Don’t be fooled; the 2020 election isn’t about the economy, or health care, or whether America is finally willing to stop holding female candidates to double standards about how “likable” they are.
(Well, it’s maybe about that last one, but that’s another story.)
To some extent, the election isn’t even a referendum on President Donald Trump’s performance as a leader. The key question voters are confronting in 2020 is simpler: Do rules matter?
The President’s conduct reinforces for the public the false idea that rules and laws simply do not matter when you disagree with them (profoundly ironic from an individual who once branded himself the “law and order candidate“). Rules exist to provide a basic sense of order in society, and reasonable minds can differ about what a common set of laws and rules ought to be. For instance, any family that has agreed to modify one of the rules governing the board game Monopoly on game night can attest that sometimes it is OK for rules to be fluid. But the game works only when all parties recognize its basic framework. For the game to work, one Monopoly player cannot unilaterally decide to start playing three card monte and then attack the rules of Monopoly as “rigged” and a “witch hunt.”
As the President faces an impeachment inquiry, he, like any individual facing a serious allegation, has a right to mount a robust defense. However, President Trump’s behavior toward those tasked with congressional oversight and investigations into his personal conduct, and his attitude toward the current congressional impeachment inquiry are all rooted in the same idea: that our country’s basic systems themselves are illegitimate. In doing so, he is manipulating both public mistrust of government, and a general misunderstanding of the fact that the President’s power and immunity are not unlimited. (The notion that the president’s power has guard rails is not new; in 1788, Alexander Hamilton took pains in Federalist No. 69 to lay out all the reasons why the president is not, in fact, a king with absolute power over government.)
To review: On countless occasions,this President has chosen to respond to rules or norms he didn’t agree with by openly defying them or challenging their legitimacy. For instance, every other presidential candidate since Richard Nixon has made his or her tax returns available for public review. While his initial refusal to do so may have been benign (nothing under the law requires a candidate’s tax returns to be made public), the President has now been ordered by two federal courts to release them to prosecutors in response to a valid subpoena. He continues to refuse.
His behavior in the context of other legal proceedings has been more troubling. First, he has presided over a historic stonewalling of efforts by Congress to exercise its constitutional duty to oversee the executive branch. Long before he was threatened with impeachment, he and his aides refused to turn over documents, refused to testify and made claims of privilege that are thin at best in staggering attempts to avoid any cooperation with Congress. His stated reason? That any step Congress takes toward him constitutes “presidential harassment.”
His behavior toward Congress’ impeachment inquiry is even more shameful. For instance, our nation has a robust whistleblower protection law — crafted in the 1980s and strengthened over the years — to encourage government workers to expose illegality, waste and corruption without fear of repercussions on the job. The President has repeatedly called for the public outing of the whistleblower — potentially dangerous conduct in this climate that would flout the law’s protections against reprisal.
According to the Washington Post, he has also reportedly sought to stop individuals from speaking with Congress, devised ways to publicly criticize witnesses who have testified and even enlisted members of Congress to attack the credibility of individuals in his own administration.
If the President wins re-election in 2020, it will be precisely on the strength of his having attacked and undermined basic civic systems — the free press, the courts, the legislative branch. The public will have every reason, therefore, to lose even more faith in the rule of law. Public trust in government is already historically low, with Pew research identifying that only 17% of Americans say they trust government (down from a high of 77% in the Johnson administration in 1964).
The President’s greatest victory in office — far more than his border or tax policy — has been his success at whipping up his supporters to mistrust government and the basic structures that organize it.
In addition, following a Trump victory, future candidates would have every incentive to disregard the social order as we once knew it. The idea that the branches of government are independent of each other, and ought to keep each others’ excesses in check, has sustained the country to this point. But it has required leaders to recognize the power of others in our government.
If a future president could avoid any scrutiny, why wouldn’t he or she? Likewise, if that president could avoid ever having his or her subordinates held accountable for their actions, why not? And if all future presidents knew they could essentially deputize foreign governments in thumbing the scale in American elections, wouldn’t they choose to do so? It would almost be irrational not to.
None of this is to say that to have faith in government, one must believe that the President needs to be impeached. All legal matters turn on human judgment and human fallibility. However, we all should be able to agree that in order to even ask whether someone has done something wrong, we ought to trust courts, Congress and the rules that govern them. If we can’t, we will have lost some of the most basic structures on which civil societies are built.
Dozens of people are running for the presidency right now, and there are real policy differences between them. Understanding these issues will be critical, but at stake is a far more basic question: Are we a nation of laws? The answer should be obvious.
Sadly, the past three years of the President’s conduct have made clear that it isn’t.