On October 11, 1991, I attended a National Coming Out Day rally at Sproul Plaza on the University of California Berkeley campus, the famed site of the Free Speech Movement in the early 1960s. I had previously heard of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence but never encountered them. On the stage stood Sister Power Hungry Bitch, one of the founders of the San Francisco based movement that draws into question understandings of gender, sexuality and the way religions have historically constructed them.
This day Sister Power Hungry Bitch had an important message for me and the crowd there assembled. She said,
“Instead of calling heterosexuality ‘normal,’ call it what it really is: common.”
The Sister was raising an important point, drawing into question the tendency of the majority to see its own experience as normative for everyone else and thus morally correct. In truth, normal simply means statistically prevalent. Any conjecture about its moral status is purely subjective and often self-serving.
But this demand that we “call it what it really is” has stuck with me all these years with an application well beyond the immediacies of National Coming Out Day in Berkeley those many years ago. This week at the conclusion of the sham proceeding in Washington, that question came back to me.
It is highly problematic to describe the vote of the Senate as somehow “acquitting” Donald Trump. Acquittals come at the end of an actual trial. The verdicts are based on the testimony of witnesses who can be cross-examined by defendants in front of jurors who have pledged to be impartial. The proceeding is governed by established rules of evidence and procedure.
None of those things were true in this circus in the U.S. Senate. So let’s call these things what they really are.
A Trial That Wasn’t – Sham Proceeding
As a former practicing attorney and a constitutional law instructor, I shuddered as I watched the slow-motion train wreck that was proceeding in the Senate. Part of the problem is simply the language we use to describe it. This was a removal proceeding, not a trial. At a bare minimum, trials demand at least an appearance of transparency, impartiality and objectivity if they are to be seen legitimate.
None of these things were true here. Many senators announced up front that they did not intend to consider any of the evidence actually presented at trial. Some were ready to vote to let the impeached official off without any of the evidence even being heard. Jurors like these in a real trial would have been eliminated in the process of voir dire, jury selection.
In the end, these Senators demonstrated that they never intended to be jurors; they were aiders and abettors.
Trials require verdicts to be rendered based upon competent evidence presented by witnesses and relevant physical and documentary evidence. In this case, it wasn’t that the evidence wasn’t available. It’s that it was never allowed to be heard, initially by the stonewalling of an administration who refused to honor subpoenas to produce relevant evidence and also forbade public servants from testifying. The administration was, in turn, aided and abetted by a judiciary now stacked with Federal Society ideologues more than willing to delay rulings on such evidence production. This allowed them to avoid having to blatantly tip their partisan hands in rendering foregone conclusions in their rulings.
This circus may have been a lot of things, but it wasn’t a trial. Those of us who are lawyers know this and most of us cringed as we watched this constitutional process being prostituted to a partisan charade that flaunted the very Constitution which created this body. All attorneys are members of bars who must take an oath to defend, protect and preserve our national and state constitutions. Watching this blatant dismantling of the dreams of the Framers was like experiencing a dagger through the heart.
Students of history know this is hardly unprecedented. A failure to hold wrongdoers accountable even in the face of horrific crimes thus granting impunity to the malfeasants has a long history in this country. There is a long string of Klansmen committing lynchings who were never charged with their crimes. Worse yet, there is a history of those who were actually charged with deadly church and home bombings who were quickly acquitted by all white juries.
Our homegrown terrorists have far too often gotten away with murder, quite literally.
Any proceeding that is predetermined in outcome, going through the motions for public appearances, allowing wrong doers to benefit from their malfeasance without any accountability, may be a lot of things but it is not a trial. It is ultimately little more than an attempt to legitimize illegitimate actions.
So, invoking the Sister Power Hungry Vicious Bitch imperative, let’s just call this Senate proceeding what it really was: A Sham.
A Senate That Refused to Do Its Duty: Abdication
It was the hopes of the Framers that a responsible Congress would prevent an imperial presidency from doing the very kinds of things that Mr. Trump has done:
- engaging in behaviors that were designed to enrich himself at the cost of the national interest
- allowing foreign interests to influence domestic electoral processes
- betraying allies in other countries in pursuit of personal gain
- lying to Congress and the people about all of this
- preventing relevant evidence from being discovered.
These are precisely the kinds of behaviors which prompted the Framers to create the provisions for impeachment and removal. And they are precisely the actions which this Senate, whom the Framers left with that responsibility, refused to consider.
There is one exception to this sweeping condemnation of a Senate so fearful of this demagogue that its majority party refused to even consider his misdeeds. Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican representing Utah, offered a moving speech that reminded me a good bit of his father. George Romney was one of the last respectable Republicans to sit in the Congress and one of my heroes as a child. In announcing his vote, Mitt spoke of his faith and his moral compass. And then he became the first member of an impeached President’s party to ever vote against his party leader in a removal proceeding.
It does my heart good to know there are still Senators willing to take action based upon ethical considerations rather than expediency. And it is particularly gratifying to see that not every Republican is willing to cower to the hegemony of Trumpland’s money machine. Mitt Romney has come a long way from his condescending statements about “the 48%” and boxing up his family dog in the luggage rack atop his car and driving cross country. Even white boys of privilege have the potential of maturing into responsible adults.
Somehow, I sense that George Romney is smiling this day over the performance of his son.
Sadly, Mitt is a glaring exception. The remainder of his fellow Republicans were more than willing to sell out the Congress, the American people and empower the very imperial presidency that the Framers feared and several generations of their predecessors have fought. It was a shameful performance from a body that has sadly come to be predictable in such shameful behaviors.
So, invoking the Sister Power Hungry Vicious Bitch imperative, let’s just call this performance what it really was: Abdication.
