Today, Impeachment; Tomorrow, Riot!

First of all, on the level of asinine practicality: impeach the motherfucker, obviously.  There’s no shortage of evidence of blatant and willful criminality and misconduct (and “abuse or violation of public some public trust,” which is the Constitutional threshold[1]).  A Congressional subpoena from an impeachment inquiry could unearth a lot more.  It will not galvanize Trump’s base any more than they are already galvanized, regardless of what Nancy Pelosi and the New York Times tell you.  It will make the Democrats look incrementally less cynical.  Even if he remains in office (which, unless something major changes, he will), the strained credibility of the right-wing Senate will be shattered, which will ultimately be good news.  And under scrutiny of subpoena, his freedom to maneuver will only decrease, which means the left will have more freedom to undermine him.  This should go without saying.

But as we discuss impeachment, which is basically a matter of self-preservation, we find ourselves already trapped the political elite’s insidious bind: impeachment, our best possible option at this moment, will still ultimately protect corruption at the highest levels of our society.

The impeachment of Donald Trump is so self-evidently necessary that decent and reasonable people across the left have found cause to rejoice this week when House Speaker Pelosi finally stepped back from her long-held refusal to hold the President in any way legally accountable.  It seemed, perhaps, that Pelosi was finally bowing to the reason of the young, popular, progressive wing of her party (you know, those four women of color she so loves following to photo-shoots yet still finds scorn for in the tired pages of Maureen Dowd).[2]  Pelosi has, of course, already blocked Articles of Impeachment against President Trump from coming to a vote in the House of Representatives three times – most recently in July, when 95 Congressional Democrats called for impeachment after the President told four brown-skinned Congresswomen to “go back where they came from.”    But on Tuesday, when she announced her support for an official impeachment inquiry, many found cause for hope in what seemed like a change of heart.

In fact, the Speaker did not “come to her senses” on impeachment – from blocking Congressman Al Green’s Articles of Impeachment to parading her own, what seems to be an opportunistic flip-flop is really a deeply consistent defense of power.

In our excitement to impeach the motherfucker, we can not forget precisely why Donald Trump is in the Congressional frying pan this time.  Last week, the Washington Post reported that according to an intelligence source, Trump had given an unnamed foreign leader “a ‘promise’ that was regarded as so troubling troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint.”[3]  In their reporting, the Post (with characteristic gusto) reminded readers that Trump had recently communicated with both Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, strongly insinuating that one of the two hostile despots could have provoked such a panic.  Two days later, more reports revealed that the foreign leader was revealed to be neither Russian nor North Korean, but President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, a staunch American ally.  Trump has now openly admitted (in fact, released a phone transcript as evidence) that he and several high ranking administration officials asked Zelensky to open an investigation into charges of corruption against former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.  Trump’s request was accompanied by a strong implication that he would unfreeze military aid to the Ukraine that had been previously allocated by the United States Congress, as long as Zelensky cooperated.

Here, several points are worth noting:

  • Again, in terms of asinine practicality: obviously, it’s illegal. An individual is using the political power of the United States government to guarantee a personal political gift (that is, an emolument, explicitly outlawed in Article I, section 9 of the Constitution).  He broke the law, yet again, and he answers to no legal body or practice except Congressional impeachment.  If a working class American can lose their job for an unpaid library fine, the President of the United States should lose his job for violating the Constitution.  So impeach the motherfucker.
  • The military aid Trump implied he would unfreeze is a $391 million sale of weapons (including 210 Javelin missiles) promised by Congress in May, with the firm support of both the Democratic and Republican Parties. These weapons were to be used against pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass.  Since 2014, the US-backed Ukrainian government and Russian-backed insurgents have battled in east Ukraine, killing around 13,000 people[4] and displacing many times that, with both sides deploying assassinations, racial terror, and neo-fascist paramilitary groups.  Trump’s original move to freeze the aid this summer was widely seen as a pro-Putin concession and condemned by the foreign policy establishment; when he released the weapons on September 12, members of Congress (both Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin) celebrated the President’s decision.  Members of both political parties, especially those with ties to the weapons industry, have an interest in the executive’s smooth execution of arms sales, and both parties have cause for concern when the President arbitrarily (or politically) holds up these sales.  Members of both political parties, especially those with ties to intelligence agencies, also have an interest in a reanimated Cold War against Putin’s Russia, and have cause for concern when the President arbitrarily (or politically) offers Putin concessions.
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Risen points out in a recent piece for the Intercept that Trump’s accusations against Hunter Biden are not new – in 2015, Risen wrote in the New York Times that when then-Vice President Biden traveled to Ukraine “to encourage a more aggressive fight against Ukraine’s rampant corruption and stronger efforts to rein in the power of its oligarchs…[his] anticorruption message may have been undermined by the association of his son, Hunter Biden.”[5] Hunter Biden, Joe’s multi-millionaire lobbyist son, had joined the board of the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma in 2014; Burisma’s executive, Mykola Zlochevsky, had served as Ecology Minister under Ukraine’s former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovitch, and possibly embezzled $23 million from the Ukrainian government.  Of course, Hunter is (in Risen’s words) the “black sheep” of the Biden family, long embarrassing his president-hopeful father with cocaine use and lawsuits; there is no evidence that Joe Biden (as Trump, Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani, and the Breitbart spin machine have claimed) interfered in Ukrainian politics to protect his son from investigation.  It is also the case that Joe’s claim to have “never spoken to my son about his overseas dealings” (which include not just the Burisma corruption case but investment in the Chinese government’s Xinjiang concentration camps) seems to be contradicted in a recent conversation between Hunter and the New Yorker.[6]

