by Josh Fattal
The current impeachment inquiry should be understood as a preemptive strike against a dictator in waiting. Across the world, protesters confronting social systems run by dictators have chanted the now famous lines of the unending Arab Spring “the people demand the fall of the regime.” In Iran, the protesters in 2009 decried the unfair elections with the popular call, “where is my vote,” but more recently they cut right to the chase, demanding the fall of the regime. Though unprecedented numbers flocked to the streets in anger upon Trump’s inauguration, it took the foot-dragging Democratic Party three years to demand Trump’s removal. As in every social movement the world over, the campaign to end the ruling regime contains multiple tendencies—from opportunistic calls for the replacement of one ruling clique with another to demands for revolutionary levels of social reconstruction. And, as in cases around the world, removing such a regime in the U.S.—especially at this crucial moment before it entrenches itself—would displace an important roadblock to radical attempts to establish a more equal society.
The arrival of a dictatorially-minded President should not come as a surprise in light of trends in U.S. history. From the state’s inception, monarchical tendencies had a powerful sway and in the ensuing hundreds of years, federal authority and the executive office in particular have commandeered ever-increasing levels of power. Counteracting this tendency, grassroots political activists have contested that power and, in important moments such as the political skirmishes over ratifying the Constitution, democratic impulses have gained important successes. The ability to impeach the President is a small but important legacy of that democratic impulse, and today, it is a legacy most ardently picked up by those members of Congress who want to establish a democracy that works for everyone.
Trump has now publicly “joked” about being “president for life” six times. It is not even a public secret that Trump admires dictatorial rule and the strong hands of foreign leaders Duterte, Putin, el-Sisi, and Erdogan. In 2016, Trump made plain that he would not concede to electoral defeat. His party keeps testing the tactics for subverting elections and undermining their credibility. The Kentucky Republican candidate, for example, contested the recent election by vaguely claiming “irregularities” and Trump initiated an ill-fated Presidential Advisory Committee on Election Integrity, the “voter fraud commission,” only months after his inauguration. The GOP realizes that their elitist agenda is deeply unpopular and has long waged a campaign focused on voter suppression and disenfranchisement. Trump, who lost the popular vote, is the logical expression of this campaign.
The Republican Party knows that their effort to hold on to the vast levers of government power which they have accessed in recent years is contingent on subverting free and fair elections. Recall the 2018 election. Trump declared an “immigration crisis” and brought a military presence into vulnerable communities before election day. The Voting Rights Act has been eviscerated since the landmark 2013 Supreme Court ruling Shelby County v. Holder, and Republicans have taken advantage of the resulting lax oversight to suppress the vote. On election day, voting machines did not work, electricity ran out, polling stations in areas of a Democratic majority had been closed, and voting lines stretched around the block, especially in neighborhoods with reliably Democratic Black voters. Gerrymandering has reached beyond the point of absurdity. The cravenly undemocratic ethos of the Republican Party is reaching new heights in their desperation to retain power at any cost. In the important swing state of North Carolina, state Republicans stripped an incoming Democratic Governor of authority and later voted to override the governor’s veto by tricking the Democratic representatives to go to a September 11th memorial. These are not the actions of a government responsible to the people, but those of a cabal of self-interested elites.
This contemporary anti-democratic ethos takes place within the context of the steady accrual of power in the executive branch and in federal authorities. Brennan Center for Justice researcher Elizabeth Coitein has recently noted with alarm the President’s vast emergency powers. The U.S. President can “with a mere flick of the pen” now shut down electronic communication, freeze Americans’ bank accounts, requisition private sea vessels, deploy troops to quell domestic unrest, and pursue a “kill list” of suspects around the world—completely subverting democratic rights to privacy and a fair trial by authoritarian decree. The current President’s legal defense does not shy away from asserting their conception of executive sovereignty, and they have recently argued in court that Trump could murder someone, on Fifth Ave for example, and not face prosecution.
The process of impeachment is a small counterweight to these authoritarian tendencies. It is also true that impeachment of the President through elected officials is a far cry from the popular protests, country-wide human chains, and other tactics grassroots activists use to depose tyrants across the globe. However, a U.S. grassroots movement for impeachment is brewing, which has the opportunity to leverage the impeachment process, itself a living legacy of protest against authoritarianism. The impeachment clause made its way into the Constitution as part of the fervor against British tyranny. The founders drew on precedent for the idea in medieval and ancient Europe as well as in procedures used by the Iroquios confederation. As a process assigned to the House of Representatives, impeachment is located in the most “democratical”—to use the eighteenth-century term—of all the federal government’s three branches.
