In the end, it was kind of fitting that famed attorney Alan Dershowitz showed up to deliver the fatal blow. In the 1990s, the Harvard Law prof was part of a team of lawyers that established that if you’re a star in America they let you do it, even when “it” is murdering your estranged wife. In the 2000s, Dersh helped put the exclamation point on the idea that American billionaires can even sexually abuse young girls and escape meaningful punishment.
Fast forward to the first month of the 2020s, and comes now Dershowitz to declare the ultimate reversal of fortune, the overturning on appeal of the American Revolution. Defending President Trump at his impeachment trial last week, the 81-year-old author of Chutzpah found the nerve — and a receptive audience — to proclaim that the American president is in reality a king, because whatever he does, it is not illegal.
“If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment," Dershowitz declared in arguing that what an accumulating mountain of evidence has already established — that Donald Trump abused the power of the presidency to extort a foreign leader to manufacture dirt on a 2020 election rival — doesn’t merit his removal from office.
True, Dershowitz spent much of the next 48 hours trying in television interviews to backpedal from that remark — he still wants to get invited to parties with his liberal friends on Martha’s Vineyard this summer — but the damage had been done. Though often clumsily and sometimes dishonestly, Dershowitz and the rest of Trump’s legal team — led by a White House counsel who actively participated in the president’s abuse-of-power scheming with Ukraine — had managed to create just enough fog to protect 50-plus GOP senators as they cowered in fear from an authoritarian bully.
The fog allowed Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander — seen as a swing vote because he’s retiring at the end of 2020 and because he’s a survivor from an era when the GOP clung to a shred of integrity — to admit that Trump using taxpayer-funded security aid for Ukraine for a political scheme was “inappropriate” but somehow this didn’t rise to the level of removal. Alexander insisted that “under the Constitution, the people should decide when the President does something that’s simply inappropriate”— a bizarre interpretation of Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, but not the most bizarre from the president’s blinking Republican hostages.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who’d been badgered and bullied as “Little Marco” right out of the 2016 presidential race by Trump, did, to be honest, come up small when he announced he will vote Wednesday to acquit the man who’d bullied him, even while tacitly acknowledging Democratic House managers proved their case. “Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment,” Rubio said, "does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a president from office.”
In 1973, while still overwhelmingly backing Richard Nixon politically, Senate Republicans nevertheless voted unanimously to investigate Watergate, with some having the moral curiosity to ask, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
In 2020, 51 GOP senators are saying, “I know what Trump did last summer, and it doesn’t matter” — and putting it out in the open will only cause Trump to lean into the authoritarian tendencies he’s shown for nearly five years as a candidate and as president.
At the end of presenting the compelling case for Trump’s removal, California Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead impeachment manager, declared dramatically that “right matters, and truth matters. Because without it, we are lost.” In the end, impeaching Trump — even though his acquittal from a lock-step Senate was guaranteed from Day One — was the right thing to do, not only because it allowed America to hear some — if not all — of the facts about how this president has abused and debased his office, but also because it exposed the deeper truths about the grand illusion that the American Experiment has increasingly become.
I can still remember what things were like in 1977 when Nixon famously told his interviewer David Frost that “when a president does it, that means it is not illegal.” The remark has lingered because it managed on one hand to be kind of pathetic — hadn’t Nixon been disgraced and forced from office? — yet also worrisome, because after all Gerald Ford did pardon Nixon. In the two generations since, while folks on the left and the center crowed that “the system worked” in Watergate, the right went to work in undermining it, and turning Nixon into a prophet.
The president “did it” in the 1980s in the Iran-contra scandal, but for Ronald Reagan it was not illegal because he was too old and too politically popular. The notion of situational ethics regarding executive power now cemented, it was easy for a soulless, amoral partisan-power-player like Mitch McConnell to ram the guardrails of democracy again and again, whether that meant shutting down government to thwart the first black president or ignoring two centuries of precedent to hijack the Supreme Court in 2016-17. In hindsight, Merrick Garland was a trial run for the ultimate Merrick Garland-ing of the Constitution, on a date that will live in infamy, January 30, 2020.
Trump’s ascension to the presidency only heightened the contradictions of America’s comatose democracy. It’s almost laughable to go back four years later and re-read the wrongest opinion column in the history of American journalism, when the Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker rationalized that D.C. would normalize Trump “because that’s the way our system of government is set up.” She insisted that there wouldn’t be a wall or a travel ban or an attack on Iran and that he would come to hate Vladimir Putin and that Congress would hold him in check, because “not even Republicans are eager to follow Trump’s lead.”