These points illuminate a central difference between the present discussion of impeachment, spearheaded by an intelligence community whistleblower alongside the Democratic Congressional leadership, and the unsuccessful previous attempts by movement-backed progressive insurgents within the Democratic caucus.

The distinction is not one of legal imperative, though as the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi alone in the world has the capacity and obligation to enforce the law as it applies to our head of state.  There has never been a shortage of legal justification for an impeachment proceeding, the President flagrantly breaks the law all the time, and hurts people while he does so – remember just last month when, according to the Post, he “told worried subordinates that he will pardon them of any potential wrongdoing should they have to break laws”[7] while targeting undocumented immigrants from Latin America?  But in all the hundreds of violations of Constitutional and treaty duties Donald Trump has committed – bombing civilians in wars that never got Congressional approval, banning immigrants and refugees based on their personal faith, separating children from their parents and keeping them in cages without any regard for due process of law, unilaterally scuttling international action on disarmament and climate change, privatizing ecological preserves and disaster relief programs only to sell them off to his sycophants – the victims have been the same: poor people, people who can’t afford lobbyists, people with no meaningful franchise or voice in our “beacon of democracy.”  Their would-be defenders, young and inexperienced politicians who somehow scraped their way into office not through money laundering but through popular democracy, are to Pelosi and her ilk illegitimate harbingers of justice: recall how when newly-elected Democratic Socialist Detroit Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib first promised to “impeach the motherfucker,” Pelosi responded “I don’t like that language” before adding, “I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country.”

Should we be in any way surprised by reports Wednesday that Pelosi and the Democratic leadership decided in a closed-door meeting to “narrow” the focus of the House’s impeachment enquiry, to avoid broader subpoenas and focus exclusively on President Trump’s direct conversation with President Zelensky?  Never forget that to Pelosi and her ilk, previous attacks on Trump hinged on specific allegations of treasonous collusion with Vladimir Putin against the national security apparatus, and when the Mueller investigation found those allegations to be more or less baseless, Trump was able to pronounce himself exonerated in the face of a “witch hunt” by the “Deep State.”  That they would yet again restrain their investigative power to esoteric and far-off politicking with Eastern Bloc villains displays a desperate and willful effort to avoid prosecuting the President for his multitudinous crimes against any truly vulnerable people anywhere on the planet.

Speaker Pelosi understands that her political constituency is not bombed civilians or deported refugees or species racing to extinction, and she’ll be damned if she throws her legacy and political capital into a struggle to defend those “special interest groups” from even the most horrendous and illegal abuses the Republican junta can dole out.  But, if Donald Trump should go after items Pelosi’s constituents (that is, ultra-rich donors and PACs from whom she raised over $80 million in the 2018 election cycle alone)[8] do care about – if Trump should, say, throw arbitrary wrenches into the gears of the seamless sale of weapons that kill, or worse if he should poke around in the personal business of politicians who have built a thin curtain of respectability over a sturdy scaffold of pseudo-laundered pseudo-legal capital; in short, if he should dare to make that which functions as a bipartisan apolitical consensus suddenly political – that would be outrageous enough to stir the Democratic Party behemoth from its decades of slumber.