The Impeachment Clause and Authoritarianism
American political power, like all political power, is constantly re-constituting itself. At every moment in its history, jurisdictional tensions, bureaucratic turf wars, and political exigencies re-configure how power is distributed in society amidst various threats to the established order. The creation of the Constitution, however, was a defining moment in the history of the distribution of power in the U.S. because it provided an enduring legal framework. In its origins, the U.S. government was designed as a republic rather than as a direct democracy with its elected representatives a few layers removed from the populace. James Madison garnered much agreement among the founding fathers for his idea that the new U.S. Constitution be designed to protect against the unruly demos and “domestic insurrection.”
The Constitution itself codified a legal coup that usurped the states’ first constitutional compact: the Articles of Confederation. After its victory over the British in 1783, the confederated states—which had no national military and no executive authority—remained vulnerable because their settler empire provoked powerful opposition by Native American confederations, especially in the Ohio river valley. Likewise, the process of enslaving Africans required constant repressive vigilance, especially in the deep south, against the possibility that this “internal enemy” would arise in slave rebellion. The new states’ elites also felt threatened by the democratic upsurge represented in local legislation absolving debtors, the growth of abolitionism, and Shay’s rebellion in Massachusetts. Thus, in 1786, the revolutionary elites hatched a conspiracy in a closed-door, sealed-windows meeting in Annapolis, Maryland to bypass the procedure for amending the Articles of Confederation and replacing it entirely with a new document. Upon hearing about Shay’s rebellion, George Washington reluctantly suspended his retirement from public life and left his plantation to lend his credibility to the process of secretly writing a new constitution.
The next step in the creation of the U.S. Constitution, its ratification process from 1787 through 1789, was also highly contentious and undemocratic. Many participants in the recent revolution against the British felt that the Federalists in particular were veering too much in an anti-democratic direction, too far from the “spirit of 1776.” Despite their protests, calls for a monarchical system were not unheard of and the executive branch was ultimately a close relative to a constitutional monarch. The four-year term and elections were concessions to popular calls for democracy. The Federalists could not secure enough votes for their new constitution, and they agreed to tack on a ten-point program to appease the democrats—the Bill of Rights. Impeachment was another important bone thrown to those with democratic sensibilities.
Operating with minimal checks, the President’s office gained ever-increasing levels of power over the centuries. Jefferson stretched his powers to acquire “Louisiana” from the French, Monroe claimed the entire western hemisphere in his famous doctrine, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, and so on. At every crisis, at every war, the executive gained powers, and the U.S. government was constantly at war. War was one of the primary means which the federal government and the executive branch in particular gained strength. Presidential and federal powers advanced with the nineteenth-century conquest of the continent and the subsequent domination of the Caribbean and Pacific islands, military operations throughout Latin America, and prolonged occupations in the Philippines, Haiti, and Nicaragua in the early twentieth century.
As with the genocidal wars against Native Americans, the two world wars deepened Americans’ experience of ‘total war.’ The lines between civilian and military life blurred, and so did the bounds on federal and executive power. The newly-acquired powers expanded extensively into the ever-widening imperial domains, but also intensively into the “domestic”—both within the nation and within the household—spheres. WWI spawned the 1917 Espionage Act, a Red Scare, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A generation later, Japanese internment began by executive order, and federal regulatory activity of the economy increased dramatically during WWII. In 1942, in a far-reaching Supreme Court ruling, the bench decided that the government could use the constitutional clause allowing it to regulate interstate commerce to fine an Ohio farmer for growing wheat to feed his own chickens. The ruling stated that “even if appellee’s activity be local and though it may not be regarded as commerce, it may still, whatever its nature, be reached by Congress if it exerts a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce.” Federal executive agencies’ power had already reached extraordinary heights before the Cold War and well before the War on Terror.
It is true that the federal government also expanded during periods of progressive reform, such as the post-Civil War Reconstruction, FDR’s New Deal, and LBJ’s Great Society. However, in the scheme of American history, this cumulative decade or two of reform is not the rule but rather, as the historian Jefferson Cowie has labeled it, the “great exception.” Indeed, there are many instances of such reform programs being re-purposed for goals far from their original intention such as when the state transformed the Civilian Conservation Corps camps into WWII work camps for conscientious objectors.
The Democratic Impulse Today
The need for oversight of the elected executive is today reaching critical heights. Two and a quarter centuries of state building and the centralization of power have significantly hindered the ability for popular sovereignty to be expressed in a way that even approximates democracy. The idea that the Republican Party with Donald Trump at its head is a dictatorship in waiting is, of course, speculative, but by no means far-fetched. Many scholars have noted his affinities to a new wave of dictatorially-minded heads of state including Modi and Burlesconi as well as a historical figures like Andrew Jackson and Benito Mussolini.
