Foreign Policy, Politics, recent, US Election, World Affairs

Bereft of Impartial Arbiters

The proximate cause of the US House of Representatives’ decision to invoke articles of impeachment is the president’s decision to make Congressionally authorized military aid for Ukraine conditional on a commitment from Kyiv to pursue investigations into his chief political rival. Trump, in short, has sought (unsuccessfully, thanks to the efforts of a whistleblower) to grossly abuse his office for personal political gain.

Nothing that has yet come to light contradicts this pregnant allegation. On the available evidence, there is presently no reasonable doubt that Trump was engaged in the extortion of a foreign head of state—and the betrayal of the national-security interests of the United States—to smear a political opponent. Trump’s defenders contend that presidents often use leverage to induce foreign leaders to act in ways they might prefer not to, but such inducements are legitimate only in service of the national interest, which Trump’s patently were not.

As the impeachment process unfolds, it is becoming apparent that few American politicians today understand that democratic republics need to be bastions of moral order if they are to survive. Enlightened observers of the country’s public square, beginning with the peerless Alexis de Tocqueville in the early nineteenth century, have worried that “majority tyranny” would overrule and undermine constitutional government. Despite being a friend and admirer of democracy in America—or rather because he was those things—Tocqueville was alive to the latent danger of “democratic despotism” presented by America’s revolution against monarchic and aristocratic institutions and suppositions.

Since America at its inception lacked an established hierarchy—the crown and classes of the mother country—it was liable to court the vices endemic in democracy’s full expression of the popular will: a lack of respect for ambition, achievement, and character. The failure to recognize, let alone cultivate, enterprise and excellence in individuals and in citizens risked diminishing the basis of self-government and ultimately begetting tyranny—and, with democratic pretenses, it would likely be a tyranny of the majority.

Since its founding, America’s best political minds have worried what the absence of a privileged but civic-minded elite would mean for the stability and coherence of the republic. Without the restraining influence of an elite committed to public service, not as a profession but as a way of life, democratic politicians, wary of straying too far from the sentiments of the people, might overlook or even condone corrupt or nefarious political activity. It was a cause of further anxiety that the eventual emergence of a public-spirited elite would more likely elicit disdain than veneration from a people steeped in democracy’s egalitarian, leveling ethos.

Alexander Hamilton was fixated on this problem more than most. He foresaw the need for such a national elite—what might today be called, with appropriate irony, a “deep state.” In Federalist 35, he explained that public ministers as well as “men of the learned professions” would be the neutral and thus “impartial arbiters” between the diverse and potentially hostile factions that comprise society and government. Since this “natural aristocracy” (to borrow Jefferson’s phrase) would be composed of men of means beholden to no one, it alone could be trusted to jealously defend the general interests of society. Without such a class motivated by noblesse oblige, the country might fall prey to all manner of demagogues and populists and saboteurs who would rend the social fabric and put the national project at risk.

These debates have a particular contemporary resonance as the House of Representatives conducts its public impeachment hearings into the behavior of a corrupt, and corrupting, president. It has been dismal to behold the eagerness with which most congressional Republicans have committed themselves to the squalid task of excusing that corruption. This applies double in the Senate, where Republicans might have been expected to bear the responsibility of “refining and enlarging the public view,” as James Madison recommended in Federalist 10. Even if the House of Representatives (the more democratic body of the legislature, elected by a proportional system every two years) might succumb to hasty and ill-advised public opinion, the Senate (the more republican body) should be expected to hold the line in favor of the national interest.

Instead, with an apparent disregard for their own congressional authority and constitutional duty, Republicans of both Houses of Congress have overwhelmingly treated this controversy as a false alarm confected by the opposition party. One is left to wonder what manner of venality and lawlessness on the part of this president would be required to incur their objection, let alone their outrage. They are now bound to a terrible fate: that of breaking with Trump (this much, considering the incumbent’s unscrupulousness and volatility, is all but inevitable), but too late.

It has often been said that impeachment is a political decision rather than a matter of law. Just so. This does not mean, as some confused Trump allies have suggested, that it is a nakedly partisan tool to undo the results of democracy. Rather, it is a device to protect the public from presidential “perfidy”—the discerning of which is a political art, not a strictly legal judgment. It is precisely this fact that reveals the president’s defenders to be derelict in their duty. For the dispersement of Congressionally authorized military aid based on the president’s illicit whim is irrefutable evidence (to minds unclouded by low partisanship) that Trump is unfit to hold the levers of power. It strains credulity to imagine that it does not meet the standard of “treachery” formulated by Gouverneur Morris at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, when he advocated the recourse of impeachment to be included in the nation’s charter.

