There is a bright side to the impeachment of President Trump: It makes it easy for me, as a professor teaching moral and political philosophy, to convince my students of the value of studying the history of Western political philosophy.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) favored absolute monarchy – a form of government headed by a dictator who was supreme in the sense that there was no legal limit to his ruling powers. Such a dictator could do whatever he wanted, including randomly executing innocent people with impunity. Why did Hobbes think that such a dictator could be a legitimate ruler? He thought might makes right. Hobbes argued that any ruler who has enough physical and psychological power to rule the population through force and threat of force is legitimate.
John Locke (1632-1704), whose thoughts inspired and guided America’s Founding Fathers, rejected absolute monarchy and argued in favor of republican (small “R”) government and the rule of law (as contrasted with the “rule of men,” meaning, the arbitrary wills of particular rulers).
The thinkers in the democratic (small “D”) tradition have built upon Locke’s work. They agree with Locke that political power must be understood as a right to rule for the common good, not as an ability to rule by force and threat of force: The powers of government are to be used for everybody’s benefit, not only to benefit the ruler, the wealthy, or the powerful.
Locke argued, and democratic thinkers agree, that since everybody is liable to be biased in his own favor, nobody should be the judge in his own case. They agree with Locke that the rule of law is impossible as long as one person (whether alone or together with his family, friends, henchmen, or unscrupulous lawyers) is allowed to claim the powers (meaning rights) to make laws, implement laws, and judge and penalize violations of laws, because if they are allowed to claim all of those powers, then they can change or ignore any laws they don’t like, whenever they feel like it.
Democratic thinkers agree with Locke that if we are to have the rule of law instead of government by certain people’s arbitrary and lawless wills, there have to be separate branches of government (lawmaking or “legislative,” law-implementing or “executive,” and law-judging or “judicial”) with different people following the rules and procedures for their own official roles in these separate branches.
The USA was born in a revolution against monarchy, and the American people have aspired over the course of their history to create a more perfect democratic republic, but now this country’s president is apparently trying to become a dictator. If this sounds extreme, and if you think that nobody who looks normal, sounds familiar, and has the support of so many Americans could be trying to destroy our democratic form of government, please take a closer look at exactly what is going on in the Senate’s impeachment trial.
The case for impeachment is being presented by elected legislators who have sworn to uphold the Constitution and are carrying out constitutional duties, but the appointed legal team defending the president is using the hardball tactics of private lawyers who regard themselves as (so to speak) hired guns whose job is to win the case for their boss at any cost. Although paid by the American public through taxes, they are not acting as public servants.
In contrast, the members of Congress who presented the case for impeachment in speeches on Jan. 22-24 in the Senate (the Impeachment Managers) reminded the public about our Founding Fathers’ values and our Constitution’s separation of governmental powers, and presented evidence in support of the impeachment charges. They also called for a fair trial and argued that Trump and his lawyers should stop obstructing investigation of his actions and stop forbidding relevant witnesses (including John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney) from testifying and providing relevant documents.
The Impeachment Managers spoke only in plain language so everyone could follow their reasoning.
On the other hand, when Trump’s lawyers presented their responses in the Senate on Jan. 25, they first used plain language to tell certain blatant lies repeatedly (a propaganda technique), then for a long time they unnecessarily used legalese instead of plain language, and they also insulted the Impeachment Managers and distorted their arguments.
Lawyers hired by private citizens commonly use such hardball tactics; however, lawyers in the Department of Justice or Office of White House Counsel should not use them, since they are governmental officials. Such tactics are not allowed in philosophy; we teach students to criticize statements and arguments, not the people who express them, because otherwise we cannot have civil discussions that expose falsehoods and reveal important truths.
According to Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman, the Office of Legal Counsel is corrupt (see his recent articles in Bloomberg News). If so, and if the legal team defending Trump is obstructing justice and unconstitutionally undermining the impeachment power of our elected representatives in Congress, they are attacking our government’s system of separated powers. If they succeed, then Trump will have gained supreme legal power in this country.
The Impeachment Managers are sounding the alarm about this and calling for a fair trial. Whether they are properly motivated, and whether the evidence against Trump warrants his removal, cannot be determined without a fair trial including all relevant witnesses and documents. The Senate must not allow Trump’s lawyers to obstruct justice.
Alyssa R. Bernstein is an associate professor of philosophy and former director of the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at OU.