The Constitution depends on rivalry and jealousy. It may not be an engine of perpetual conflict, but the separate branches of government and chambers of Congress are supposed to be wary of encroachments on their authority. James Madison hoped that the multitude of interests represented in the legislature would prevent a single will, embodied in a unified majority, from exercising unlimited power.
These are things Americans learn as schoolchildren, but to see the adversarial psychology behind the Constitution play out in today’s impeachment battles is still a shock to behold. President Trump and his White House simply refuse to cooperate with an inquiry opened by a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats. The Republican majority in the Senate looks set to stand by the president, notwithstanding some discomfort and dissent. The Constitution gives the House few powers to punish the president or coerce his compliance.
The public is rapidly becoming acquainted with the reality that impeachment is a political process, not an ordinary legal one. And the portion of the public that most strongly supports the president relishes the fight hardly less than his enemies do.
The defiant letter the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, addressed to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representatives Adam Schiff, Elijah Cummings and Eliot Engel this week was the literary equivalent of one of Mr. Trump’s raucous campaign rallies. It opened several lines of argument against the impeachment inquiry, including the idea that the inquiry’s fundamentally unfair because it doesn’t allow Mr. Trump to challenge accusers and their evidence.
But the arguments come second to the spirit behind them, the sheer audacity of defying Congress. Mr. Trump is not resorting to ideological niceties — he’s placing a constitutional struggle in its rawest, deepest psychological context: rival persons, rival powers, incompatible interests and passionate self-defense.
This is what his supporters respond to. It horrifies his opponents, and many onlookers as well, but it’s a return to the foundations of Madisonian politics, as unlike James Madison as Donald Trump certainly is.
These feelings are the roots of a greater part of politics than rationalists dare admit. Passions and interests give rise to ideologies, more than ideologies arise from abstract reason. The parties and their allies in right-leaning or left-leaning media are not just hypocritical when they swap places over the investigative powers of Congress or the way an impeachment should be run. (Republicans have often championed Congress’s investigative powers, from the House Un-American Activities Committee to the Benghazi hearings. Democrats saw impeachment rather differently in 1998 than they do now.)
The changing positions are, rather, reflections of the interests and rivalries that are foundational to a competitive political system. This doesn’t make politics pretty, but it’s what a realistic understanding of human nature leads one to expect.
Mr. Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters recognized in him, three years ago or more, a permanent occasion for fighting Democrats and the progressive left. He is not an ideological president in the sense of having policy formulas ready to implement; he’s instead a catalyst of conflict with the right’s opponents.
He’s a clarifier. And in some cases, he has clarified questions that don’t resolve into the politics of left and right: when he has shown, for example, how little public commitment there is to bipartisan designs for multilateral trade deals and the exercise of American global leadership through new military interventions in troubled places.
Mr. Trump has done his part to widen the range of what can be discussed at the highest levels of politics. This has been a necessary corrective to the tendency of the country’s political class to close ranks and merge minds.
Mr. Trump has been the nemesis to that class’s intellectual hubris as well. The economy has flourished for three years under a president who pays no heed to economists. And if that doesn’t necessarily vindicate the president’s own positions, which he chooses for reasons that would not pass muster with theorists and ideologues, the record nonetheless calls into question the value of system-builders in policymaking.
Impeachment sharpens the lines that have already been drawn in the Trump era between left and right, the politics of pretense and the politics of rivalry. As useful as that may be in awakening some Americans to unpleasant realities, and much as others may enjoy the conflict itself for clarifying loyalties, the danger is that precedents too powerful for the good of the country will be set down in the process. A confrontation that exposes just what little authority Congress has to compel testimony from the executive branch will have far-reaching consequences, not least for the next time Republican lawmakers want to hold hearings on Democratic embarrassments like Benghazi.
Not every conflict is best brought out into the open, where the strength or weakness of either side is unmistakable. If the Constitution needs a certain spirit of conflict, it also needs a modicum of uncertainty about which powers can win.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: email@example.com.