There is, however, an important caveat to this analysis and argument, given the Republicans’ obstruction. Greg Weiner, who preaches “the politics of prudence,” has enunciated an economical truth that should be heeded by those advocating futile measures to eject the president from office: “That an offense is impeachable does not mean it warrants impeachment.” One reason to flinch from the pursuit of justice under present circumstances is if the political situation indicates that doing so would likely result in solidifying the political position of the official whose conduct merits impeachment.

Even if President Trump’s behavior has been impeachable, then, there is scant honor to be found in a foredoomed impeachment effort. An impeachment process in this feeble and decayed Republican zeitgeist looks ill-conceived because it holds little hope of achieving its stated objective. The prospect of a sizable Republican mutiny in the Senate against their standard-bearer is, to put it mildly, vanishingly small.

What’s more, following this course may well injure the prospects of the Democratic presidential candidate come next November. The electoral consequences of impeachment are unpredictable, but the simultaneous presentation of the case for impeaching the president over his misdeeds and the quotidian case for depriving him a second term based on his feeble execution of government will not be a pretty spectacle. The quality of such a promiscuous campaign would almost certainly be poor. The better wisdom suggests that the case can be made for impeachment or for the Democrats’ policy agenda but not both. Democrats should choose lest they be lured into chasing two rabbits, both of which—following the Chinese adage—will likely escape.

But there can be no doubt that this president, who has betrayed his trust and subverted the national interest, is responsible for bringing impeachment upon himself. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 65, impeachable offenses should “relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.” James Madison echoed this view during the Constitutional Convention, at which he argued that impeachment should be the recourse “for defending the community against the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the Chief Magistrate.” By this standard, running a parallel foreign policy in Ukraine for the main purpose of investigating and polluting his chief rival is an injury for which the president’s swift removal is abundantly justified.

That the Republican Party has proved itself, almost to a man, unable to “defend the community” from further harm by punishing this grave transgression only serves to demonstrate that it is bereft of the “impartial arbiters” once deemed so vital to a healthy republic. This wanton evasion of responsibility means that the task of removing an unfit president will have to be done the old-fashioned way: by the very people who put him in office to begin with—or not at all.


Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer primarily focused on U.S. foreign and defense policy. You can follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776


  1. "Trump, in short, has sought (unsuccessfully, thanks to the efforts of a whistleblower) to grossly abuse his office for personal political gain.

    Nothing that has yet come to light contradicts this pregnant allegation. On the available evidence, there is presently no reasonable doubt that Trump was engaged in the extortion of a foreign head of state—and the betrayal of the national-security interests of the United States—to smear a political opponent."

    Really? How about the fact that running for office doesn’t and should’t shield one from criminal prosecution? How about the fact that limiting corruption is self-evidently in the national interests for any country dealing with any other country? What about the fact that the President of the United States has wide plenary power in the matters of national security - meaning he gets to determine what that national security interest is.

    I’d say nothing at all came to light, in these hearings, which would impregnate the allegations at issue with anything resembling seriousness.

  2. I didn’t realize that Quillette had become a satirical site.

  3. Trump Derangement Syndrome on full display in this article.

    “The “inquiry,” supposedly prompted by President Trump’s Ukrainian call, is only the most recent coup seeking to overturn the 2016 election.

    Usually, the serial futile attempts — with the exception of the Mueller debacle — were characterized by about a month of media hysteria. We remember the voting-machines-fraud hoax, the Logan Act, the Emoluments Clause, the 25th Amendment, the McCabe-Rosenstein faux coup and various Michael Avenatti-Stormy Daniels-Michael Cohen psychodramas. Ukraine, then, isn’t unique, but simply another mini-coup.” VDH

    “As the impeachment process unfolds, it is becoming apparent that few American politicians today understand that democratic republics need to be bastions of moral order if they are to survive.”

    Where was all this moralizing when Bill Clinton was selling the Lincoln Bedroom, soliciting campaign donations from China or Hillary taking bleach bit and hammers to computers and hand held devices subject to subpoena?

    Ukraine received the aid that was withheld by Obama from Trump. Ukrainian officials have said they felt no pressure from the Trump administration.

    Thanks to the Democrats Impeachment now means a party other than the President’s controls the House. The author appears agitated that the Republicans dare to question witnesses and assertions. If the evidence of Impeachment were as strong as the author alleges, he would have spelled it out to bolster his claims. As the evidence has failed him, he is relegated to complaining about those pulling back the curtain. Why is the author not concerned that Mr. Schiff previously met with the whistleblower, and then lied about having any contact with the whistleblower.

