Yesterday’s gone

Last night, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel denounced Donald Trump, whom I call Don John of Astoria, for his failure to distance himself from pro-Nazi groups which were at the center of Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

One particular section of Mr Kimmel’s statement struck me as typical of a particular kind of less-than-ideal response to the consistently horrid and ever-more surreal events that have characterized Trumptime. As reported on Slate:

But you’ve been trying to ignore it, because you don’t want to admit to these smug, annoying liberals that they were right. That’s the last thing you want to do. But the truth is, deep down inside, you know you made a mistake. You know you picked the wrong guy. And it isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse. So you can do one of two things. You can dig in like Chris Christie at a Hometown Buffet, or you can treat the situation like you’d put Star Wars wallpaper up in the kitchen. “All right, I got caught up, I was excited, I made a mistake. And now it needs to go.”  Well, now he does need to go. So it’s time for you, especially you who voted for him, to tell him to go.

Now it may well be the case that most of the people who voted for Don John in 2016 believe that he was a bad choice and that he is a bad president now. Indeed, the majority of his voters may, deep down inside, have disapproved of him even before they cast their ballots. The one segment of the electorate with which he did best in November of 2016 was voters who thought that neither he nor Hillary Clinton was fit to be president.

That behavior is sufficient to show that believing that Don John is a bad president is a very different matter from believing that it was a mistake to vote for him in 2016, as opposed to voting for one of the other candidates who were on the ballot in that year. Third-party supporters like me may want to put our fists through our straw hats when we think of lesser-evil voting, but that is the norm in US general elections, and most voters seem to think that they are wise to engage in it.

Framing the question as “Who was the better candidate in 2016?” also impedes any attempt to focus on Don John’s particular shortcomings, however egregious those shortcomings may be. So, if we say that when a white supremacist rally dissolves in violence and homicide, a US president’s first public statement about it ought to include an unequivocal condemnation of white supremacist activism, we are likely to meet with widespread agreement across the political spectrum. If we say that Don John’s failure to respond to Charlottesville in that way is a sign that he is a worse president than Hillary Clinton would have been, we invite Trump supporters (even a Trump supporter so ambivalent as to refer to an adversary as a “Trump-like blowhard self-promoter using a current event to promote her for-profit business“) to argue that making appropriate statements in the immediate aftermath of atrocious public events is a political skill which Ms Clinton conspicuously lacks.  Sticking to the question, “Is Don John an acceptable president?,” discussion of the weaknesses of Ms Clinton or any other political figure who is not currently serving as US president can be dismissed as irrelevant.

To make the same general point in a less-inflammatory historical context, by August of 1974 President Richard Nixon had lost the support of so many Republican voters that Congress could no longer avoid impeaching him and removing him from office. If the Constitution had worked out as it was intended when it was first written, the vice president would have been the person who came second in the 1972 general election. Mr Nixon’s removal, under those circumstances, would have put Senator George McGovern in his place. In that case, the question before the people would indeed have been whether they were right to vote for Mr Nixon in 1972, or whether they ought to have voted for Mr McGovern in that year. Presented with that choice, I suspect that very few Republicans would have decided that Mr Nixon’s misdeeds warranted his removal from office.

I would emphasize that point with reference to the remark below:

If that primary season were a rerun of the primary season Republicans actually faced in 2016, with Mr Trump facing Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, etc, then of course he would still win, probably by a much wider margin. Had the Republican primaries of 1972 been replayed in the summer of 1974, I suspect that Richard Nixon would still have beaten John Ashbrook and Pete McCloskey. Mr McCloskey’s denunciation of US bombing in Vietnam as morally unacceptable made him impossible for most Republicans to support in that year, while the entire premise of Mr Ashbrook’s campaign was that the president ought to be renominated, but only after the right wing of the party had had its say. So long as those were his only opponents, it was only notionally possible for President Nixon to lose the primary contest.

Of course, those two backbench Congressmen would not have been the only challengers to the president had the Republicans actually staged a primary contest in 1974. Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller, and several other candidates would likely have stepped forward. And the fact that the original scheme of presidential succession had been replaced, first by the formation of national parties that chose separate candidates for president and vice president, then by the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution that formalized this process, and finally by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment that allowed Congress and the President to appoint a replacement when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned his office amid corruption charges in 1973, meant that the choice in 1974 was not between Richard Nixon or George McGovern, nor between Richard Nixon and some other candidate in a Republican primary, but between Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Likewise, the choice now is not between Don John of Astoria or Hillary Clinton, nor between Don John and the Republican primary field of 2016. If the question is about impeachment, the choice is between him and Vice President Michael Pence. If the question is about something short of that, the question is about the balance of power between the president and the Congress. There’s a reason why the powers of the Congress are described in Article One of the Constitution, and the amendments making up the Bill of Rights tell us that “Congress” shall not do particular things- the Congress is supposed to be, and for most of the nineteenth century clearly was, the dominant partner in the federal triad. Even now, old Washington hands are fond of the adage “The president proposes, the Congress disposes.” The Congress does in fact have the power to rein a bad president in. Wishes that last year’s election, or some other event of the past, had turned out differently do not have much power at all.

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