What Is the Crisis? Some Possibilities

Clearly we are in the midst of some kind of crisis in the United States, a political crisis, certainly, perhaps a legal crisis, likely a constitutional crisis, too. I want to think out loud, probably in more than one post, about the nature of that crisis. Much of the focus of what I’m reading seems to either focus on the wrong thing or construe the crisis too narrowly. So what is the crisis? I’ll be thinking out loud: here are a variety of framings.

(1) We have a crisis because the person who is serving as President of the United States has, allegedly, done some things that disqualify him from further service. Among the allegations are that he colluded with the Russians to have them help him win the election, and now that he has (again, allegedly) recklessly shared super-secret intelligence with the Russians, showing by this that he has no grasp of the importance of secret-keeping.

(2) We have a crisis because the person who is serving as President of the United States is manifestly unfit, by character and competence, to serve in the office. This was known well in advance of the election, but events since his inauguration have served to demonstrate this unfitness.

(3) We have a crisis because the Republican Party, despite knowing the manifest unfitness of its presidential candidate, has been standing by him since his nomination, enabling his reckless, perhaps illegal, actions. The crisis is not just a crisis involving the President and his chief advisors, it reaches to the cooperation offered by Republican Congressional leaders.

(4) We have a crisis because for some decades we have through a variety of steps by a variety of actors constructed a presidency that cannot be controlled or contained when the person holding the office does terrible things: torture, drone strikes, unauthorized use of military force abroad, obstruction of justice. Call this, on one view, an imperial presidency; call it, on another, a unitary executive.

I’m sure there are other ways of construing the crisis, but these are the alternatives that strike me at the moment. Of course there are blended versions of these four, and various blended versions are likely better than any of the four options taken by itself.

These various framings suggest quite different ways of addressing the crisis. If it is the first, the crisis might be addressed well by a special prosecutor such as now as been appointed to look into the Russian connection. The efforts of the special prosecutor might (though slowly) lead to a criminal prosecution or impeachment proceedings.

If it is the second, the crisis could be addressed more by impeachment proceedings than by legal investigations, except insofar as investigations might further convince the reluctant to see the unfitness of this president,

If it is the third, the crisis could only be addressed by political means. With both houses of Congress in Republican control, impeachment proceedings (or exercise of the 25th amendment) would be unlikely to serve. Only a reversal of Republican control in the House and Senate would serve.

If it is the fourth, we have a long road ahead of us including removal of the current president, defeat of the enabling Republican Party, broad renewal of political and civic leadership, and various legislative decisions and court judgments to restore a Constitutional presidency.

I’m much more drawn to the third and fourth understandings of the crisis. Of course this president has acted in reckless, disqualifying ways. Of course this president is, and was known to be, unfit to be President. But I don’t think seeing the crisis through either of these lenses is at all sufficient.  I do not expect the best efforts of a special prosecutor or the possibility of impeachment to be adequate the threat.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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