February 13, 2021
On the eve of Valentine’s Day, Senate Republicans today sent former president Donald Trump the biggest bouquet of flowers you can imagine. Trump was, for the second time now, acquitted of “high crimes of misdemeanors” in his failure to uphold the Constitution of the United States.
It’s surely tempting for social workers, the vast majority of whom thought Trump an abomination, a personified reversal of fifty years of progress in advancing the democratic ideals of diversity and inclusion, to come down full force on the side of Trump’s Democratic accusers. And indeed, the fig leaves that Republican Trump defenders hid behind – since Trump’s out of office, he can’t be tried; when Trump whipped up his supporters into a frenzied mob on January 6 he was exercising Constitutionally protected free speech; what Democratic House Managers called “incitement to insurrection” was really just Trump’s use of rhetorical metaphors intended to inspire peaceful protest – have been almost universally ripped away by both scholars and ordinary common sense.
But that doesn’t mean that Trump’s Democratic accusers conveyed truth via their own rhetorical flourishes. At least three tropes repeatedly referenced by Impeachment House Managers struck me as worth serious challenge by any thoughtful democratic (small “d”) citizen, and especially by social workers, responsible for exercising (or so we tell students over and over) “critical thinking skills.”
First, we heard on several occasions reference to the president as “our Commander-in-Chief.” Excuse me, but no president, neither Trump nor Biden, or any other president occupying the office during my lifetime (and at this point, that number is not small!) has been my commander-in-chief. I am a free citizen, and according to democratic republican theory, the citizens are sovereign. They collectively “command” all elected civilian officials, and one of those officials, the president of the nation, commands the military, and only the military. Too many people – and not just trigger-happy paramilitary extremists and the benighted Q-Anon faithful – seem to think that the so-called Commander-in-Chief rightfully directs everyone and everything making up the nation. That notion may apply to monarchies and fascist dictatorships alike; it does not apply, however, to a country trying to maintain a grip on democratic aspirations.
Second, Democratic House Managers suggested that the only real threat to “our great democracy” is Trump, his sycophantic Republican followers, and violent mobsters who feel justified in overthrowing election results they don’t like. Those are real threats, but surely not the only ones, or even the biggest ones. A far greater danger, in fact an essential condition of the rise of Trump and his brand of authoritarian pseudo-populism, resides in the steady erosion of democratic control of the nation’s business, and most notably regulation of an increasingly powerful corporate sector. The power of big money, flowing more or less unchecked into the political system from corporations and the ultra-rich, have turned much of government activity into a form of legalized bribery. If “democracy” means anything, it must mean that the will of the majority will win out most of the time. Yet while the majority of Americans want universal health care, we don’t get it. The people want a fairer system of taxation, but the system keeps funneling ever more money to the rich. They want investment in things public (schools, parks, public health systems, libraries, affordable housing, environmental protection), yet government sells off ever more of the commons to the rapacious private sector.
Third, impeachment Managers referred again and again to the U.S. as “the greatest country on earth.” We may need a reality check here more than anywhere. The greatest country on earth would not suffer the obscene levels of inequality that we do. The greatest country on earth would not have the highest rates of COVID-19 infection among the “advanced” nations. The greatest country on earth would not squander its wealth on trying to dominate all the other nations through military might – which is, in the final analysis, nothing other than the capacity to kill and inflict pain and chaos. The greatest country on earth would not tolerate the enduring domestic patterns of systemic racism, sexism, mass incarceration, labor exploitation, community disinvestment, gun violence, and untreated physical and mental illness that we do. The greatest country on earth would not commit planetary ecocide. No, “the greatest country on earth” simply would not.