Though the official name of the country of France is “The Republic of France,” their government is known as the “Fifth French Republic.” It is so named and numbered because they have had four previous constitutional republics since the French Revolution, all of which failed because the French have spent the past two centuries gladly spreading ’em for any autocrat who so much as batted an eye in their direction, despite their allegedly democratic character.
The First Republic was taken down by Napoleon, and Napoleon III decided it would be more fun to rule the Second French Empire than be the president of the Second French Republic. The Third left this world the same way it came into it, with France crushed by a German invasion. After France’s best investment crossed the Atlantic to liberate our first ally from the Nazis, they founded the Fourth Republic, which was brought down by an armed coup led by Charles du Gaulle. The Fifth Republic was thus created so that said pompous dick could be France’s strongman ruler, but fortunately for us all, he eventually died, leaving a proper presidential democracy — granted, it is currently on fire, but it is a democracy.
In the United States, on the other hand, we think of our republic as “The Republic,” and our current government as part of a single, unbroken historical chain. Even the 2% of us with a basic understanding of American history hold the Articles of Confederation — our initial sorta-constitution that barely created a federal government—as a first draft of the real Constitution, even though they were completely different functionally. This version of history is a product of our national founding mythos: George Washington drove out King George and breathed life into the Great Living Document, which has adapted itself to the needs of our nation ever since. It is known.
But in the French view of things, this is the Second United States of America, and the father of these Second United States is Abraham Lincoln. Yes, our government operates under the same Constitution as Washington’s did and flies the same flag (the French likewise still rock the First Republic’s tricolor) but the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th through 15th Amendments transformed this country into something fundamentally different from what it had been, from a semi-democratic republic in which you could own people, into the liberal democratic republic that kicked Hitler’s ass.
However, as our present constitutional crisis spirals ever further out of control, and our institutions fail in the face of Trump’s lawlessness, I wonder if these troubled times could spell the end of those Second United States.
As I claimed to be historically literate two paragraphs back, let me just begin by offering that history has made a fool of nearly everyone who has ever made a statement like that. There’s a good chance that I will look downright histrionic for even suggesting that a corrupt jackass could bring down what generations of better men and women have built. In addition to the aforementioned Hitler-ass-kicking, the Second United States put twelve people on the moon, for God’s sake. THE MOON!
That being said, in Attorney General Bill Barr’s mounting refusal to acknowledge the black-letter legal powers of the legislative branch, our executive branch is now operating in open defiance of Article I of the Constitution, which means it’s also in open defiance of Article II, which means it’s defying the legal basis for its own existence. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone can see that, along with the many glaring weaknesses in our system of government that Trump has exposed over the past three years, and still believe that we won’t have to change how our political system operates to the point of a soft revolution.
For nearly a century, we have taken undue comfort in a presidency limited only by what the officeholder should do, but now we have seen what the president can do, and it’s terrifying. The president can start trade wars, shatter our international obligations, and expel hundreds of thousands of longtime residents from the country without providing anything resembling a good-faith justification. Occasionally, the courts stop him, but as the reinstitution of the travel/Muslim ban showed, SCOTUS does his bidding. Not to be dramatic or anything, but all that separates us from the thermonuclear destruction of all life on Earth is the caprice of an amphetamine-addicted, emotionally unstable thug with the memory of a goldfish. As a kicker, he’s spent the past year firing anyone with the stones to circumvent orders to destroy the world, let alone to commit lesser crimes.
If (and that’s a big if) we actually step back and consider that objectively, the existing powers of the imperial presidency, which probably should’ve been curtailed long ago, cannot survive. Bill Barr’s thus-far-unchallenged violations of the law could be setting a dangerous precedent for a lawless executive, as everyone is currently worried, but I think it’s just as likely that Congress will react with a whole host of enforcement powers that make his “Subpoenas don’t count if we don’t feel like it” routine impossible to replicate in the future (measures which will undoubtedly make governing a total pain in the ass).
In any case, we’re well past the point where the only restraint placed on future presidents will be mandatory disclosure of tax returns. Whether or not it’s connected to out-and-out treason (which it totally is), the full extent of Trump’s open corruption and self-dealing is staggering. Once we have a full picture of the graft, it’ll likely be a felony to even form an exploratory committee with any assets besides cash, home(s), and maybe index funds. After all, the history of democratic nations is written in half-baked overreactions to public hysteria.
The actions of Congress also beg for an overhaul of the body. Though a ban on gerrymandering would do much to fix what ails the House, the Senate will require more drastic measures. Much like how our faith in the Presidency has been broken by Trump, we have seen the delusion of the “the world’s greatest deliberative body” unmade by the Senate Majority Leader, who is probably the worst person in America. Prior leaders have thrown their weight around in the upper chamber and defied the popular will for political purposes — it is the Senate — but the traitor Mitch McConnell is a thousand times more hypocritical and amoral than Harry Reid was on his greasiest day, which is saying a lot.
