Monday, December 19, 2016

Let’s Focus on Unconstitutional Emoluments, Not "Russian Hacking"

On the eve of the Electoral College voting, it seems fairly obvious that the much vaunted effort to persuade several dozen of Donald Trump’s electors to vote against him will fail. Despite the sincere, well-meaning efforts of a wide spectrum of liberals, the effort seems to have made little headway, at least as far as I can tell. From my perspective, the greatest rhetorical mistake that liberals are making right now is the unjustifiable obsession with “Russian hacking” – which has been far too central to the case for asking the electors to overturn to the results of their states. This concern is appealing to elite Democratic establishment figures, because it builds bipartisan bridges with their fellow foreign policy establishment elites such as John McCain. It fits perfectly with a frame of mind that loves an appeal to the authority of traditional institutions, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as (for many) a wistful return to the Cold War consensus of shared anti-Russian sentiment and fearmongering. More than this, what I find most outrageous is that the event most closely connected with the Russian government--the leaking of the Podesta DNC e-mails--is such an unbelievably poor issue on which to take a stand for the illegitimacy of an election. For the sake of argument, let’s postulate that the CIA is correct in its allegations about Russian involvement in the leak (but don’t forget that citizens should never trust the CIA’s word without proof on anything). But what were the Podesta e-mails about? Some were just airing the petty personal insults and gripes of DNC elites and certain elite media figures, but others clearly turned out to be leaks that were in the public interest, revealing their misdeeds and corruption. Michael Tracey makes this point cogently. So perhaps we should be thanking the Russians for helping shine a spotlight on this (although it remains a valid point that we would also benefit from equivalent hacks at the RNC, which would undoubtedly show similar, if not greater, corruption)? However, very few would seriously make the case that the Podesta e-mails were important to swing voters in the industrial Midwest. Yes, in a very small way they reinforced the (true) perception that Hillary Clinton and the DNC elite are corrupt, but they were a minor blip. In no way, except in elite establishment bubble world, can their hacking and revelation constitute a crisis of democracy. They certainly don’t constitute “hacking the election” in any serious sense. (If we discover that anyone, Russians or otherwise, was hacking into actual computer vote counting machines, that would be a completely different story, of course!) Donald Trump’s wide-ranging international business ties, including Russia but also many other places as well, are a much greater source of likely future systemic corruption and constitutional unfitness for the presidency. It now seems almost certain that he will be violating the “emoluments clause” of the constitution from his first day in office, and his laughably inadequate proposed solutions--having his children run his business empire, for example--will be both substantively and constitutionally insufficient. The problem, of course, is that you can’t overturn some election results simply because something is “likely” to happen. But once Trump takes office, an impeachment seems to be a very real possibility, unless he dramatically changes how he approaches potential conflicts of interest. (Interesting side note: Some have claimed maybe Trump can't divest his holdings into a blind trust, because he is so highly leveraged with loans that his net worth is less than zero--an intriguing theory!) Now, obviously, the public rhetoric can’t be about “unconstitutional emoluments,” which is a mouthful and incomprehensible jargon to most people. “Foreign bribery” might be a more straightforward shorthand that most people will understand. At a more substantive level, I have no doubt that most Americans, regardless of their vocabulary, understand that Presidents need to be making decisions for American interests, not for linking their own (and their families’) pockets. We just came through an election in which a great many people distrusted the other major candidate because of her corruption, including the Clinton Foundation’s solicitation of donations from foreign governments and leaders. It isn’t that great a step from this to a visceral awareness of how corrupt Trump’s dealings will be. It seems highly likely that grounds for impeachment will be available sometime soon after his inauguration. The only question is: should we wait until he loses popularity for some terrible policy decision, such as privatizing social security or cutting Medicare—in order to insure that people are primed to find his removal from office a welcome prospect—or should we pounce right away?


Anonymous said...

I have heard others, too, commenting that Dems should not delude themselves that voters will really care much that Putin helped out Trump and other Republicans. I agree that by itself it's probably not going to win a bunch of votes. But I still think it should be thoroughly investigated, and that as the investigations show the depth collaboration among foreign intelligence services and Republican officials, it could develop into a significant scandal that would make it more difficult for Trump to hold the Republicans together in the Senate.

Anonymous said...

I get what you're saying, but on the other hand I doubt that most GOP rank and file voters are going to side with John McCain and Lindsay Graham, and they would quickly have to capitulate, as occurred throughout the election cycle. We are in profoundly anti-establishment times, and establishment politicians will just be casualties (see Jeb Bush) crushed on the highway if they try to oppose Trump on issues that ordinary voters can't see tangible effects in their lives. Now, if they split over cutting social security and Medicare, that will be a far different story (although one in which the establishment GOP is actually the worse option, and we may be calling from Trump and GOP rank and file sentiment to stop them, not the other way around!)

The other danger is that we are worrying about the exact opposite thing we should be worried about. The greater danger is not that Trump and the Russians are too cozy, which might actually lead to a welcome ratcheting down of the bipartisan national security establishment's pathological bent towards provocation with Russia, but that Putin and Trump will have a falling out (look what happened between Trump and Cruz in the primary for an example of this) that will be all the
more perilous given that both sides will have nuclear weapons.