A professor sits at the oaken desk of his university office. Across from him, an undergrad- C student, wobbling between a decent GPA and one that won't recommend her for greatness once she's out of school. She's here to discuss ways to polish up her final essay. "You know," the professor leans forward, fingers tented: "you've been a great student. One of my favorites. Such potential. This essay, it could really make you shine. I want to be your mentor on this, I want to see you go fantastic places."
The student smiles uncertainly. "Thank you."
"I want you to do me a favor, though. I want you to blow me."
All relationships involve a power dynamic. Some relationships more than others. Professor and student, manager and employee, parent and child, etc. Above all of these, perhaps, the relationship between the head of the most powerful nation on earth and that of a nation teetering on the edge of existential crisis.
Relationships in which the power dynamic is necessarily more pronounced require careful stewardship; it's the duty of those on the top to use their power justly, or at least not to use it for nefarious purposes. Such stewardship gratifies both moral and practical goals. Morally, we're taught that subjugating those underneath us is bad. That's the grade school argument, anyhow. The Machiavellian would sneer. But the Machiavellian at least appreciates the practical aspect of power dynamics. So does the Hobbesian. Practically speaking, the fair use of power helps preserve the institution in which the power presides. If the professor is allowed to rape his students with impunity, then our faith in the university wavers. The institution may crumble. The leviathan is not infallible,
Look no further than the Weinstein Company for a more concrete example.
Following through on my opening illustration: does it matter that the paper's grade or the student's final grade is never mentioned explicitly as a "quid pro quo?" If the student rebuffed her professor's advances and reported him before he could follow through with anything, would it matter to the institution or the authorities that he never actually got a blowjob, that he never altered her grade? The answer, of course, is no. The carrot and the stick are both implicit in the asymmetry of roles here. The teacher has implicit power, vested in him by the institution of the academy. The student is implicitly vulnerable. The very request for a favor is de facto coercive, and a gross misuse of power.
So it is with our current political situation. Quid pro quo is so utterly besides the point that I shouldn't even need the above preamble. Here are two nations: one, corpulent, gnashing feverishly through its last sinewy shreds of goodwill, natural resources, national wealth, but still ostensibly the biggest shark in the ocean. The other a nation besieged, thrashed about by geopolitical storm surges, foundational kleptocracy, its own corrupt political diseases. Its neighbor wants to reabsorb it by hook or crook, and has already succeeded in biting off a chunk of its most desirable real estate. It has no war chest, it barely has an administration. It relies very much on the goodwill of that gasping, gluttonous nation to the west for its own continued existence. This is not an overstatement.
The Republicans have latched onto the Trumpian argument (as they so often do these days): "no quid pro quo." Which is a really, really stupid argument as I've hopefully illustrated. Unless the other side takes it hook, line and sinker.
I have no idea why Democrats have agreed to Trump's battlefield conditions. Maybe they thought that the American electorate was too stupid to appreciate the nuance of power dynamics. Maybe they thought they could truly establish a clear line of testimony from the Presidential constellation of advisors, glommers-on and asskissers all the way to the president himself. In any event, they are wrong. Fatally so, as it happens. Accepting the "quid pro quo" standard for everything that follows is problematic on two levels: first, it cheapens the initial point. If we have to focus so aggressively on quid pro quo, the implication is that implicit power dynamics, and the ways they can be fundamentally misused without ever revealing the stick all go down the toilet. All of a sudden, those in power can ask for the favor so long as they never threaten the consequence. That alone is culturally damaging, and despicable.
The bigger problem for Dems in the immediate sense, though, is that the "quid pro quo" standard is functionally impossible to meet at this point. Those closest to the issue (Mick Mulvaney, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, the president himself) will never testify, and without their affidavit that aid was held up specifically to pressure Ukraine into investigating the president's political rivals, we can only infer the president's motivations. And if we're trying to prove quid pro quo on the inferred motivations of somebody as mercurial as the president, then we will never prove quid pro quo.
What the president did was wrong. What's more, it is absolutely worth impeachment over. Using the public office of the presidency to coerce weaker nations into investigating (or, at this point, simply announcing an investigation on TV) political rivals is strongman thuggery. It's undemocratic. And even in the frankly laughable case that aid was held up for completely unrelated reasons, the president still used the public support and monies to further his personal goals. Every time the guy makes a phone call, it's on the public dime. Which means my support, your support, your grandma's support- all of it was used to try and further Donald J. Trump. Not the president, the man. That's worth impeachment.
Here's what's going to happen. Donald Trump will be impeached in the House. And that's optimistic. Maybe it won't even get that far. But let's assume it's a foregone conclusion.
It'll go to the Senate, where the case will be summarily drowned like a puppy in a bathtub.
And then Donald Trump will be re-elected. Of that I am absolutely confident.
And then Donald Trump will have four more years without having to worry about re-election, believing with a vast body of supporting evidence that he is irreproachable, above the law. And that, THAT is terrifying.