Let’s not mince words.  Pelosi resisted impeachment when it was a demand from the bottom up, when movements pushed the most democratically accountable politicians to protect the most vulnerable from the most powerful.  But when the most powerful find themselves under threat – when Joe Biden and global arms dealers fear they may be threatened by the President’s abuses of power, the same way working class and marginalized people are threatened by the President’s abuses of power – Pelosi is willing to step in to protect them.  Again, this is not to say Pelosi is wrong to begin impeachment proceedings – quite the opposite.  But as we seize this opportunity to curtail the powers of a dangerously unstable gun thug and the deranged class of supercapitalists he represents, a laudable goal, we should do so fully aware that the mechanism of impeachment will do nothing to temper the underlying matrices of corruption and brutal class-war criminality that brought Trump to power in the first place.  Impeachment is designed to preserve the legitimacy of those structures, to protect them, if need be, from occasional overzealous abuse by those with almost limitless power.

This is not just a result of Nancy Pelosi’s personal penchant for cowardice and bootlicking (though if you find that interesting, read Ryan Grim’s recent book We’ve Got People).[9]  The present moment is merely an echo.  When, in 1974, Richard Nixon became the first (and so far, the only) American president to step down in the face of impeachment, it was not because of his brutal efforts to spy on and disrupt the civil rights, black power, and antiwar movements, or because of his unconstitutional campaigns to overthrow the Chilean government and bomb millions to death across southeast Asia without Congressional approval.  These crimes were par for the course, comparable to those by the preceding Johnson administration, and generally conducive to increasing returns on global capital.  The first resolution calling for Nixon’s impeachment, put forward by Massachusetts Congressman Robert Drinan, cited the illegal carpet-bombing of Cambodia – it was thoroughly rejected by the House Judiciary Committee.  Only after it was revealed Nixon had, in a fit of paranoia and pique, ordered a break-in and wiretap at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters was the Democratic Congress willing to impeach.  Only when his victims were powerful politicians was Nixon, a man responsible for the slaughter of millions, seen as unfit for office.  Noam Chomsky, writing at the time, observed, “If we try to keep a sense of balance, the exposures of the past several months are analogous to the discovery that the directors of Murder Inc. were also cheating on their income taxes.  Reprehensible, to be sure, but hardly the main point.”[10]

In 1794, crowds filled the streets of New York City burning effigies of George Washington and demanding his impeachment after our first president illegally pressured the head of the Supreme Court, John Jay, to negotiate a secret and unpopular treaty with the British Crown.  A writer using the pseudonym Pittachus wrote in Benjamin Franklin’s Aurora General Advisor that there were

important purposes to be gained by even a vote of impeachment.  It would convince the world that we are free and that we are determined to remain so.  It would be a solemn and awful lesson to future Presidents: it would exact a scrupulous administration…of the Constitution; it would give confidence to the people in the government; it would exact a respect for the laws, and it would impress the strongest conviction of the virtue of our representatives and the justice of our country.[11]

Idealistic as he was, Pittachus must have been somewhat naïve in his reading of the Constitution if he truly believed the power of impeachment was a “determination to remain free.”  Anti-Federalists arguing against ratification of the Constitution did not share his naïveté.  They had already pointed out the contradiction in making the Legislature the sole body capable of punishing the executive: what if the President’s interests in wrongdoing should happen to coincide with the interest of the Congress voted in with him?  What if Senate aristocrats or House populists find themselves complicit in Presidential misconduct?  Alexander Hamilton’s response in the sixty-sixth Federalist Paper is uncharacteristically frank in its totalitarian ambition: “it is essential to the freedom and to the necessary independence of the deliberations of the body, that the members of it should be exempt from punishment for acts done in a collective capacity.”[12]  By enshrining Congressional impeachment in the very Constitution as the singular mechanism for curtailing executive excesses, the Framers guaranteed that politicians would forever be accountable only to politicians.  Occasionally a loose cannon could be reigned in by his more reasonable peers, but systemic rot would forever be protected.  Because impeachment is a Congressional prerogative, it can only ever reflect the interests of the political class – not, by definition, the democratic polis.

The idealists of the Aurora General Advisor were, like even the most earnest liberals, unable to anticipate the dynamics of class politics.  Less than a decade into the life of the United States government, a political elite had already emerged with interests quite distinct from “the public good.”  Washington was never impeached because his illegal treaty made trade easier for the wealthy, and because it was tacitly supported by the rich and powerful in both houses of Congress – public sentiment be damned.  Forty-four administrations of ruthless secrecy and criminality later, and the only three sincere stabs at impeachment were largely show fights over propriety.  Nobody was impeached over the Trail of Tears, over the lies that launched wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Mexico, or the Philippines, over mass surveillance or the blatant disregard for human life that pushed neoliberal welfare reform.  Nixon was impeached for trying to steal from top Democrats.  Andrew Johnson was impeached for trying to fire his cabinet members.  Bill Clinton was impeached for failing to cover up his sexual misconduct.  Donald Trump might get impeached for going after Joe Biden.  The extreme violence and exploitation inherent to the American state and empire goes unchallenged by institutions of political power, because (regardless of the letter of the law) extreme violence and exploitation is the function of institutions of political power.  A Congress that embraces war and austerity, however criminal and anti-democratic those commitments may be, will never impeach a president for embracing war and austerity.  A Congress that opposes democratic accountability will never impeach a president in response to the popular imperatives of democratic self-governance.

