At the outset of his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee Monday, Barry Berke, the attorney representing the House Intelligence Committee presenting the case for the impeachment of Trump, quoted his young son.
“Dad, does the president have to be a good person?,” he quoted his son asking. The question, he said, typical of many by young people, brought “a certain clarity” to the issue of impeachment, but was not easy to answer.
“It’s not a requirement, but it is hoped for,” Berke said he replied. He went on to answer, paraphrased, “He doesn’t have to be good, but he cannot abuse power, he cannot risk national security for his personal gain, and he cannot be above the law.”
Yes, it’s a tough question. It was simpler when I was growing up in a small fishing town on the central California coast and looked behind the counter of the post office cubicle at the local grocery to see a portrait of our president with the name “Truman.” How appropriate that the president be a “True Man,” I often thought.
In our democracy, it is legal to elect a bad person to public office. It goes with the notion of democracy. But that person cannot break the law. That’s the deal. He swears an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the land.
How many of our elected officials have ever broken the law? In the late 1990s, President Clinton broke the law by allegedly committing perjury while trying to cover up an extra-marital affair, and he was impeached for it. But breaking that kind of law is vastly different than what Trump is accused of today.
Trump’s violations go to the heart of what an oath of office is designed to prevent. He’s accused of gross abuses of power, of risking the national security of our nation for his personal advantage and of repeatedly acting above the law.
But at their core, these violations point to a man who is simply, as the young person’s question suggests, not a good person at all. It is ironic that this is what matters to a young person, a future voter whose concerns probably reflect those of a majority of young people his age or near it.
It is in his question, and not in his father’s reply, where the hope for the future of America and democracy lies.
It can be asserted credibly that bad actors and democracy are incompatible. There is a very strong moral imperative associated with the seminal phrase that undergirds the very notion of democracy, the radical idea embedded in the Declaration of Independence that “all men (that is, persons) are created equal.”
That notion is so powerfully basic, and so antithetical to any notions of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, disability, national origin or any other category one can think of.
Our culture today can be defined on the basis of a division between those who believe in this core concept, and those who don’t. I believe that there are more people who believe in this core notion than don’t, but that is not guaranteed. But there are times, like the present, when this assertion is put to the test more than others.
By this measure, Trump is a very, very bad person. So it is not surprising in this context that he is also a crude, rude and disgustingly vile person who resorts to the worst forms of insults against those who don’t agree with him, no matter how honorable, professional and dedicated to the national interest they may be. He has no honor, none, nor any serious notion of what that means.
What’s doubly sad is that the Republican Party has adopted the same rude and reprehensible conduct as the president himself. GOP members of Congress have sullied themselves by their childish, potty-mouthed rants and repeated disruptions of the somber proceedings of our highest deliberative bodies. I suppose it should not be surprising that all the worst such violators of decorum are white men. Their children are watching. Do they not care?
Gentlemen, you should be ashamed.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]