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System Failure

It turns out that the machinery of our constitutional republic is not sufficient to protect the political order from a malignant chief executive.
September 25, 2019
System Failure

1. The Constitution

In 2016 and 2017, the responsible conservative view regarding Donald Trump was, more or less:

  • That the power of the presidency was large, but limited.
  • That presidents always discovered that they were hemmed in on all sides by the machinery of the vast federal government.
  • That the guardrails of the Constitution and the bureaucracy were so sturdy that it would be, if not impossible, then very difficult, for any president to impose real, structural harm on the institution of the executive branch.
  • That the payoffs from a Republican president—Gorsuch!—were nearly certain and the costs were unlikely.
  • That at the end of the day, except for superficial aspects, such as his Twitter feed, Trump would be like most presidents—because it is the machinery of the government which forces presidents to color inside the lines, whatever their wishes.

Meanwhile, the more hysterical types (like me) argued that:

  • The machinery of government was less robust than it seemed.
  • The underlying norms of political life were at least as important as the written codes.
  • These norms could be easily shattered.
  • And while laws can be reformed, norms cannot be consciously rebuilt.

In essence, the debate between these two camps boiled down to one question:

Do you think the machinery of American political life—which is a contraption consisting of the Constitution, the vast federal government, the body of existing law, and our political norms—is sufficient to prevent a president from inflicting structural damage on the body politics?

If you answered “yes” to this question, then you could be relatively sanguine about President Trump. If you answered “no”—or even “maybe?”—then you were a hysteric who was exiled from the Republican party and read out of the conservative movement.

We do not yet have a definitive answer. But, to the country’s great misfortune, we keep accumulating data points.

And as of right now, it would not be unreasonable to reach a provisional conclusion: That the machinery of our constitutional republic is necessary, but not sufficient to protect the nation. Without elected representatives willing to put aside partisan loyalties, the machine is deeply vulnerable to corruption.

2. Impeachment

Let’s stipulate something right here:

No one knows what really happened with Trump and Ukraine. Not yet. We have a fair idea of the outlines of the case—some from reporting, some from the president’s personal lawyer, some from Trump himself.

But until we get a thorough investigation and a full view of the transcript, all conclusions should be tentative and everyone should withhold final judgment.

That said, for the first time in Trump’s presidency, it’s clear that impeachment is a live issue.

There are lots of caveats. Maybe the investigation will prove that impeachment is not warranted. Maybe the investigation will make impeachment necessary. Maybe it will be somewhere in between.

But you can’t look at the situation as we know it and believe that impeachment is impossible.

Yet at the same time, we should not have any illusions about impeachment. Especially about how elected Republicans will conduct themselves.

In short: There can be no gun emitting enough smoke to force Republican senators to convict Trump.

Last week, we had members of Conservatism Inc. running around insisting that since the whistleblower may not have been in the room with Trump during the phone call that the entire story was “smoke and mirrors.”

Then it turned out that the story, as reported, seemed largely accurate.

Next we had Trump partisans insisting that he never brought up Biden.

Then Trump admitted he brought up Biden.

Now we have Trump supporters saying that the Biden request wasn’t linked to foreign aid.

It now seems as though they were mentioned in the same conversation.

The next goal-post will be set to say that there was no explicit linkage of money-for-Biden-dirt.

And if that condition is satisfied, the line will move to Whatever was said on the phone, you can’t prove that the release of foreign aid was tied to Biden dirt.

And if that gets satisfied, we’ll move on to No Biden dirt ever showed up, so whatever was said and whatever was done, nothing illegal happened.

And so on and so forth.

Point is: In order to force Republicans to turn on Trump, you’re going need a videotape of the president handing Volodymyr Zelensky a satchel full of cash and Zelensky then giving Trump a folder. And Trump then would have to say something like:

“Why yes, Volodymyr. This is the illegal information that I, Donald J. Trump, asked for you to obtain on my behalf for my purely personal gain that had nothing to do with the good of the country. And now I will take it to my secret lair. Thank you for colluding with me in order to influence the American election.”

And even if you had that tape, Trump would still get the support of 60 percent of registered Republican voters and hold on to 40 votes to acquit in the Senate.

So if impeachment is going to happen, Democrats should go into it with no illusions.

3. WeWork

I don’t know about you, but I cannot read too many WeWork stories. This one is from the great Gabe Sherman:

Not long after Adam Neumann started WeWork in 2010 with a single coworking outpost on Grand Street in SoHo, the then-31-year-old Israeli entrepreneur showed up at a real estate industry conference on Park Avenue wearing his now-familiar uniform, T-shirt and jeans, with shoulder-length surfer hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in days. Neumann, who is six foot five, was an instant object of fascination among the suit-clad executives in the room, many of whom were twice his age. But it was his hyper-confidence that one attendee recently recalled. “I remember Adam asked me what company leases the most office space in New York. I told him JPMorgan. They have about 3.5 million square feet. And he said, ‘Well, I’m going to lease more than they do.’”

The boast came true. Last September, WeWork surpassed JPMorgan to become New York’s largest private tenant, with more than 5 million square feet of office leases spread across more than 50 locations in the city. Fueled by more than $10 billion in venture capital from Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, Neumann grew WeWork to employ more than 12,500 people and was barreling toward an IPO this month that would have valued the company at $47 billion. On paper he was worth close to $7 billion. In the media Neumann was heralded as the millennial prophet who foresaw a new kind of office culture, one in which the beer and kombucha flowed and MacBook-toting freelancers would love coming to work (at WeWork’s headquarters, Neumann threw “Thank God It’s Monday” parties).

But for WeWork, the last two weeks have been comparable to the end of tulipomania, a complete phase-shift in the company’s prospects. There were stories about Neumann’s reported erratic behavior and drug use. WeWork’s IPO prospectus revealed that Neumann held ownership stake in buildings WeWork leased from, essentially paying himself, and that his wife, Rebekah Paltrow Neumann—Gwyneth Paltrow’s first cousin—was one of the people with the power to choose his successor. Investor demand for the stock dried up, forcing the company to slash its valuation by more than half, and then delay the IPO entirely. A string of high-profile executives walked out the door, including the chief communications officer, the co-head of WeWork’s real estate fund, and the global head of WeWork’s real estate partnerships. WeWork hemorrhaged almost $2 billion last year, which means the company desperately needs the IPO to happen to raise cash, or else must find other sources of funding. “I think this company may go down to zero unless they take drastic moves right away. They’ve gone from heroes to targets in 30 days,” said Scott Galloway, a marketing professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.