A Frightening But Predictable Outcome: Impunity
Given that this proceeding was not a trial, either functionally (the Senate is empowered to remove impeached presidents, thus it is a removal procedure) or actually (see No. 1 above), calling the result an acquittal is highly problematic. It suggests that the impeached official here was found not guilty. That does not correspond with the facts of this proceeding.
Even some of the cowardly Republican who abdicated their duties to the Congress, the Constitution and the people were willing to admit the President had engaged in wrongful actions. It was clear from the very wording of the Constitution that this was precisely the kinds of behaviors the Framers sought to prevent. But in an age when there is no Truth and any appeals to the same evokes the adolescent response of “That’s just your opinion,” the majority of Senators avoided their duties by deferring to the logical fallacy of appeal to opinion: “In my opinion this is not what high crimes and misdemeanors means.”
In all fairness, it does not help that this charge is not spelled out in the Constitution itself. Like many aspects of our founding documents (“…all men are created equal,” “equal protection of the law,” “Due Process of the law…”) the overarching principles that the Framers and their successors sought to instill were intentionally vague, designed to be interpreted contextually as they were invoked and evolved over the ensuing years.
But the many examples of the Trump dynasty enriching itself at the public till, not the least of which was the required quartering of military personnel in Trump hotels overseas, are precisely the kinds of behaviors the emoluments clause was designed to prevent. The prohibition against the role of any foreign interests in the national electoral process applies directly to the blackmailing of foreign officials to create dirt on a political opponent back home. And the blanket stonewalling of officials and documentary evidence that has marked Trumpland since its inception is precisely the kind of behaviors prohibitions on obstruction of justice are designed to prevent.
Donald Trump was guilty of all of those things. Everyone knows it. But in the end, those charged with responding to impeachable behaviors chose political expedience and raw power over justice.
It was a sad day, even for Trumpland.
When a Senate is unwilling to do its duties to remove officials they know to be guilty of behaviors which violate the Constitution, whatever the reason, this marks a very dangerous turning point in a constitutional republic. It sends a very clear message to wrongdoers from the lynchers and bombers of the Jim Crow South to the money grubbers of Trumpland that they can engage in their wrongful, harmful behaviors without any accountability.
The predictable result of such a message is that such behaviors will likely increase.
This was not an acquittal. There was no real trial, no impartial jury. In this sham proceeding with decision-makers willing to abdicate to power and political gain, there could be no acquittal. What happened here was that a wrongdoer was simply given a pass. And we can be assured that he will see this as a greenlight to engage in such wrongful behaviors in the future.
So, invoking the Sister Power Hungry Vicious Bitch imperative, let’s just call the result of this sham proceeding what it really was: A Granting of Impunity.
So What Next, Trumpland?
The America which existed prior to its devolution into Trumpland was always an imperfect democratic republic. Its imperfections were judged by its own constitutional ideals. But with the rise of Trumpland, this experiment in self-governance that always saw its very best as merely a step toward “a more perfect union,” is over. If there were ever any doubts that it has finally given up the ghost, those doubts were removed Wednesday, February 5, 2020 on the auction floor of what was once an august body.
What comes next is unclear. The devolution of America into Trumpland has the actual majority within this country – which has never supported Donald Trump – worried. We increasingly find ourselves barred from power in the stacked deck that now includes all three branches of government. Our hopes of undoing the harm and repairing the damage becomes increasingly difficult and farther and farther away. Even if it begins in the next election, the recovery process will not occur overnight, no matter how much we well-trained consumers believe ourselves entitled to instant gratification.
Even those possibilities were mortally wounded by the Senate’s granting of impunity to an electoral cheater. The chances of a fair election have diminished greatly as a result.
In granting this impunity, Senators bought into the cynical words of his self-promoting lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, who echoed another corrupt president who left power to avoid impeachment and removal. Those were the days when Senates still remained accountable to the Constitution and the people. Richard Nixon had asserted that anything the President does, regardless of its legality or moral depravity, is legal. Forty three years after a responsible Congress refused to buy that self-serving argument, a cowardly Senate has given a corrupt businessman with a long history of cheating in his dealings with others, hiding his records and lying to anyone who would listen a green light to proceed with his depraved business unimpeded.
That includes the coming election.
It is hard for many of us to watch the country we once loved, served and sought to require to live into its own ideals of creating “a more perfect union,” descend down the slippery slope to utter depravity. If there is any consolation this day, it is that brave souls like Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch will continue their demands on their countrywomen and men that we be honest with ourselves and each other and that courageous souls like Mitt Romney will continue to hear that call to honesty and accountability and respond.
For the rest of us, little remains but to watch, weep and hope to begin the long road to recover in November. Truth be told, I’m not sure the Trumpland disaster has bottomed out yet. My guess is that there is more suffering to come before things turn around. I admit I’m not very optimistic. And yet I remain hopeful.
To those who read these words and nod your heads affirmingly, know you are not alone. It’s true that misery likes company. You’ve got mine. And to those who refuse to consider (or even read) these words because the truth that a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence requires of you is too much to handle, I will work diligently toward respecting your person even as I will oppose your thoughts, words and deeds at every juncture.
Most importantly know that I absolutely refuse to hate you. You should not confuse opposition to ideas, words and behaviors one finds harmful with being a “hater.” To do so is sloppy thinking and engages an adolescent behavior that does not merit respect. You’re capable of better.
As Sister Helen Prejean has taught us, no one is reducible to the worst thing they ever did, even being enablers of the depravity of Trumpland. But please know I and many others will resist that depravity every chance I get. On that you can depend.
May the America which once commanded the respect of the world, which merited our loyalty and gave rise to our most fervent hopes rest in peace. And may this dark night of the soul that is Trumpland go the way of the dinosaurs very quickly.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2020