Donald Trump’s Republican congressional allies are throwing up different defenses against impeachment and hoping that something may sell. They say that he didn’t seek a corrupt political bargain with Ukraine, but that if he did, he failed, and the mere attempt is not impeachable. Or that it is not clear that he did it, because the evidence against him is unreliable “hearsay.”
It’s all been very confusing. But the larger story — the crucial constitutional story — is not the incoherence of the president’s defense. It is more that he and his party are exposing limits of impeachment as a response to the presidency of a demagogue.
The founders feared the demagogue, who figures prominently in the Federalist Papers as the politician who, possessing “perverted ambition,” pursues relentless self-aggrandizement “by the confusions of their country.” The last of the papers, Federalist No. 85, linked demagogy to its threat to the constitutional order — to the “despotism” that may be expected from the “victorious demagogue.” This “despotism” is achieved through systematic lying to the public, vilification of the opposition and, as James Fenimore Cooper wrote in an essay on demagogues, a claimed right to disregard “the Constitution and the laws” in pursuing what the demagogue judges to be the “interests of the people.”
Should the demagogue succeed in winning the presidency, impeachment in theory provides the fail-safe protection. And yet the demagogue’s political tool kit, it turns out, may be his most effective defense. It is a constitutional paradox: The very behaviors that necessitate impeachment supply the means for the demagogue to escape it. Read more…