From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
by Lewis Hyde
I am committed to unseating Mr. Trump — either by voting him out of office or by impeaching him — because his constant attacks on the norms of democratic governance have put American democracy itself at risk. A case in point is the way he has betrayed the oath he took to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
The Constitution contains many wonderful old words, my favorite these days being emolument. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language defines the word to mean “profit, advantage,” and illustrates with a quotation from “Self-Interest Deposed,” a discourse by seventeenth-century preacher Robert South. South was addressing himself to cowards who have let greed overcome their Christian duty: “Let them consult how politick they were, for a temporal emolument to throw away eternity.”
The framers of our Constitution were not addressing themselves to Christian cowards but to public servants who might, for a temporal emolument, throw away the promise of a democratic republic. Our founding document thus contains a simple prohibition: “No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States] … shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State.”
As Governor Edmund Randolph explained to fellow Virginians as the Constitution was being ratified, “This restriction is provided to prevent corruption,” to guard especially “against the danger… of the president” taking unauthorized benefits “from foreign powers”—one of which, then as now, was Russia.
We don’t know, of course, if Mr. Trump receives emoluments “of any kind” from the Russians, as he refuses to release his tax returns, but with other foreign states the record is clear. To take but one example, for ten years the Chinese refused to register a trademark for a Trump-branded construction service. Three weeks after he took office they granted him that trademark. A month later they gave preliminary approval to another thirty-eight new Trump trademarks covering, among other things, branded massage services, golf clubs, bars, bodyguards, social escorts (!), and concierge services.
Mr. Trump is known for flouting the norms of democratic practice, but the prohibition on unauthorized foreign emoluments isn’t just a norm, it’s a Constitutional demand. Mr. Trump has violated it many times over. What is to be done? Said Gov. Randolph in 1788, if the president is “discovered” to have taken “emoluments from foreign powers… he may be impeached.”
Take action today:
Impeachment is the first of two steps that the Congress could take to remove a president: after the House impeaches, the Senate must vote to remove. It seems unlikely that the second step will ever be reached. The first, however, might come to pass should the Democrats regain control of the House. Either way, at this point the one clear action to take to limit the danger Trump poses is to get involved in local Congressional elections. Both the Flippable and the Indivisible movements offer good points of entry. Myself, I am supporting the campaign of Ken Harbaugh, who has a good chance of unseating the incumbent Republican in Ohio’s Seventh Congressional District.
Lewis Hyde is a poet, essayist, translator, and cultural critic with a particular interest in the public life of the imagination. His next book is entitled The Forgetting Notebooks.