On March 2, 1805, a little more than a year after he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, Vice-President Aaron Burr departed the capitol extolling the U.S. Senate in elegiac terms. He called it “a sanctuary; a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty; and it is here – it is here, in this exalted refuge; here, if anywhere, will resistance be made to the storms of popular frenzy and the silent arts of corruption.” But Burr didn’t end there.
As Jon Meachum writes in “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” Burr continued in darker tones: “…and if the Constitution be destined ever to perish by the sacrilegious hands of a demagogue or the usurper, which God avert, its expiring agonies will be witnessed on this floor.”
When Senate Republicans voted to hear no witnesses or review any documents in the Trump impeachment trial and then voted to acquit, they not only witnessed “those expiring agonies” on the floor of the Senate, they caused them. By abdicating oversight of a corrupt and lawless president, they granted him the power to “do whatever he wants.”
As Adam Schiff stated, “the balance of power that our founders set out will never be the same.” And when Republicans rapturously chanted “four more years” at the State of the Union “Rally,” they sealed their willingness to betray their sworn duty under the Constitution.
Oh, some Republicans were “appalled,” or called Trump’s behavior “disappointing,” or “inappropriate.” Susan Collins actually stated that Trump had now “learned his lesson.” Some few admitted the House managers had made their case, but it “did not rise to the level of impeachment.” None, however, explained exactly what would rise to that level.
So, what would? If Trump’s extortion from Ukraine for personal political advantage and solicitation for similar aid from China or Russia did not reach their threshold for impeachment, what would? Crippling NATO to serve the interests of Putin? Pardoning or commuting sentences of criminal cronies? Encouraging foreign interference in our elections? Firing watchdog Inspectors General? Firing Attorneys General probing his own corruption? Ignoring the racist murders of unarmed black people? Ignoring Russia’s bounty on American soldiers? Deploying unidentified storm troopers to attack American citizens? Displaying breathtaking incompetence and callous indifference in the face of a nationwide pandemic?
Let’s be clear: these Republican senators would ignore any and all of these behaviors rather than anger Trump. One need only consider the way they jeered Mitt Romney – the one Republican who dared to stand on principle and religious belief; the one Republican who honored both his oath of office and the oath he took before the impeachment trial that he would “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help [me] God.” They called him a “traitor.”
If a person who stands on principle and honors an oath sworn “before God” is a traitor in the eyes of Republicans, what does that make them? Patriots? Interestingly, we venerate many such “traitors,” people who have stood alone against the corrupt, powerful forces allied against them – Jesus Christ, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Ghandi — all scorned, or persecuted, or assassinated. They remind us: heroism is tough. Republican senators remind us that cowardice is easy.
But there is a price to pay. “If right doesn’t matter,” said Adam Schiff, “it doesn’t matter how good the Constitution is. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the framers were…If right doesn’t matter, we’re lost.”
Republican senators have chosen to prostrate themselves before their “golden calf,” refusing to acknowledge what they have unleashed – a demagogue whose corrupt deeds shouted to them to honor their oath to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.” But they ignored the facts, the shouts, and their oath.
Having neutered his Republican Senate, Trump is now stampeding through the FBI and the CIA; the State Department; the Justice Department, the Federal Courts, the District Courts, Health and Human Services, Inspectors General’s offices, removing anyone who has not genuflected before him, flattered him, and sworn fealty.
If Trump’s stampede is not stopped on November 3rd, American democracy will not survive a second term. We are witnessing Aaron Burr’s nightmare: The Senate he praised as “citadel of law, of order, and of liberty,” a citadel that would resist “the storms of popular frenzy and the silent arts of corruption,” has itself been swept away by the popular frenzy of Trumpism, seduced by “the silent arts of corruption.”
Worse, these Republican senators are not simply witnesses to the “Constitution perishing by the sacrilegious hands of a demagogue,” they are complicit in its “expiring agonies.” Ethically and politically sclerotic, Republican senators have unleashed Trump’s authoritarian fantasies, setting him free to roam unfettered – an unbridled agent of incompetence, cruelty, and confusion.