We humans are many things. One is that we are beings who understand, construct, and change our world in and through language.
In the beginning there were words. The late great writer and dissident-citizen-president, Vaclav Havel, said it well in his powerful 1989 acceptance speech to the German Booksellers Association, “Words About Words”:
words can be said to be the very source of our being, and in fact the very substance of the cosmic life-form we call Man. Spirit, the human soul, our self-awareness, our ability to generalize and think in concepts, to perceive the world as the world (and not just as our locality), and lastly, our capacity for knowing that we will die — and living in spite of that knowledge: surely all these are mediated or actually created by words?
And yet, as Havel knew, while words can illuminate and empower what is good, they can also darken and empower evil. As he continued:
Words that electrify society with their freedom and truthfulness are matched by words that mesmerize, deceive, inflame, madden, beguile, words that are harmful—lethal, even. The word as arrow. I don’t think I need to go to any lengths to explain to you of all people the diabolic power of certain words: you have fairly recent first-hand experience of what indescribable historical horrors can flow, in certain political and social constellations, from the hypnotically spellbinding, though totally demented, words of a single, average, petit bourgeois.
The “petit bourgeois” to whom Havel referred was a certain early 20th century Austrian painter-turned-Chancellor of Germany. But the insight obviously applies to any number of contemporary aspirational fascist leaders, among them the idiot-narcissist-in-chief who currently occupies the White House.
Since he first began his campaign for political power with his Birtherist demagoguery, Donald Trump’s words have been harmful, even “lethal.” And ever since January of 2017, his poisonous words — disseminated to the world via Twitter, Fox News, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and widespread television and journalistic coverage of his demagogic, Nuremberg-style rallies — have carried the rhetorical force of the Presidency of the United States. From the start, some on the left have questioned whether it makes sense to focus on “what Trump says rather than what he does.” But, as I argued back in May 2017, in a piece entitled “Trump is an Authoritarian: In his actions and his words — and words are actions”:
Trump’s words — Tweeted daily to tens of millions, and broadcast to hundreds of millions — are real. They are political acts. Trump’s words mobilize hatred against “foreigners.” They denounce and demonize journalists and independent news organizations. They enact, and encourage, an utter cynicism about the distinction between truth and falsity. They incite anger and hostility towards judges, and the rule of law, and regulations and procedures that stand in the way of the decisive action of The Leader. If that is not “authoritarianism,” then what is?
Trump’s performance in office over the past two years leaves no doubt: he is an authoritarian, and his words are his most important and most dangerous medium.
While his words about immigrants have not succeeded in generating legislative support for his border “wall,” they have succeeded in promoting an intensification of an administrative policy of detention, deportation, and cruelty at the border, accompanied by an intensification of vigilantism at the border; and through his declaration of a national emergency — a speech act if ever there was one — he has expropriated federal funds for his wall despite Congressional disapproval.
While his words about “bad hombres” and “enemies of the people” have not led to the suppression of civil liberties, they have led an upsurge of hate crime, in the locales at which he holds his Volkish rallies, and arguably, in the country more generally; and there is no reason to doubt that some horrifying assassination plots targeting Democratic leaders, including former Presidents, bear some connection to the rhetoric of the Inciter-in-Chief (only this week it was announced that Christopher Hasson, a racist Coast Guard lieutenant who plotted to kill a number of leading liberal Democrats and journalists, will not be charged by the Justice Department with any domestic terrorism crimes; and only days ago a white supremacist opened fire at a California synagogue, killing one and wounding others).
Trump’s words have force. And they continue to mobilize his substantial base, and to do harm to his targets and to public life more generally.
As the controversy over the Mueller Report continues to rage, three things are clear.
First, Trump did commit numerous acts of “obstruction of justice,” which are impeachable offenses;
Second: in the wake of the (redacted) Report’s publication, Trump has spoken with increasing anger and faux-righteous indignation about the need to investigate the investigators, extending the cloud of suspicion to both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and suggesting that these people face a “reckoning.”
Third, and most important: in recent days Trump has increased both the frequency and audibility with which he is claiming that the Mueller team, elements of the Justice Department more generally, and Congressional Democrats are traitors who attempted a coup.