Cocaine Mitch openly took the side of Russian meddling over the security of the United States. He’s torched every gentlemen’s agreement and convention that bound his predecessors, from blue slips to the the judicial filibuster — which Reid only weakened in the first place because McConnell decided Barack Obama wasn’t allowed to appoint judges. He’s destroyed any vestige of democratic restraint, all so that he can use the non-mandate of a president who lost by three million votes to infect the federal bench with 30 year-old right-wing freaks for as long as they live.
That taint to our legal system cannot stand, and I’m not saying this as the pipe dream of a Kavanaugh-hating liberal: should the most dire theories of Trump’s betrayal prove true (which they totally will), the bench must be purged of his appointees. The American judiciary cannot tolerate the presence of 100+ federal judges who were installed as a direct result of a conspiracy against the United States, let alone two SCOTUS justices. If you don’t think lawyers will find a way to negate any decision Trump appointees make on that basis, jamming up the court system and allowing them to bill trillions of hours in the process, you really do not understand the American legal industry. Action must be taken, and the means to take that action must be created.
It is presently quite foolish to expect any real change from a Congress that discredited itself well before Trump ever got here, long since debased by partisan obstructionism. The idea is frankly laughable… as laughable as the idea of Congress ratifying the Equal Protection Clause would have seemed in 1858. But they did, ten (very bloody) years later, because the Democratic Party that made such progress impossible destroyed itself for the sake of its slave-owning pimps. Not to compare the folks who currently own the South to the Slave Power Democrats or anything, but the GOP is following our lead.
Six million Americans would have to kill each other in order for us to proportionally match the slaughter of the American Civil War — highly unlikely, no matter how enthusiastic some Trump superfans might be about the idea of six million deaths. However, if we have, in fact, installed a traitor in Washington’s office, and one of our great parties has willingly facilitated that treason (which we and they totally have), the Craziest Thing That Has Ever Happened will present the same kind of traumatic inflection point in our history. God willing, the party that saw us through that dark night will soon face the same fate as my own party did in the 1860's: disgrace, popular disrepute, and political disarmament.
Partisanship is so rabid that any sea change seems impossible, but liberals and Democrats only despair so deeply because we love to tell ourselves that everyone on the far side of the partisan divide is our intellectual inferior, who loves racism and Russian interference too much to ever give them up. On the contrary, for all the dyed-in-the-wool deplorables out there, a potentially decisive bloc of voters is only on the red team because they’re being fed misinformation to keep them on board. Fox News, the nexus of that willful misinformation, may be on the verge of imploding on itself, torn between its namesake (irrelevant) reporters who greatly dislike Nazism, and its advertiser-repellent Nazi opinion hosts.
If that happens, OANN and NewsMaXxX are not going to fill the void left by the Must-See-White-Nationalism primetime line-up, at least not fast enough to replicate Fox’s influence and institutional power. Besides, even if Sean Hannity proves to be complicit in the grand conspiracy (which he totally is) and the network ditches the fearmongering that the near-dead so crave in favor of real news, some of the old people who haven’t changed the channel in two decades will keep watching. That inertia will expose them to facts.
There are a lot of loyal, red-blooded Americans who just have no idea what they’re truly supporting in the GOP, and if we have a national moment of clarity, they’re going to be deeply pissed. States that have been blood-red for decades would see political upheaval — the purpling of the Upper Midwest has already rapidly contracted since its 2016 zenith. Though very few of the resultant lawmakers will be progressive enough for Woke Twitter’s tastes, Democrats could win Senate seats they presently have no business winning.
Does all of this lead to change fundamental enough that future Frenchmen will call it the birth of the Third United States? Again, we are in strange times, dealing with unprecedented events, so much so that any prediction is a fool’s errand — this piece included. Constitutional amendments are the only mechanism to bring about such a seismic shift, and they require political will that simply does not exist at present. It is astronomically unlikely that 38 legislatures will go blue, even in a hypothetical shockwave as described.
However, if enough of them go purple, enough outraged constituents demand change, and enough of our friends across the aisle rediscover humility and devote themselves to the project of national renewal, perhaps real change is possible. Maybe, just maybe, we will find the strength to remake ourselves, and Amendment XXX will immortalize the pornographic depravity of Trump’s reign for as long as there is a United States of any kind or number.
…Or maybe Congress will pass a handful of neutered bills just to act like they did something, sweeping everything they can under the rug, and the Second United States will keep on muddling through, having learned nothing of importance from its mistakes. In the end, that’s the one American tradition that Trump can never kill.