King Trump

The impeachment inquiry is testing us: Do we live in a nation of laws or a nation of men?

Distinguishing a monarchy from a republic is a civics lesson once taught in school. Our education system dumped civic literacy a while back, so it might be time for a national refresher course. We all need it, especially he of self-proclaimed “great and unmatched wisdom”—Trump the Infallible.

But if ever there were a fallible man—true of me and all men—the current White House occupant certainly qualifies.

Unlike President Trump, I’m usually willing to admit my mistakes, apologize when I’ve wronged someone and try to make up for my screw-ups. Being ready, willing and able to deal with my imperfections is a result of my Sunday school moral training and the ethical lessons I was taught at home.

Trump? Whether it’s deliberately part of his shtick or simply his obtuse nature, Trump has never confronted a problem or a failed policy that wasn’t someone else’s fault and, therefore, undeserving of an apology. He is all offense and no defense. Infallibility means never having to say you’re sorry.

Trump’s unbound and haughty arrogance, while noxious, could be tolerable if the only people affected were those in his small personal and professional coterie. Here’s the problem though: He’s the most powerful person in the universe and sits atop the greatest nation in this planet’s history. A little humility on his part would go a long way.

Unfortunately, Trump’s attitude and governing style have led to a constitutional confrontation where the president and his defenders insist that, as a matter of his role and authority, he is essentially infallible and his power absolute. Of course, even those of us who have forgotten the basics of our three-branch system of government and the primacy of Congress—the “First Branch” under Article I—recall “checks and balances.”

Checks and balances ensure a president can’t just do whatever he feels like doing. Trump demurs. He says he has a constitutional “right to do whatever I want as president.” So, we’re at an impasse.

Trump says he can do anything. Congress, the press and, traditionally, the courts have said he can do a lot, but not anything he pleases. Can he try to shakedown a vulnerable, newly elected foreign leader in Ukraine to do his domestic political bidding?

This is a pivotal moment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi paraphrased Thomas Paine, saying, “We think the times have found us now.” Impeachment is the tool Congress has to test the limits of presidential power and try potential high crimes and misdemeanors. It is a tool that is now being used to determine if, in fact, the president has committed acts worthy of punishment up to and including removal from office. It is a process that distinguishes a republic from a monarchy, a president from a king.

Crown heads can decide policy by proclamation, as Trump tried in the past when he “hereby ordered” American companies to stop doing business in China. Their majesties can determine that criticism of the sovereign is illegal, as with the lèse-majesté laws in Thailand. When Trump acts to marginalize and methodically vaporize the press corps critical of him, he is effectively trying to exert lèse-majesté. Finally, royalty is not subject to any higher law. They are recognized not only in the plural form, but as the absolute power with no higher earthly authority. This is how Trump perceives himself.

Kings and queens are not subject to removal. They can be dethroned by deposition, abdication or decapitation. Usually, a popular revolt or an act of God takes monarchs from power. But civics reminds us that longevity is no guarantee of permanence in U.S. office.

Benjamin Franklin famously said, this is a republic—not a monarchy—if we can keep it. We fought a revolution against King George III to establish that there is a higher authority than a monarch’s on this God-given Earth: the power of the people, a sovereignty of citizens.

Americans’ power has not been granted by anyone, it has been fought for and earned and codified in our elegant, if imperfectly executed, Constitution. Here’s what’s being tested: Do we live in a nation of laws or a nation of men?

We may not need to go back to our history books to learn the lessons we rightly expect our naturalizing citizens to master. All we have to do is pay close attention to what is happening in Congress and decide for ourselves the kind of country in which we wish to live.

Will our representatives defer to one man’s grip on power, inflated ego, and sense of absolute infallibility? We pray they be just and choose wisely.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.