Now, she [Clinton] lost and now they are trying to infiltrate the administration to — really, it’s a coup. It’s spying. It’s everything that you can imagine. It’s hard to believe in this country that we would have had that. I don’t know if you remember a long time ago, very early on, I used the word “wiretap” and I put it in quotes, meaning surveillance, spying, you can sort of say whatever if you want.
. . .When I won, they were all saying lock her up. Lock her up. I said, no, no. Let’s get on with life. That was different. It was like right after the election you want to get a new page and turn over a new leaf. And I said let’s get on with it . . [yet] look at what she’s done, how she’s destroyed the lives of people that were on our campaign, she has destroyed their lives and the DNC. And frankly when the FBI went into the DNC, the DNC told them to get the hell out of here.
. . .So, I really say, now we have to get down because this was a coup. This was an attempted overthrow of the United States government. We had people coming out to vote from all over this country that are in love with what we are doing. It’s called Make America Great Again. That’s what we have done and we are doing. And this was an overthrow and it’s a disgraceful thing. And I don’t — I think it’s far bigger than Watergate. I think it’s possibly the biggest scandal in political history in this country. Maybe beyond political. . . . These are sick people. These are sick, sick people. So let’s see what happens with McCabe and Comey and Brennan and Clapper. They weren’t in the act. And let’s see what happens and let’s see how high it goes up. It’s inconceivable when it goes to Clapper, Brennan, Comey, these people — I would imagine that some other people may be a little bit higher up also knew about it and maybe a lot higher up.
The message was clear: there was a conspiracy to overthrow the government, and this conspiracy clearly goes “high up,” and it will be investigated, and then “we’ll see what happens.” The following day Trump, speaking at a National Rifle Association convention in Indianapolis, raised the stakes even higher. He again denounced the Mueller investigation as an attempted “coup” against the people:
Every day of my administration, we are taking power out of Washington, D.C. and returning it to the American people, where it belongs. And you see it now better than ever, with all of the resignations of all of the bad apples. They’re bad apples. They tried for a coup; didn’t work out so well. And I didn’t need a gun for that one, did I?
All was taking place at the highest levels in Washington, D.C. You’ve been watching, you’ve been seeing. You’ve been looking at things that you wouldn’t have believed possible in our country. Corruption at the highest level — a disgrace. Spying, surveillance, trying for an overthrow. And we caught them. We caught them. Who would have thought in our country?
. . . Far-left radicals in Congress want to take away your voice, your jobs, your rights, and they especially want to take away your guns. You know that. They want to take away your guns. You better get out there and vote. You better get out there and vote. It seems like it’s a long ways away. It’s not. . . We’re getting ready to start up the campaign again. Start up the campaign again. I never want to do anything with MAGA because MAGA country and MAGA — “Make America Great Again” has been great, but we’ve really made it great. We’ve made it great. We’ve brought it back. And we’re thinking about — slogan: “Keep America Great.” Because you have socialists and far-left Democrats that want to destroy everything that we’ve done.
If with Hannity Trump emphasized the importance of criminal investigation (“hopefully the attorney general will do what’s right and I really believe he will.”), with the NRA Trump emphasized popular justice, through political mobilization and voting but also through the defense, and the exercise, of the right to bear arms.
It was no mistake that Trump began with a half-joking nod to violence (“And I didn’t need a gun for that one, did I?”), and that he chose to attend this group of gun-owning fanatics and to foreground their “endangerment” by liberals supposedly seeking to seize their guns and empower criminals. More important is how he ended: by invoking the memory of the Minutemen who fought the British at the start of the American Revolution:
Two months before the American Revolution broke out, with the shot heard around the world, a group of patriots gathered along a bridge in Salem, Massachusetts. In the preceding months, British soldiers had confiscated muskets in Boston. You know the story well. Gunpowder was seized in Somerville. And the patriots in Salem knew that the Redcoats would soon come for the town’s cannons. But the Americans were prepared — they already loved our country — and they were determined to defend their rights to the death. When hundreds of British soldiers arrived at the bridge, the Americans stood firm, blocking their path. When swords were drawn, they didn’t flinch. . .
In the courageous actions of those early Americans, we see the defiant and determined spirit of patriotism that has always willed America to its greatest victories. It is a spirit that is passed down from generation to generation, from fathers and mothers to sons and daughters. It is the spirit that lives in each and every one of you.
