Note from Bill Moyers: I’m pleased to officially welcome Steven Harper to our site. Steven retired early from a successful career as a litigator to write — and write he has done, including two acclaimed books — The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis and Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story (a Chicago Tribune “Best Book of the Year”). He’s currently working on another, from which I’ve read some riveting excerpts, about the recent downfall of a New York law firm once led by two-time presidential candidate New York Gov. Thomas Dewey.
Steven Harper blogs at his site The Belly of the Beast, contributes regularly to the monthly magazine The American Lawyer, and is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. When I read one of his short essays recently and some of his work on his current book project, I invited him to contribute a series of articles providing insights into current events. You can follow him here on our site and on Twitter at @StevenJHarper1.
— Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)
Ordinary citizens searching for the convenient satisfaction of immediate necessity are Donald Trump’s unwitting allies in an unseen war on democracy. It’s difficult to blame them. Most Americans are busy leading frenetic lives. In sound bites, they receive what passes for news; there’s no time to confirm its veracity. Politicians like Trump tell them what they want to hear; it pleases them. But quick solutions displace efforts to understand complicated challenges for which there are no easy answers.
Short-term convenience can produce long-term peril. Waiting for Trump’s America to reveal itself assures his victory and the republic’s loss. Perhaps more precisely, it could assure the loss of the republic. Successfully resisting the dangerous Donald Trump requires united action toward a common goal, thoughtful strategy and flexible tactics.
The objective of The Trump Resistance Plan (TRP) must transcend America’s politics and culture wars. Citizens of good will across the political spectrum will always disagree on matters of public concern. That’s healthy democracy.
The larger battle at hand pits democracy against an unknown fate. Throughout the world, populist nationalism is joining with authoritarian leaders to upend longstanding democracies. To repel this historic assault on our shores, the TRP proposes a goal that should find universal acceptance among Republicans, Democrats and independents.
For 230 years, two norms have anchored American democracy. One is that elections must be free of foreign interference. Another is that the presidency must be free of institutionalized corruption. Trump is undermining both. The TRP’s single goal is to preserve those norms.
The importance of the first is clear. America sought independence from the tyranny of remote rule. Foreign agents that subvert our most important democratic process — voting — are enemies. Any citizen giving aid or comfort to the enemy commits treason. Trump’s belittling of US intelligence conclusions that Russia hacked the election to help him win seems to qualify.
The second norm distinguishes the United States from countries where tyrants increase personal wealth and power at the expense of the people. That principle, too, has roots in the founding of our nation as a rebellion against a king and his corrupt government. Even the appearance that presidential acts are for sale is incompatible with democracy. Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, liquidate his business holdings and relinquish his finances to a truly independent blind trust violates that norm.
No patriot can reasonably resist the TRP’s goal. After all, it’s not tit-for-tat politics designed to exact revenge for Republican recalcitrance during President Obama’s eight years, although some might prefer that myopic mission. Policy outcomes are important. But the current stakes are greater than the ebb and flow of typical political battles.
To succeed in eradicating two norms that underpin American democracy, Trump requires a compliant Republican Congress. Many GOP members opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy. They knew he lacked the experience and temperament to govern. Rationalizing that anything — even an erratic, irrational and self-aggrandizing Trump — was better than Hillary Clinton, almost all of those detractors succumbed to his bullying and fell in line.
Now some of those same Republicans have learned that they were actually falling in line with Vladimir Putin. That alone should create a case of buyer’s remorse. But Trump can offer them a deal. They get his support for the hard-right policies that many Republicans have wanted for years. In return, all they have to give him is what he wants: fracturing the two central norms of American democracy. Perhaps some of them now realize that they are playing out a script for which only Putin, Trump and his minions know the ending.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) doesn’t care. He wants Trump’s deal. Sorting out conflicts of interest for members of what will become the wealthiest Cabinet in modern history is a big job. The absence of a thorough Trump transition team vetting process makes it even bigger than usual. But McConnell is working with Team Trump to give the Office of Government Ethics — and the American people — the bum’s rush.
Putin’s stain on Trump’s election is permanent. Everything that he does as president comes with a taint. Everything. Likewise, his failure to eliminate his conflicts of interest means that every presidential act brings with it a presumption of corruption. Any member of Congress who supports legislation that he signs on any subject gets dragged deeper into his mud.
The two norms he seeks to destroy are threshold issues for the moral authority of his office. Whether his actions take the form of appointments, signing legislation or issuing executive orders does not matter. All are fruit of a poisonous Trump election tree. Whether the subject is health care, tax reform, trade or anything else, the stench of election scandal and a presumption of corrupting financial conflicts of interest hang over everything he touches.
Surely a handful of Republican senators can find sufficient strength to become profiles in courage. It takes only three heroes to flip his 52-48 margin in the Senate into a bulwark that protects liberty from his assault. Then he’d have to deal with those representing the majority of voters who wanted someone else in the Oval Office. That won’t eliminate his Putin election cloud or the taint of his presumed self-dealing, but it’s a start.
Shortly after the election, The New York Times’ editorial board wrote that it was “ready to support” Trump, “without denying the many disgraceful things he did and said to get elected, the promises he may or may not keep, the falsehoods he peddled that were either delusions or lies.”
Such compartmentalization is treacherous. Character is destiny. The country cannot allow Donald Trump’s character to determine its destiny. In his battle to obliterate the two norms without which democracy cannot exist, every conscientious citizen should force him and his minions to fight for every inch of ground.
No shot has been fired, but make no mistake: the war for America began on Nov. 8.
Turn off your reality-TV shows, folks; this is real.
This is Part 2 in a series by Steven Harper. Read the other posts in the series: Trump Resistance Plan.