Lessons from Trump’s second impeachment

It took a couple of centuries before the promise made in Declaration of Independence could be realised

Shahid Javed Burki January 17, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

There are good reasons why citizens of a country such as Pakistan should follow — and possibly learn — from the constitutional struggles being waged in the United States at this time. The American Constitution was written and adopted in 1788 by what were then the 13 colonies of Great Britain. They rebelled against the British crown then worn by King George III and took up arms to fight the colonial power. A rag tag army headed by General George Washington fought a series of wars and was able to prevail even though the British brought reinforcements recruited as mercenaries from Germany. A group of politically influential figures assembled in Philadelphia, then the largest American city, and wrote and approved a number of documents. Among them was the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson. Contemporary Americans know the following lines the best: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness.”

The delegates to the assembly in Philadelphia also endorsed the Constitution which began with the following preamble: “We, the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” James Madison introduced 12 amendments to the Constitutions for approval to the First Congress in 1789. Ten of those would go on to become the Bill of Rights.

It took more than a couple of centuries before the promise made in the Declaration of Independence of unalienable rights could be realised. It turned out that these rights were confined to only white men; to include those of colour the Americans had to fight a civil war that took hundreds of thousands of lives. The slave-holding states in the country’s south refused to give up their right to own, buy and trade black people. It was only when they were defeated in the war ordered by president Abraham Lincoln that he could issue a “Proclamation” banning slavery in the country. Even then the African-American population did not win full political rights. Even today, the states in the county’s south are able to restrict by all kinds of regulations black people’s right to vote. Women won the right to vote in the middle of the 20th century.

Notwithstanding this slow progress towards a fully representative political system, the Americans were able to present to the world their way of doing politics as the best way to serve the people. This was the case in particular after the collapse of some competing systems such as Adolph Hitler’s nationalism and the Soviet Union’s communism. It was the end of the Soviet system in 1991 that convinced the American political scientist Francis Fujiyama to famously write about the “end of history” in a book titled the same.

I write this a day after the 438-member House of Representative, the lower chamber of US Congress, voted to impeach Donald John Trump, the 45th US president. He thus earned the distinction of being the only head of the American state to be impeached twice. The House resolution moved on Monday, January 11, 2021, maintained that “in his conduct while as the President of the United States and in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of the President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitutions of the United States and in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, Donald John Trump engaged in high Crimes and Misdemeanors by inciting violence against the Government of the United States.”

The resolution referred to the address he gave at the Ellipse in Washington, the park at the back of the White House, “where he reiterated false claims that ‘we won this election and we won it by a landslide’. He also wilfully made statements that, in context encouraged — and foreseeably resulted in — lawless action at the Capitol, such as: ‘if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore’.” Other impeachable offenses cited in the resolution, “included a phone call on January 2, 2021, during which President Trump urged the Secretary of State of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, to ‘find’ enough votes to overturn the Georgia presidential election results and threatened Secretary Raffensperger if he failed to do so.”

The liberal forces in the country were strongly in favour of impeachment even if the Senate would not be able or prepared to convict the President. “President Trump’s efforts to remain in office in defiance of democracy cannot be allowed to go unanswered, lest they invite more lawlessness from this President or those who follow,” wrote The New York Times in an editorial published a day after the House took up the consideration of the resolution. “The attack on the Capitol on Wednesday was not a spontaneous eruption of violence. It was the culmination of a campaign waged by the President of the United States and his allies in Congress and the right-wing media to overturn results of a free and fair election that began even before the ballots began to be counted on Election Day.” On January 13, the House voted on the resolution and approved it by a vote of 232 in favour and 197 opposed. This time around 10 Republicans in the House joined the Democrats to vote in favour of impeachment.

The American Constitution created what was to become the longest living democracy in the world. It has been held as an example that could — perhaps should — be followed by countries such as Pakistan. The practice of politics in the US has gone well beyond those provided in the Constitution. Four of these are worthy examples for countries that are engaged in attempts to develop viable political systems of their own. First, results of the elections should be accepted by those who have lost. For that to happen all those who partake in them should have full confidence in the fairness and freedom of the electoral process. This did not happen in Pakistan in 2013 and 2018 when those who lost accused the winning side of fraud and manipulation. Second, those who in positions of power should be fully accountable for the actions they take. This was the main reason for President Trump’s impeachments. Third, government positions should not be used for personal gain. This happened after the elections of 2008 and 2013. Four, political, economic and social rights of all people irrespective of their ethnicity, colour or religion should be fully protected. The current political turmoil in the US is a conflict between those who believe in these propositions and those who reject some of them. As Pakistan develops its political system, it would do well to pay heed to these lessons from the recent American behaviour.



Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2021.

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