So, on the last day of October, after weeks of preliminary investigation, the US House of Representatives voted by a convincing margin to proceed with the impeachment of a sitting President for only the third time in the country’s history. Every Republican voted against this. Those Republicans are following the line given out by the President and his staffers that this is “a witch hunt”; “unconstitutional”; “secretive”;; etc.
In this, they appear to be both partisan and misguided, not to say ignorant of the Constitution in which the profess to believe and which they are sworn to uphold. Because among America’s founding fathers were some very shrewd operators—particularly Alexander Hamilton, whose views count heavily because he was the foremost proponent of a robust presidency. But conscious of the powers that would reside with that one individual, he also harboured an abiding fear that a brazen demagogue could seize the office. That worry explains why he was the one who analysed the balancing factor of impeachment in detail: It would be required as a crucial instrument to curb possible abuses arising from extensive Presidential powers that he envisaged.
For the first 200 years, the ‘nuclear option’ of impeachment was never invoked. President after President from both parties sustained the dignity of the highest office in the land. Then came Nixon and Watergate and, in the stunning aftermath of the Vietnam War, a serious crisis of faith in the American system. Nixon at least when cornered, owned up to abuse of his office and resigned. The impeachment attempt on Clinton twenty years later, being more partisan and of less import, fizzled out.
Unlike Thomas Jefferson, with his belief in people’s common sense, Hamilton concerned himself with their “turbulent and changing” nature. He feared an unholy trinity of traits in a future president — ambition, avarice and vanity. He worried about a “restless” and “daring usurper” who would excite the “jealousies and apprehensions” of his followers. He wanted the country to be governed by “wise and illustrious figures” who would counter the fickle views of the electorate with reasoned judgments.
And so after 242 years of figures living up to the high expectations pf their office, we come to Donald J. Trump— the type of man Hamilton most dreaded: a populist demagogue who would profess friendship for the people and pander to their prejudices while secretly betraying them. Such a false prophet would foment political frenzy and try to feed off the confusion. This is immediately recognisable as Trump.
What Trump and his Republican apologists seem to forget is that the morals of business deals and reality TV do not translate well into the dignity of high office and the impartiality of representing all 330 million people under care, rather than narcissism and nepotism. Hamilton predicted there would be a Trump when he waned against:
“a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that . . . of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”
What Hamilton failed to predict was:
- a supine electoral college, stuffed with party appointees, instead of individual wise thinkers.
- a supine Senate, more concerned with protecting ‘their’ President than demanding the noble and selfless spirit Hamilton had in mind when he empowered the office.
- a supine Supreme Court who, even if impeachment happens and passes the Senate, will quash any such impeachment
But who knows? Impeachment is no terrible swift sword and may well drag beyond next year’s election. If Trump loses, it’s all academic as it will be swallowed in a wave of law suits, once Presidential immunity evaporates.
Buy if, as the smart money has it, Trump trounces whichever of the myriad Democrat contenders who wind up opposing him, the circus will continue, Trump will denounce all opposition in his voluble way and Republicans will cling to his shabby coat tails. And the sensible, noble provisions Hamilton made so conscientiously will be trampled in an undignified public bar brawl for another four years.