When we someday look back on the era of the Trump impeachment, we may better understand the often-repeated aspirational assertion “No man is above the law.” We may even have discovered whether it’s actually true or not.
Here’s another common phrase that will be put to the test, as well: “A republic, if you can keep it.” May we never in the future recall this expression with wistful regret.
Benjamin Franklin’s famous phrase was used five or six times during the impeachment debate last week. Franklin uttered it in response to a question about what the Founders had produced during the constitutional convention that created our nation: Was this new country a monarchy or a republic?
The new nation’s primary challenge was slavery. At the same time, well over half of the white population — women — did not enjoy full citizenship. And the nation’s inevitable growth depended on the destruction of its native inhabitants, a huge contradiction of the high principles expressed in the Constitution.
Further, many of the Founders were deeply suspicious of the capacity of ordinary people to govern themselves. They feared the “mob” and worried that its passions could be inflamed by the rhetoric of a charismatic demagogue. In short, Franklin’s famous phrase was meant to convey one important message: The new republic was fragile.
Our country has come a long way since 1789, but the fragility has never gone away. Franklin reminds us that there is nothing inevitable about America.
We should bear this in mind during the current crisis. Our impeached president has already threatened the idea of America as a country based on laws by referring casually to the Constitution’s “phony” emoluments clause and speaking longingly of the extended powers and lengthy terms of office of foreign autocrats.
In fact, President Donald Trump appears to have little regard for the limitations of the power of the executive branch, neither for the ones embodied in law, nor for the ones that depend on the mutual agreement among American citizens on constitutional norms that transcend party.
The current crisis provides a number of unfortunate examples of Trump’s disregard for the principles that prevent us from becoming an autocracy, but none illustrates it better than his refusal to provide during the impeachment inquiry any documents or witnesses that might either incriminate or exculpate him.
Trump is not claiming the executive privilege that many presidents have used in the past to protect their conversations with their closest advisors. Rather, his claim of complete immunity depends on his contention that his impeachment is an unconstitutional, illegitimate hoax and that he is thus relieved of any responsibility to cooperate with it.
Trump’s position provides Republicans with the opportunity to accuse Democrats of being unwilling to “let the courts decide” the question of immunity, as if, should the courts decide against him, Trump would immediately reverse himself and admit the legitimacy of the impeachment.
No, Trump has shown his contempt for the courts in the past and particularly for judges who rule against him. He has never hesitated to condemn the legitimacy of the judicial branch when it serves his purposes.
This is the nature of the crisis we face. Trump’s vision of his personal power is not limited to domination of the legislative branch. To imagine that he would quietly accede to judicial rulings regarding witnesses and documents is a fantasy.
We ignore Franklin’s warning about the fragility of our republic at our peril. America did not come with a guarantee. In the coming months, the Founders’ vision for our republic will be severely tested.