• The Case Against an American King, Then and Now

    Liesl Schillinger Considers the Impeachment of Donald Trump vs. the Indictment of George III

    As the nation readies itself for public hearings in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald J. Trump, let’s think back to a time before there was an American president, before there was a US Constitution. Let’s think back to a time before the United States of America formally existed; back to a time when this independent, democratic republic was still only a dream of freedom, not a legislated reality. Let’s think back to July 4, 1776, when Thomas Jefferson and other founders of this country issued the Declaration of Independence.

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    What was the Declaration of Independence, besides a declaration of… independence? For five successive semesters, since Donald J. Trump “took over” the United States, as he puts it, I’ve asked my students this question, in my Facts/Alternative Facts class at the New School in New York City. It comes up in the week of term in which we look at this country’s founding documents and talk about their meaning for freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the freedom of each citizen.

    In the syllabus, the week goes under the heading “Fighting Words.” A couple of students usually know, or guess, the answer: The Declaration of Independence was also a Declaration of War. The vermilion haze of Jeffersonian eloquence that suffuses its beginning, the grandeur of Jefferson’s prose (“When in the course of human events…”) can make it easy to lose sight of that.

    But when I follow up this question by asking if they know about the “Indictment of George III” (which immediately follows Jefferson’s rousing proem) they shake their heads. My suspicion is that they’re not alone; and that most Americans don’t know what the “Indictment of George III,” is, much less why it is integral to the birth of this nation, or why it’s important to remember it today, at a moment when the movement for the impeachment of the 45th President of the United States is underway, but has no unified, bipartisan support, no full-throated consensus, and little taste for Jeffersonian vermilion.

    The Indictment of George III is the business end of the Declaration of Independence—something a debate team would call “the case.” In the Indictment, Jefferson and other founding fathers listed 27 distinct grievances against King George III and his governmental enforcers: 27 bad deeds done to the American people; 27 egregious acts of executive overreach; 27 abuses of power so outrageous that they moved the colonists to rise up against Great Britain and end the Crown’s unjust, capricious, pernicious misrule. The charges in the Indictment of George III were the evidence that made the case to reject and eject harmful leadership. They were the “Facts,” which were “submitted to a candid world” to mobilize the American people for a fight against “an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

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    The Indictment of George III is the business end of the Declaration of Independence—something a debate team would call “the case.”

    Each term, to help my students feel the weight and resonance of the Indictment in the present day, I divide them into groups, give each group a subset of the charges until all are covered, and ask them to name any parallels they see between the abuses conducted against the American people by President Trump, his administration, and his Congressional and cabinet enforcers, and the charges that this country’s founders levied against George III, his administration, and his enforcers, to justify the Revolutionary War. I ask them to be creative but fair in drawing these comparisons, and to name parallels that can be supported with links to current news.

    In the first iteration of this class, in the fall of 2017, the students identified 12 Trumpian connections to the 27 charges against King George III. In the second iteration, they found 15. In the third, 18. In the fourth, 20. But this term, as the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, launched a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump, the students found at least one (and often several) contemporary parallels for every single one of the 27 charges made against George III in the Declaration of Independence. Call it the Indictment of Donald J. Trump.

    Most of the comparisons they drew were straightforward. For instance, they paired the first charge against the British king: “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good,” with the following Trumpian acts: “He has refused to back the passage of a law for universal background checks for gun sales, supported by more than 90 percent of Americans, to the detriment of public health and security.” 2) ”He withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, to the detriment of the welfare of the American public and the world,” and 3) ”He is endeavoring to destroy the Affordable Care Act, providing no substitute for the health care of the public, and putting millions of citizens at risk.”

    They tied the 13th charge against King George: “He combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation” to several comparable Trump misdeeds: 1) “He invited the Russian government to interfere with the US presidential election at a public campaign rally in 2016, and Robert Mueller’s investigation concluded that collusion could not be ruled out.” 2) “He disparages the findings of US intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, accepting instead the Russian president’s denial of involvement.” 3) “He has threatened to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to Ukraine, unless the president of that country digs up information that could harm Joe Biden, his putative 2020 presidential political rival.”

    But not all of the connections they drew were so direct; some of them require a substantial associative stretch to stick. For instance, they compared charge number 14 in the original indictment, which denounced George III “For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us,” (that charge applied to billeting Redcoats in houses) to Trump’s failure to support any action to protect the populace from the “one-man armies” among us, armed with assault rifles, who regularly mow down citizens in “churches, schools, synagogues, clubs, movie theaters and shopping centers.” Yes; this is a stretch; but could Jefferson and James Madison have envisioned a time when one man with one weapon could kill scores of civilians in a minute, with more deadly results than a regiment of musket-bearing Redcoats?

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    Before this country could have a president at all, the framers of the Constitution had to create protections against executive malfeasance to reassure the doubters.

    Madison, Noah Feldman wrote in his book The Three Lives of James Madison, intensively studied the constitutions of other governments before he set to work drafting the US Constitution, and anticipated, Feldman writers, that “factions, springing from economic interest, ruin republicanism.” But Madison could not anticipate AK-47s, bump stocks and the National Rifle Association’s hold on the Republican “faction.”

