Trump’s trials and majesty of democracy


The impeachment trials of the United States’ President, Donald Trump, came to an end on February 5 with his acquittal by the upper house of the Congress. The Senate voted to acquit him on the two articles of impeachment, namely, the abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

It would be recalled that the end of bipolarity as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, ushered in the unipolar moment headed by the United States, which paved the way for the mainstreaming of liberal democracy as a dominant regime type through liberal internationalism. Liberal democracy has helped to widen the universe of human rights thereby providing a push back of authoritarian regimes. Given some of this inherent value of liberal democracy, its convulsion in the United States would naturally elicit interest. So it is with us in this medium; and the premise was the just-concluded impeachment trial of President Trump. Indeed, the world was regaled with the impeachment proceedings. While it lasted, we could imagine Solon, the architect of Athenian democracy and the Acheberian ancestors of the fictional Umuofia in Igboland watching it for the fact that it was not just President Trump that was on trial but democracy as a state system.  

For several weeks the U.S. president went through impeachment trials over two principal charges. One was the obstruction of the statutory function of the Congress by preventing White House staff from honouring subpoenas. Two, abuse of power by president for predicating assistance to Ukraine on the latter’s probing of the business activities of Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president Joe Biden. Like most legal processes, the case was one of pros and cons. The proponents of impeachment argued that the president abused the power of his office as engrossed in the two articles of impeachment. But the cons argued that charges were not statutory crimes such that the president could be removed from office. At the end of the day, the resolution of the impeachment charges was reduced to partisan voting and President Trump was acquitted. 

In our understanding of the matter, we note that on the charge of obstructing the congress statutory duty, it is without doubt bad for American democracy and the second charge implies that the President asked a foreign government to investigate his political rival in faraway Ukraine and subsequently withheld critical military assistance for reasons personal and political. For the president to assume that whatever he does is in the interest of the Americans is wrong and betrays poor appreciation of the complex nature of governance. Some say the trial is not over and that the electorate will have the final say in the November elections.

However, there are some interesting lessons to be learnt. We saw the demonstration of the independence of each arm of government in the United States. Yes, we saw the majesty of the classical separation of powers in a democracy. Although the incumbent president barred the subpoenaed white house staff from appearing before the Congress, the impeachment process went ahead and the lower house of Congress with a democratic majority impeached the president. At the Senate, the Impeachment Managers and the president’s defence team made their case most eloquently drawing from the spirit and letters of the constitution as well as the history of the country without hindrance. It was a realisation of Alexis De Tocqueville’s assertion about the associational nature of the American society and indeed a realisation of the principle of separation of powers.

Baron de Montesquieu had argued in his The Spirit of Laws on the need to entrench political liberties and that the best means of doing that is through the separation of the powers of government, and the appropriate framing of civil and criminal laws so as to ensure personal security. In this regard, the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government should be assigned to different arms for mutual restraints.

Therefore, the impeachment process is a reinforcement of political liberties evinced in the opposition of Mitt Romney, (Republican Senator) that the “president can indeed commit acts against the public trust that are so egregious that while they are not statutory crimes, they would demand removal from office. To maintain that the lack of a codified and comprehensive list of all the outrageous acts that a president might conceivably commit renders Congress powerless to remove a president defies reason.”

The global democratic movement should be strengthened by the Congress’s defiance of a heady president to pursue its constitutional task of holding the executive arm of government accountable for its actions. The occasional disequilibrium in the democratic process is part of the democratic culture in America. In a paraphrase of Alexis de Tocqueville, David Runciman, the author of The Confidence Trap, A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War 1 to the Present, notes that, “Faith was the lynchpin of American democracy.

The System worked, Tocqueville decided, because people believed in it. They believe in it despite the fact that it looked like it shouldn’t work; from moment to moment it remained a mess. Democracy was an inadvertent form of politics, haphazard, uncoordinated, occasionally ridiculous, but somehow on the right track. Americans muddled through, sustained by their confidence in the future.” 

Now the impeachment is over, both the democrats and the republicans need to work for bipartisan bridge building for the greater good of Americans, democracy and policy stability. The president’s post-acquittal witch-hunting of those who acted out their conscience in the impeachment process will undermine this desired goal. Self-restraint is required.

For our country with a parliament curiously yoked to the presidency in words and indeed, the lessons explained above need not be overemphasized. And here is the unambiguous message to the representatives of the people in Abuja and 36 state capitals in the already troubled federation: Loyalty to the people and the organic laws of the land are critical to political stability. And so loyalty to a strong man in office and power has no place in the majesty of democracy and the rule of law that the trial of the most powerful leader on earth has just demonstrated. 

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