to what’s happening in nations like Russia, Turkey, Hungary and the Philippines. We could see a return of a variation of apartheid, in which popular democracy isn’t popular but instead enjoyed legally by whites only. But those extremes would require deep structural change—like amending the US Constitution and abandoning federalism. A reelected Donald Trump would be a disaster with years of painful consequences, but the republic will live on.
Anyway, cheating doesn’t mean winning for the president—or for the Senate Republicans. So far the Democrats are focusing on why Trump should be removed. But I’d expect them to quickly shift focus to the corrupt process of the Senate trial. The more the Democrats highlight its fundamental unfairness—no new witnesses, no new evidence, presentations jammed into 12-hour slots lasting well into early morning hours—the more they draw attention to McConnell, especially members of his conference seeking reelection. The more the Democrats highlight corruption, the more ammunition Democratic challengers have in knocking off GOP incumbents.
Focusing on the Republican Party’s corruption does something else. It creates a true oppositional binary. As long as the Democrats focus on why the president is guilty, the Washington press corps will report proceedings as a fight between equally powerful and equally legitimate political parties. However, accusing McConnell of unfairness forces him to explain why he’s fair, which, of course, he can’t do. He’s already on his heels defending an indefensible president. The Democrats could tip him right over.
Liberals should accept that institutions won’t save the republic. Only politics will.
This, I think, is the Democrats best move. They should be otherwise prepared to lose the trial over Trump. They should not be, as some pundits have urged, demanding Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts rule in their favor, forcing the Republicans to call witnesses, etc. The Democrats can say Roberts could choose not to play by McConnell’s corrupt rules. That would highlight Roberts’ corruption. (The high court, as Samuel Moyn said, is not and will not be a friend to equality and justice.) But liberals shouldn’t want him to interfere in constitutional combat. Liberals should accept that democratic institutions won’t save the republic. Only politics will.
This is probably what most shocks serious and sober intellectuals engaging in public affairs—that even the United States Constitution itself can’t stop a criminal president abetted by a major political party with help of a global right-wing media apparatus. If the Constitution and all the institutions built up around it can’t stop Trump, surely our democracy is doomed. That, however, is putting too much faith in institutions and not enough faith in people, especially people willing to fight for a more equitable America.
Uncritical faith in democratic institutions, even the United States Constitution itself, actually gives a fascist Republican Party an advantage it deeply desires. Fascist hate institutions getting in their way. They love institutions serving them. Corrupt institutions accelerate the trend toward authoritarian democracy. Preserving them enables that trend. Asking John Roberts to interfere is to legitimize an institution—the US Senate—bent on undermining the power of the people to set things right.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.