Instead, all it took was a few mean tweets from a presidential smartphone to intimidate semi-respectable Republicans and unleash the autocratic tendencies that were always dormant in the rest — and show that maybe our system of government isn’t set up to thwart dictatorship. That and a small army of semi-automatic toting supporters.
In defending his vote to shut down the impeachment trial and not hear from other witnesses like John Bolton who actually could say what the president knew and when he knew it, Tennessee’s Alexander gave an additional explanation that should alarm every American. He said removing Trump for his misconduct “would just pour gasoline on cultural fires that are burning out there.” As Alexander spoke, a throng of men in camouflage with rifles slung over their shoulders were overrunning the Kentucky state capitol in a display of 2nd Amendment force. The threat of violence lurked behind the vote to grant Trump monarchical power.
In the end, the fires of the American Experiment were extinguished by a crude demagogue and the power of his mean tweets and his ready-for-Riefenstahl rallies and his armed band of supporters, and their ability to intimidate “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” in which the senators who shut down impeachment and turned a president with fewer popular votes into a king represented 19 million fewer Americans than the ones who voted for a real trial.
With Trump’s inevitable acquittal just a few days away, some pundits are channeling their inner Kathleen Parker to still assert that we’ll be just fine in an America where the president now has the receipts that he is, indeed, above the law. Former FBI chief Jim Comey — who has a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time (and whose firing by Trump to thwart a criminal probe was itself an impeachment-worthy offense) —surfaced to say that, sure, Trump is bad but we’ll be OK “because the American center — that great lump of us clustered around the middle — always holds.”
Comey reminds me of both of the most famous lines ever written by the great Joan Didion, that the center is not holding, and that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. It’s so fitting — maybe it’s even intentional — that Trump Acquittal Week somehow got wrapped up with Super Bowl Sunday, so that we can interupt the Trial of American Caligula to bring you four hours of bread and circuses.
And so the F-16s will roar over the sun-soaked crowd and the massive American flag and the heirs to Len Dawson and Joe Montana will get their brains rattled and the messages commanding you to drown your anxieties in Doritos and Budweiser will keep coming, and the Jim Comeys of the world will look at their 52-inch screen and ask, how could anyone call this a dictatorship?
And somehow no one asks this of increasingly desperate refugees getting turned away at our southern border, or the toddlers who’ve been ripped away from their parents, or the trangender or indigenous women increasingly fearing for their lives in an America where open prejudice has been sanctioned at the top, or the black kid growing up with asthma in a smog-choked city, after Trump has reversed every rule for cleaner air he can find, or...
And this was before the Senate on Friday passed what should be known in history as the Enabling Act of 2020, granting him virtually unlimited powers without fear of sanction. Just in the last few days, Trump has expanded his unconscionable travel ban to include a host of new nations including Nigeria, which he famously dismissed as “a s—hole country," and OK’ed a new era of landmines — because these are the hurtful, arbitrary and capricious things that dictators do. Can anyone look at this trend-line and not wonder, with both his newfound license to cheat and the vagaries of the Electoral College pointing toward a second term, what abuses of power — from the jailing of dissidents and journalists to World War III — could come in the next five years?
It is so hard to find hope when the Friday night lights of democracy are turned off, and yet there is hope to find. On Saturday morning, an online friend who runs a Twitter feed of 1960s nostalgia posted a reminder that it was exactly 60 years ago this weekend that four unknown, seemingly powerless black college students walked into a lunch counter and decided to confront the American apartheid of the segregated South.
Within five years, the regime of legal segregation in America had collapsed. Once again, a lost cause was worth fighting for, in a nation where every step back has always brought one step forward. Trump’s impeachment trial may have ended our fantasies about constitutional government in these United States, but I do believe it will strengthen the resolve of the majority of us who not only wanted Trump’s removal, but believe democracy is still worth fighting for.
There is still an opportunity to vote on November 3 in such numbers, and with such unity of purpose, that a president’s ability to cheat won’t matter. And Friday night’s vote did not silence your ability to speak out, or shackle your ability to march for justice, not yet. Keep remembering that whatever you think you would have done to fight slavery or segregation or the worst horrors of the 20th Century is exactly what you are doing to fight tyranny today.