  4. Trump’s defenders contend that presidents often use leverage to induce foreign leaders to act in ways they might prefer not to, but such inducements are legitimate only in service of the national interest, which Trump’s patently were not.

    I disagree.

    If Joe Biden, vice-president of the US at the time of the events under investigation, and his family were committing acts of corruption, then an investigation by Trump would very much be in the national interest.

    I am interested, and I think a lot of other people are, too. (Though not the Democratic Party, obviously.)

  5. Today’s testimony in part:

    “Later in the day, Volker made clear he had not seen anything to support Democrats’ contention that Trump improperly withheld foreign aid to Ukraine as a means of forcing an investigation into the Bidens’ dealings in the country.”

    U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker:

    I wonder if the current article was spawned by all the success the Republicans have had in questioning witness?

  6. The great tragedy of this impeachment is that by the very nature of its frivolousness, it sets a precedent for the impeachment of every president going forward into the future. Every president.

  7. Interesting, an article titled “Bereft of Impartial Arbiters” that is bereft of impartiality.

  8. Wow! I never thought people like the writer Brian Stewart really exist . He must have bad dreams of conspiracy and talk to himself in the mirror each morning. I think theres a psychological name for this OR is he a pseudonym for Adam Schiff?

    Seriously, are there actual people that believe this self serving diatribe.Have a holiday Brian.

  9. The problem with twitter:
    “Did anyone ever ask you to bribe or extort anyone at any time during your time in the White House?" House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., asked at one point in Tuesday’s afternoon hearing.

    Former National Security Council (NSC) aide Tim Morrison: “No.”

    “Later, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., hit the same notes in asking the witnesses about Trump’s fateful July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: “Mr. Morrison, you were on that call, and there was no quid pro quo, correct? No bribery? No extortion?” Correct," Morrison replied in response to each question.

    “Morrison said his understanding was that Trump generally was skeptical of foreign aid, and wanted to make sure that taxpayers were “getting their money’s worth.”

    “The president was concerned that the United States seemed to bear the exclusive brunt of security assistance to Ukraine,” Morrison said. “He wanted to see the Europeans step up and contribute more security assistance.”

    “Morrison also said he had heard others express concern that Vindman was a leaker, and could not be trusted with key information.”

  10. There is nothing of any factual substance to this article. Someone should have warned this author that attempting to influence the people that populate this forum by assuming conclusions would have a high probability of evoking only scorn.

  11. Hmmm. This is out of character for Quillette. I enjoy hearing viewpoints I don’t agree with when presented in a thoughtful way. However, this partisan hackery seems more fitting for a Rachel Maddow monologue, or a NYT editorial.

  12. Can you imagine the printing ink, air time carnage if Donald Jr. had been appointed to the board of Rosneft (Russian energy giant) with a salary of $50,000 per month, despite the fact he knows nothing about the energy industry and speaks no Russian? And this while his father is President? And Trump’s excuse for this action is that father and son had decided not to meddle in each other’s affairs, so it’s all right. Where the hell was the MSM when all this actually happened under Vice President Biden? Think what you like about Trump’s quid pro quo (though please don’t tell me it was bribery), but this Biden family business simply does not pass the smell test.

  13. First article I have ever read on Quillette that was nakedly and unashamedly partisan, blatantly prejudicial, openly dismissive of any contrary evidence to the substance of the article, and utterly contemptuous of dissenting opinions of others not in agreement with the author. I am very disappointed in Quillette. I have highly recommended this site to others seeking the “long form” essay - carefully reasoned opinions supported by multiple citations - not political motivated hack pieces “preaching” about the moral failings of those who dissent with the author’s thesis. I hope Quillette will never published an article like this again - or I will have to reconsider my recommendation and withdraw my Patreon support as a subscriber. I expect better from Quillette.

  14. No, they succeeded. This is an accurate capture of what the other viewpoint looks like.

    It’s just that the other viewpoint is really stupid.

  15. I like counterfactuals so here goes:

    1. If Don Junior or Ivanka Trump got a seat on the board of a Ukranian Gas Company, bringing no expertise on either Ukraine, or gas, and Trump told the civil authorities in Ukraine to lay off the company or else. That would be an impeachable offense.

    2. If Trump’s IRS decided to “randomly” audit every left-wing org in the country and strip them of charitable status, that would probably be worth looking into. (though I think Trump Admin should do that anyway).

    3. If Trump admin was caught running guns to Mexico, where it would subsequently “lose” them to criminal gangs. That would be an offense worth impeachment.

    4. If Attorney Barr said that he was Trump’s “wing-man.” In public. That would have been an offence worth impeachment.

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