    At a remove of 243 years, stretches are inevitable. But by the same token; the variety of executive abuses that have unfolded since Trump acceded to power in January 2017 would outstretch the imaginings of any colonial freedom fighter. If a list were drawn up today, based on contemporary criteria, of the grievances that charge this president’s scroll, there would be no need (and no way) to cap the list at 27. For Mad King George, 27 misdeeds were enough to prompt the colonists to rise up against him and launch the American Revolution. But in this era, factionalism—political polarization—has prevented citizens from overcoming partisan prejudice and joining forces to meet an existential national crisis.

    Lately, President Trump’s excesses have grown so obvious and so extreme that outcry now comes even from some conservative quarters, though not from Congressional Republicans facing reelection. In the first week of September, the Fox senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano denounced Trump’s anti-Constitutional abuses, from raiding disaster relief funds, military funds, and state budgets to get money for the wall on the US Mexico border; to unilaterally imposing tariffs on China (Napolitano called that a “sales tax” on American citizens). Napolitano declared, “When Congress lets presidents write their own laws, then he’s not a president, he’s a prince.”

    The word “prince,” as Napolitano used it, did not mean a hereditary prince, I explained to the class; it meant any unscrupulous, self-serving ruler who puts his own interest and profit above the welfare of the people. There’s no cure but war or a coup to depose a monarch. But Jefferson and Madison and the other men (and it was only men, in 1787 and 1788) who wrote the US Constitution ensured that Congress could enforce a Constitutional cure on any future American president who might shape-shift into a tyrannical monarch—like the one this country had at last repelled in 1783, after a bloody, costly, eight-year-long war.

    After leading the Continental Army to victory in 1783, the hero general George Washington did not become this country’s president until 1789. What was the hold-up? Why did it take so long? The reason, of course, is that many, many Americans, having just defeated and repelled a despotic foreign “prince,” opposed the idea of exalting one American over the rest. They feared that a US president might abuse his power, subvert Congress, and turn tyrant. And so, before this country could have a president at all, the framers of the Constitution had to create protections (“guard rails,” Nancy Pelosi called them) against executive malfeasance to reassure the doubters, setting clear boundaries on the power of the presidency, and designating a path to the removal of any future president who might commit the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that charge the Indictment of George III. That path was impeachment. The Constitution could not have been ratified without it.

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    As of last week, 227 House Democrats and 1 Independent have embarked on that path. A simple majority in the House (out of 435 members, total) assures that impeachment will pass. But the House of Representatives in itself does not have the power to eject a president: the House vote amounts to an accusation—an indictment—which can only be enforced if two-thirds of the Senate confirms the impeachment decision in a trial, deciding to convict. As Cass Sunstein writes in Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide, the founding fathers did this because they understood that representatives, responsive to their constituencies, and depending on their favor for reelection every two years, might be hotheaded and overly reactive. Senators, elected for six years, and having longer experience in government, were expected to vote in more measured, less partisan fashion. George Washington is said to have explained to Thomas Jefferson, “We pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

    In past presidential impeachment crises—Andrew Johnson in 1868; Richard Nixon in 1974 (who resigned before the House could officially vote in statutes of impeachment) and Bill Clinton in 1998—the Senate did not vote to convict. In 1868, President Johnson barely squeaked by: he was only one “yea” away from the required two-thirds Senate majority vote. In 1974, when Nixon was informed by Republican senators that if the House passed articles of impeachment, the Senate would convict, he resigned.

    Today, 45 years later, during the Trump impeachment crisis, no Senator has as yet voiced support for conviction (though one GOP consultant claims that if an impeachment vote were conducted in secret, 30 Republican senators would support it). In the meantime, as the impeachment inquiry goes forward, not one single House Republican has broken ranks to support it. Consider the potential articles of impeachment the House is now drawing up against Trump as modern-day equivalents of the Indictment of George III that Jefferson and the founding fathers assembled in the Declaration of Independence. If the same degree of factional lockstep had operated in 1776 that prevails today, the charges against the tyrant might have been dismissed or ignored; there would be no Democratic Party, no Republican Party, no Congress, no America.

    It’s past time for American patriots to rebuild unity across the partisan divide; to look back at the shared belief in the ideals of liberty, justice, separation of powers and the rule of law that turned a dream of freedom into a legislated, protected reality for almost two and a half centuries. This reality can only be sustained as long as the people and the Congress act to ensure that the fate of this nation remains more important than the fate of any one president.

    Look for yourself at the original Indictment of George III, and draw your own conclusions about how the charges made against the British monarch in 1776 relate to the charges made against the current occupant of the White House (and Mar-a-Lago, and Trump Tower…). See how many resonances you find. Consider the fact that abuse of power at the executive level is as destructive to a nation’s cohesion if it comes from home as if it comes from abroad. And ask yourself this: how far can a democracy be stretched before it snaps? And what were the Founding Fathers fighting for, if fighting deeds no longer produce fighting words?

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    Liesl Schillinger
    Liesl Schillinger
    Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic, translator, and educator. She grew up in Midwestern college towns, studied comparative literature at Yale, worked at The New Yorker for more than a decade and became a regular critic for The New York Times Book Review in 2004. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, New York, Vogue, The London Independent on Sunday, The New Republic, and many other publications. Her recent translations include the novels Every Day, Every Hour, by Natasa Dragnic (Viking, 2012), The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas (Penguin Classics, 2013), and Free Day, by Inès Cagnati (New York Review Books, 2019).

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