Our institutions will not save us

Let history and the 25th amendment inform efforts toward impeachment

Illustration by Los Angeles artist Sandow Birk

Shortly after Donald Trump took office, there was a rash of hot takes by “Resistance” pundits like Keith Olbermann explaining how the majority of the Cabinet could constitutionally remove Trump from office. 

Here’s what section four of the 25th Amendment says: 

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

The closest historical analogy to this scenario may be when Louisiana removed Gov. Earl Long, another populist, due to mental unfitness. Some people say the reason was his affair with famous Baltimore stripper Blaze Starr, but A.J. Liebling’s spectacular profile shows how much of it had to do with his nascent attempts to introduce something like civil rights into the deeply Southern state.

At any rate, Earl Long was committed to the state mental hospital, but he was able to get out by firing the director and hiring another. He was able to regain power. 

The 25th Amendment also has mechanisms whereby Trump could regain power after being ousted — but more on that in a minute — because as Russia fever has intensified, talk has turned to impeachment, or even, in the most ridiculous cases popularized by gullible internet sleuths like Louise Mensch and Claude Taylor, sealed indictments. Over the past year, leftists started loving the FBI. 

What a year it has been since the dark night when the Democrats lost to Trump. And now, still lacking a serious vision, the Democrats will use the promise of impeachment as an election strategy to try to take the House in 2018. 

It’s good to believe in the strength of our institutions and to think they may be stronger than the people who enact them — but it is also foolhardy not to recognize that our institutions brought us Trump in the first place and that they are helmed by a bunch of shitheels more concerned about their own power than about the country.  

Let’s just step back and think about precisely who we are hoping might carry out these actions.

In the case of impeachment, you are essentially placing your hopes in Paul Ryan and one of the most noxious Republican congresses imaginable. Remember how much courage Ryan showed about Trump’s sexist, racist and authoritarian remarks during the campaign? Yeah, me neither. 

Now, if he could also impeach Pence, well, then maybe he would consider it — it would be his ascent to power. But any committed Republican knows that if you were to impeach a sitting president, his vice president would be doomed, forever associated with the high crimes and misdemeanors of the impeached POTUS. 

Even if the Dems manage to take back the House — and they won’t — they would turn an impeachment into a political war, and the Senate, which they almost certainly will not regain, would not vote to convict. Like the impeachment of Bill Clinton, it would be a hollow victory. 

Also, the Democrats are nothing if not cowards. When Trump dissed John Lewis before the inauguration, plenty of Democrats lauded his heroism 50 years earlier, but not a single one of them was willing to be arrested. During health care protests, they watched as people were dragged from their assistive devices without stepping in to risk their own bodies in the way that courageous activists did. 

And for the 25th Amendment our chances are even worse. Yes, Rex Tillerson probably called Trump a “fucking moron.” But that does not mean he is going to save you. Neither will the generals. Seriously, look at what you’re thinking if you think military figures can save us. What about Jeff Sessions or Betsy DeVos? When you invoke the 25th Amendment, these are the people you are counting on. These are the people to whom you are abdicating your political will and conscience. 

Covering Trump and the so-called Resistance for the last year, I’ve learned one thing: If we really want to stop Trump, it is up to us. He is betting that the constant stream of outrage will wear us down and make us quit caring, as has happened in Putin’s Russia. 

And it is exhausting. But instead of sinking into the private sphere, putting our heads down and hoping we make it through, we can begin to stop the private sphere from functioning, we can invade it and disrupt ordinary life. We can make the country quit working and thereby force the establishment to work for us.  

Back when Neil Gorsuch was first nominated, I talked to writer Lawrence Weschler, who covered the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s and has seen the people bring down a regime. He argued that the only solution was mass mobilization.

“We all need to start training for civil disobedience,” he said. “We have to have people being arrested everywhere … 500 a day arrested at the Congress, arrested at the Supreme Court, arrested at the White House.” 

Weschler argued that it can’t just be the political activists of antifa or Black Lives Matter that are getting arrested, but “everybody who attended to the Women’s March.” 

“If you want to normalize something it’s got to be a thing that 30 years from now your grandchildren will look at you and say, ‘Did you at least let yourself get arrested?’” he said. 

If we start to flood the jails in large numbers, something will happen. It may not happen because of all of the training and organizing — but it also would not happen without it. As with Solidarity or the Arab Spring, something will happen and it will be the spark to all of that wood we have been stacking. At that moment, you will either be there or not. You will be with us or you will be with Trump. Those are the only choices — not only for us but also for the members of Congress, the cabinet secretaries, the generals and the FBI agents we have been fantasizing about for the last year. They will do nothing unless we force them. 

And in that force, we could not only depose a mad president, but also reclaim our democracy. Or claim it, even, for the first time. 

If we do not do this there will be more battles in the street. There will be doom.

Baynard Woods is an author and the founder Democracy in Crisis, a syndicated column and podcast that “takes the alt back from the right.” Find more of his work at democracyincrisis.com.

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