Is the United States, the oldest democracy in the world, bumbling into a constitutional crisis of its own making? Like most things in life, it depends on where you sit.
For the Democratic Party, the answer is somewhere between a “we are getting there” and a “yes, we are living it.” Donald Trump is not only violating the traditional norms of the presidency, but is taking a sledgehammer to the walls of America’s constitutional republic in order to protect himself from political embarrassment, scandal, and possible legal jeopardy after he vacates the office.
Rep, Jerrold Nadler, the man who would lead a hypothetical impeachment inquiry of President Trump, said on national television that the term “constitutional crisis” is more than warranted. “We’re in one because the president is disobeying the law, refusing all information to Congress…It’s a lawless administration.”
Asked by a reporter whether America has reached the point of no return, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg remarked that ““At the very least it is constitutionally unsteady right now, because we have an administration that does not respect the rule of law.”
Former Vice President and current Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden wouldn’t go so far as to outright declare a crisis, but he conceded that “we’re getting close.”
To the ordinary observer, it certainly appears as if something is seriously wrong. Rhetorical fistfights, rabid partisanship, childish name-calling, and subpoena threats are nothing novel in Washington D.C., a town many Americans from across the political spectrum view with disgust if not outright contempt.
And the Trump administration is hardly the first to exert executive privilege in order to prevent politically embarrassing or possibly legally perilous documents and testimony from being released to Congress. George W. Bush refused to cooperate with Congress when the body was probing the mass firing of U.S. Attorneys.
Barack Obama did it during the Fast and Furious gun running scandal, which precipitated a years long court battle with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives that just concluded this week with a settlement. In general, the legislative branch always wants more information; the executive branch, in turn, always wants to provide as little of that information as possible.
Trump, however, is a different political animal. Bush and Obama were creatures of the system, two politicians who would at least attempt to cooperate with the other side in the interest of finding a resolution (or at least to avoid a long court battle). Sometimes cooperation was simply impossible, while at other times there were opportunities for a consensus.
The current occupant in the Oval Office is not interested in compromise with his political rivals. Trump remains impervious to it. He internalizes attacks on his administration as attacks on his presidency, which is an extension of his glacier-like ego.
Trump has paper-thin skin, is obsessed with loyalty, despises losing, is afraid of public humiliation, and is incapable of swallowing a deal that doesn’t provide him everything he wants.
He sees Democrats on Capitol Hill as snakes, traitors, and sycophants doing everything remotely possible to chip away at the legitimacy of his presidency and/or cut it short. After two years of a special counsel investigation that, like a storm cloud, blocked any ray of sunshine from beaming down on the White House, the president is in no mood to accommodate the same people who would like nothing more than his impeachment or resignation.
So, is it any wonder that Trump has decided to use every lever available to him to frustrate Democratic-led inquiries? Should we be surprised that Trump is combatting all the subpoenas and withholding the very documents and testimony Democrats are demanding? Frankly, if you are surprised, you haven’t been paying much attention to how Donald Trump has operated throughout his career in business and politics: fight tooth-and-nail and counterpunch the guy square in the jaw. Never submit, because submitting is losing—the worst thing that can happen to a man like Trump, who treats all things as existential blood-sport.
We don’t have a constitutional crisis. A new civil war isn’t about to break out. Red-hatted Trump supporters aren’t going to start unleashing riots in the streets. Blue-blooded democratic socialists aren’t going to overtake government buildings and declare mini socialist republics across the United States. It may look bleak now, but the U.S. has experienced more turbulent times in its history: think of the civil war, the Great Depression, the chaos and social breakdown of the Vietnam War era; and the Lincoln, McKinley, and Kennedy assassinations.
What Americans are experiencing is not a collapse of the system, but the inevitable result of a man at the top who sees everything and everything through a zero-sum framework. Americans may not like it, but many of them haven’t respected their politicians in a long time.