This post is about restoring faith in our institutions. In my previous post, I suggested that Democrats look to 2020 with a message of economic and social justice that, if delivered by a charismatic messenger, could mobilize the progressive base and appeal to swing voters. There is a third leg to this stool, and it is criminal justice or, if you prefer, accountability. We have to stop mouthing the words “no one is above the law” and begin to restore the norms that will make it so.
The rich and well-connected operate under a different set of rules than everyone else and have long had the power to make sure it stays that way. The results are corrosive. We have come to expect political parties, law enforcement, the Church, big business, media conglomerates and financial institutions, among others, to hide transgressions and protect transgressors. Not surprisingly, we have seen people lose faith in institutions and their leaders, including a generational drop-off in institutional trust by Millennials and post-Millennials. Such loss of faith is a threat to democracy and it needs to change if we are to begin to unwind the damage inflicted on civic life during and before the Trump years once this reactionary moment has passed.
That change needs to start with how Trump himself is treated. Regardless of how the remainder of his term plays out, Donald Trump from this point forward will serve in office as an accused felon, viewed by his own justice department as having directed his fixer Michael Cohen to pay hush money to influence his election. Think about that for a minute. The President of the United States would be facing trial on felony charges if he didn’t have his office to protect him. Republicans remain silent while the rest of us are asked to accept this as a normal turn of events.
Democracy can’t function this way. Crimes committed by Trump, his immediate family and his associates need to be prosecuted, and if convicted the perpetrators cannot be given special consideration because of the high station they now hold. Democrats and those who value the rule of law need to start saying this out loud.
Our crisis of accountability has been coming for decades. I have long been troubled by the post-Watergate narrative best expressed by Gerald Ford who, upon taking office on Nixon’s departure, remarked, “Our long national nightmare is over . . . Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men.” But the process was not allowed to work. The Constitution provided for impeachment and conviction, not resignation and pardon. Accountability was short-circuited by circumventing the political mechanisms designed to protect against a bad actor in the White House and the legal mechanisms in place to address his criminal activity. We were told at the time, by Ford and those who supported his pardon, that the country couldn’t handle the specter of an imprisoned former president, that we needed to move on. But Nixon’s resignation and pardon only underscored how the very powerful will be treated differently while denying the country a chance to work through the trauma of the Nixon years. We live with the unfortunate results of those choices today.
As another administration faces an accountability moment, Democrats are right to walk gingerly through the minefield of investigation and impeachment to make sure they place the national interest above political gain. There is a moral high ground to be held, and it can be found by giving credence to that adage about no one being above the law. As the extent of Trump’s criminality becomes plain in the months ahead it will become easier to make the case for excising this administration. Democrats need to be steadfast in their commitment to that high ground, especially when the politically expedient move will be to punt.
Nor should they fall victim to Republican howls of “turn the page” that we know are coming when Trump, through removal, resignation or electoral defeat, loses the legal shield of his office. As long as legal jeopardy remains for Trump and his associates, turning the page confirms that some people are above the law and reinforces the institutional corruption that made this administration possible. For the health of the republic, to restore faith in our institutions, we need to follow the trail of corruption to the end, and if that means trying and convicting a former president, so be it. The country is strong enough. It will be stronger for not having turned away. The Constitution guarantees the president the right to a trial by a jury of his peers. Have at it. And if convicted, lock him up. Let the Constitution work.