Our duty, our responsibility, our sacred charge, is to preserve the freedoms that our ancestors gave their very lives to secure. Because no matter how many centuries go by, no matter how much the world changes, the central drama of human history remains the same.
On one side are those who seek power, control, and domination. And on the other side are patriots like those in this hall who stand upright and plant their feet in eternal defense of our liberty.
This is not an appeal to Jeffersonian democracy. It is an endorsement of and incitement to the militia movement and to the spirit of vigilantism.
Think about this. The man is saying that there is a conspiracy on liberty that extends to the highest levels of government; and that true patriots will arm themselves and stand ready, with him, to face tyranny without flinching, and to “defend their rights to the death.”
And the man resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and is the President of the United States.
What does it mean when the President publicly accuses duly appointed legal officers of the Department of Justice of treason; publicly accuses his political opponents of plotting a coup; calls upon his own administration to criminally investigate these opponents; and calls on his angry and aggrieved supporters to arm themselves to stand with him and fight by his side?
The U.S. Constitution, like all legal documents, is a bunch of words. Its Article II, which outlines and powers and duties of the President, contains these words in Section 1, Clause 8:
Before he enters on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: — “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
On January 20, 2017, Trump took this oath, a performative act if ever there was one.
Are his accusations of treason against duly authorized public officials charged with executing the law consistent with this oath, and with the Constitutionally prescribed duty to “ take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed?”
Trump has been railing against “the deep state” — the state that he is legally responsible for running fairly, smoothly, and for the public welfare — for over two years now. By now accusing legitimate public officials of treason, he is undermining the very legality that it is his duty to uphold and the very governmental institutions it is his duty to preserve. This is of course completely of a piece with the obstructions of justice documented in the Mueller Report, and with his more general effort to refuse all forms of constitutionally prescribed oversight, especially by Congress.
But Trump’s recent rhetorical escalation about “infiltration” and “treason” and “coup” represents more than a mere violation of the letter or even the spirit of the law. It is a veritable declaration of war on constitutional democracy, on an independent civil society of journalists and legal professionals, and on the very idea of legitimate opposition.
Forget Putin and Russia. Trump expends most of his words denouncing the very legitimacy of the form of government he is constitutionally obligated to serve.
If this does not constitute grounds for impeachment, what does?
The obstructions of justice would be sufficient. The violations of campaign law, or of the Emoluments clause, would probably be sufficient. But the attack on democracy itself puts this far over the top. This is far more than an “erosion” of democratic norms or an exceeding of “guardrails.” This is a direct assault on core institutional features of constitutional democracy. To let this stand would be to let stand the complete degradation of democracy.
And this is why I disagree with Bhaskar Sunkara, when he writes in the Guardian that “talk of impeachment, then, is purely rhetorical,” and that “the way to defeat a rightwing political coalition is through leftwing politics, not theater.” I agree that the only way to remove Trump from office is through his electoral defeat in 2020, and that an effective campaign to achieve this goal cannot focus only on questions of law and procedure, and must engage “the needs of ordinary Americans” and their concern for “decent jobs, healthcare, housing rights and the constraining of corporate interests.” But, as I have argued repeatedly in recent days (see here, here, and here), an impeachment inquiry, and a vote that would put all Congressional Republicans on the spot, can be orchestrated in a way that is politically compelling, and is perfectly consistent with mobilization on pressing social and economic policy concerns.
Just as important, as Hannah Arendt emphasized many decades ago, speech acts, and the public framing and posturing and performance with which they are associated — what Sunkara seems to mean by “theater” — are central features of politics, for political actors, and political audiences, and for spectators-who-might-become-actors.
Trump’s words are a danger and indeed an incitement to hostility and violence.
We need to use the rhetoric of impeachment to put him and his Republican party on notice.
And we need to use impeachment hearings to enact and to mobilize a powerful opposition to his authoritarianism in the name of democracy and civic and socio-economic equality.
To the extent that this is theater, all politics is theatrical.
The goal is to make things visible, and to motivate people to act together, against Trumpism, and for the defense and the deepening of democracy.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, now available from Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can talk to him about this essay on Facebook.