Bear in mind Gramsci’s conception of corruption as a state of control that exists between smoothly manufactured consent and brute force, “characteristic of certain situations when it is hard to exercise the hegemonic function, and when the use of force is too risky.”[13]  This description fits the nature of political machinery in deteriorating American capitalism better now than ever before.  Too committed to ruling class neoliberalism to depend on popular consent, too ensconced in the rhetoric of freedom and prosperity to resort to totalitarian violence, the enormous majority of American politicians survive only through a tight mesh of corruption, protected only by the promise of mutual ruin if rivals threaten to unveil them.  It is impossible to overstate the irony in the fact that Donald Trump, perhaps the most corrupt individual ever to become President of the United States, could soon be impeached for investigating the corruption of his rivals.

Again, by all means, impeach the motherfucker!  I’m as excited as anybody to see power back in the hands of those at least nominally constrained by the boundaries of legitimacy – the left can wrestle more out of a Democrat (or even an unpopular establishment Republican like Mike Pence) than it can out of Trump and his mob of fascist wannabes.  But to set in motion the conditions for a just and survivable future, we will need to do more than wait for one sect of corrupt politicians to blow the whistle on another.  We must hold those at the helm of our civilization to a higher standard than that set by our anti-democratic Constitution – rulers should not fear their fellow rulers, but cower in existential terror of those they presume to rule!  Until not only the Trumps of the world, but the Bidens and the Pelosis as well, fear the threat of true popular accountability – accountability we can demand not in parliamentary procedures but in the streets, through mass movement – they have no reason to change course.  Today, impeachment; tomorrow, riot!

[1] As explicated by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers: Number 65.  The Constitution specifically does not demand a criminal charge or burden of evidence, demanding impeachment for “Treason, Bribery, or other Crimes and Misdemeanors.”  Article II, section 4.

[2] Recall, too, how after Dowd wrote a column celebrating the Speaker for not giving into the “primal pleasure” of impeachment, she made a curious case against pro-impeachment Congresswomen as not sufficiently anti-Trump: “If A.O.C. and her Pygmalions and acolytes decide that burning down the House is more important than deposing Trump, they will be left with a racist backward president and the emotional satisfaction of their own purity.”  Maureen Dowd, “Scaling Wokeback Mountain,” New York Times, July 13, 2019.

[3] Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Shane Harris, “Trump’s communications with foreign leader are part of whistleblower complaint that spurred standoff between spy chief and Congress, former officials say,” Washington Post, September 18, 2019.

[4] According to Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, “Report on the Human Rights Condition in Ukraine, 16 February to 15 March 2019,” 6, n22.

[5] James Risen, “Joe Biden, His Son, and the Case Against a Ukrainian Oligarch,” New York Times, December 8, 2015.  See also Risen, “I Wrote About the Bidens and Ukraine Years Ago. Then the Right-Wing Spin Machine Turned the Story Upside Down,” Intercept, September 25, 2019.

[6] Not enough is made of the fact that Hunter claims his father knew about the potential Burisma corruption, contradicting Joe’s public statements, in the overall soft-punching article by Adam Entous, “Will Hunter Biden Jeopardize His Father’s Campaign?” New Yorker, July 1, 2019.

[7] Nick Miroff and Josh Dawsey, “‘Take the land’: President Trump wants a border wall. He wants it black. And he wants it by Election Day,” Washington Post, August 27, 2019.

[8] Will Lennon, “Pelosi’s prowess as a fundraiser helps her secure speakership,” OpenSecrets, November 28, 2018.

[9] Ryan Grim, We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to AOC, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement (Washington, D.C.: Strong Arm Press, 2019).

[10] Noam Chomsky, “Watergate: A Skeptical View,” in The Essential Chomsky, ed. Anthony Arnove (New York: The New Press, 2008), 140.

[11] This quote first came to my attention in James Roger Sharp, “George Washington’s ‘Precedent,’” Washington Post, March 18, 1974, the source is a column in the Aurora General Advisor credited to Pittachus, October 25, 1795.

[12] Hamilton, The Federalist Papers: Number 65.

[13] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 80n.

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