After WWII, many postwar leftists imagined that the U.S. was transforming into a type of totalitarianism with its nuclear bomb, “police action” in Korea, and McCarthyite atmosphere of enforced conformity. They debated how to name the re-constituted leviathan which fused state, economic, and military power to new levels of concentrated power and which reached deeper into every sphere of life in pursuit of total control. But as the social movement intellectual, Jack O’Dell, wrote in 1978, “the civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s was an anti-racist revolt of great significance in the general struggle to preserve constitutional rights and blocked the timetable of fascism in our country.” However, by the 1980s, that social movement counterforce to the general trends to totalitarianism had ebbed, and Ronald Reagan became the figurehead of the rightward triumph in American politics.
The democratic pushback renewed in earnest in the spring of 2006 with the unprecedented turnout in immigrant rights rallies culminating in the “Day without Immigrants.” The subsequent entry of millions of Latinx Americans into electoral politics seemed to signal another inflection point. Latinx folks played no small role in the Democratic Party’s gains in the 2006 mid-term election and then in Barack Obama’s victory. A groundswell of grassroots politics then emerged in the next dozen years under the banners of immigrant rights, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, #noDapl, the women’s strike, the Fight for Fifteen, and the climate strike. These movements propose more than simply halting the rightward drift of settler politics, but rather a wholesale social reconstruction on egalitarian and ecological lines. Indeed as Greg Grandin has argued in The End of the Myth, as capitalist expansion is reaching its physical and ecological limits, the capitalist system’s instability makes the choice between socialism and barbarism ever-more salient. In this light, Trump’s barbarism can be understood as a rearguard action to resist the momentum growing for another period of reconstruction in the United States.
Surely, there are also plenty of liberal roadblocks to the inauguration of a new episode of radical social change but these impediments are often easier to overcome. Many liberal approaches to social upheaval—like the Ford Foundation’s hope to control the Black Power movement in the sixties or President Obama’s attempt to contain protests to the Keystone pipeline and to the Dakota Access pipelines—have failed. However, the stronger bulwark against such movements has come from the right’s desire to deploy state violence against its ideological foes. When the impulse for radical change is strong enough, destroying a movement requires a stronger, more repressive response than the liberals feel comfortable admitting. For example, Nixon destroyed an otherwise surging Black Panther Party (BPP) by heightening a program of repression immediately upon taking office in 1969. In the spring and summer of that year, the police and FBI vastly ramped up their raids and shootouts with BPP offices and the year of repression culminated with the murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in December. Similarly, Trump successfully ordered the attack on the Standing Rock protest camp and the approval of the Keystone pipeline in the very first days of his presidency. It was rightwing white supremacists who spearheaded opposition to America’s first period of Reconstruction; the New Deal’s limitations were primarily imposed by white supremacist Dixiecrats, and LBJ’s Great Society was overtaken by the “southern strategy” that seized on white opposition to Black equality and civil rights.
Ending the neofascistic fantasy of minority rule would surely shift the political battle lines of American politics to the left in ways that will make social reconstruction a little easier. Bernie Sanders, who remains wary of overemphasizing the importance of impeachment, made clear at the fifth Democratic primary debate that impeachment was indeed an important part of the process of attaining the political revolution he dreams of. “Congress can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. In other words, we can deal with Trump’s corruption, but we also have to stand up for the working families of this country. We also have to stand up to the fact that our political system is corrupt.”
Josh Fattal is a doctoral candidate in History at New York University focusing on intellectual history of U.S. radicalism. He has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Seattle Times. He is also the co-author of A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Detained in Iran with Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd.
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 Jack O’Dell, Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O’Dell, ed. Nikhil Pal Singh (Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press, 2012), 228.
 Gonzalez, Harvest of Empire.
 Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2019) see especially the last chapter. These ideas echo mid-century leftists, but they are a lot more plausible today. See “The International Communists of Germany: Capitalist Barbarism or Socialism (1943),” accessed December 10, 2019, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/ni/vol10/no10/ikd.htm; “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” The Anarchist Library, accessed December 10, 2019, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/lewis-herber-murray-bookchin-ecology-and-revolutionary-thought.
 Karen Ferguson, Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Joshua Bloom, Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (University of California Press, 2016).
 Huey P. Newton, War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America (London: Writers & Readers, 1996); Charles E. Jones, “The Political Repression of the Black Panther Party 1966-1971: The Case of the Oakland Bay Area,” Journal of Black Studies 18, no. 4 (1988): 415–34.
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