While some think that Trump is beyond defense and that the Republicans should be damned for siding with him, I contend that the Republicans are right to vigorously defend Trump. What I disagree with is how they are doing it.
The president, regardless of who holds the office, has the right to a fair, impartial and objective impeachment process. This includes a vigorous defense on the part of those who would take up the president’s cause, mostly typically the president’s party members. One reason for this is the presumption of innocence. While this is a principle for criminal trials, it is a good general moral principle to apply in any case where a person is accused and can face consequences. As part of American moral philosophy, we have adopted this principle and it is sensible to apply it consistently and thus it also applies to Trump. This presumption requires that a proper process be followed to prove that a person is guilty and if it fails, then the person should be regarded as innocent. If Trump were not defended, this would amount to a presumption of guilt—which would be unfair even if the president is guilty.
A vigorous defense is also important to maintain the commitment to the process—that the political battles will not fall into a sort of state of nature in which all that matters is might. Even if the outcome is certain, it is important to maintain a commitment to a proper and ideally a fair process. As always, one should apply the Golden Rule and consider that while someone they might hate or love is the target of impeachment, the next time the opposite could prove true. If we believe in truth, justice and the American way, then we must accept that the president is entitled to a vigorous defense. However, this does not entail that all defenses are justified.
Since I value truth and good reasoning, I am appalled by the usual tools of immoral politics—lies, misused rhetoric and fallacies. Ideally, these should not be employed to attack or defend a president. But my focus is not on my usual complaints about untruths and bad logic, but on a more serious matter—that the Republican’s defense strategies are damaging to the country.
One of the Republican tactics was to assert that the impeachment process is unconstitutional. In addition to getting the facts wrong (it is in the constitution) this lie is damaging because it attempts to deceive people about the constitution. That is, it is essentially defending Trump by lying about the law. But this is a small harm.
The Republicans also engaged in attacks on the ambassadors, staffers and others who testified before congress. For example, there were efforts to smear Lt. Colonel Vindman as a spy. Trump also broadly attacked the non-partisan witnesses as “never Trumpers” despite the lack of evidence and the fact that they had generally served presidents of both parties. Trump and his defenders are not only seeking to harm the witnesses, they are also serving to undermine trust in the people who serve the United States regardless of which party happens to be in control at a given moment. That is, they are causing lasting harm in the hope of a short-term political gain.
Rather than focus on a coherent defense of the claims against Trump, the Republicans tried to use red herrings in the forms of long discredited conspiracy theories about the Bidens, Hillary Clinton, Crowdstrike and the fabled server. Laying aside the moral problem about lying and the logical problem with using red herrings, the use of these toxic conspiracy theories involves undermining the FBI, the intelligence agencies, and other institutions. This is sometimes done directly by attacking them and other times by implication—if these lies are to be believed, then those who debunk them must be seen as lying or incompetent. This is not to deny that the FBI and others make mistakes but undermining these institutions for short term political gain is morally reprehensible. There is also the obvious worry that these undermining efforts are not just for short term gain but for long term gain—these institutions are obstacles to corruption and crimes.
One of the most damaging strategies is the Republican’s master conspiracy theory, that there is a deep state that exists to undermine Trump. This charge is brought up whenever anyone seeks to limit Trump’s actions or expose his misdeeds. To those who have a basic grasp of the law and the American political system, what the Republicans call the deep state is nothing more than the law and the people working in accord with the established political and legal system. That is right out in the open. Harping on the deep state is extremely corrosive since it undermines faith in the American legal and political systems and casts constitutional checks on power as some sort of vile conspiracy. This is doing a lot of damage for short term political gain and is likely also aimed at a long-term project, namely weakening the legal and political machinery that exists to resist corruption and tyranny.
So, how should the Republicans defend Trump? The ideal would, of course, be to abandon these corrosive tactics and focus on the key aspects of any defense: the facts of the matter and the values aspect. That is, the two issues are whether Trump did the actions in question and whether these actions warrant impeachment. Addressing these requires more than simply denying the facts and repeatedly insisting that the actions do not warrant impeachment. Angry yelling also does nothing, though people sometimes think that if someone is yelling angrily, then their anger must be justified. This need not be the case.