Historiography, the study of history and how to write it, hasn’t changed much in the 25 centuries since Herodotus. Herodotus conceived of history as the stories of great leaders and their victories and defeats, a conception that still dominates the field. “The new history” was invented early in the 20th century; it focused on the lives of regular people rather than leaders.
An even more revolutionary idea, “alternative history,” was invented in our time. The concept is to imagine how history would have been different if a single pivotal factor changed. An example is Newt Gingrich’s and William Forstchen’s novel about how the world would be different today if Pickett hadn’t charged at Gettysburg and the South had won the Civil War. This has a serious purpose as well as delighting the imagination. Most of what happens is over-determined by a confusing welter of possible causes, so it is hard to discern what drives events. Alternative history helps us see what really caused what happened.
Take impeachment for example. Why was Donald Trump impeached? There are lots of possible reasons. Some Democrats may really believe he is a threat to democracy; they keep saying that. His personal attacks on his opponents, calling Nancy Pelosi a “third-rate politician” and Adam Schiff “pencil neck” can’t have helped. And then there is the possible effect on the next election. Another tantalizing possibility is that they are laying the groundwork for a second impeachment after a Trump reelection claiming he won through foreign interference. That would explain why they don’t seem to care about his almost certain acquittal by the Senate. How are we to judge which, if any of them, is really behind impeachment?
Here’s a hint: the ancient Greeks understood human history better than we do. They kept their eye on the ball of human nature, which drives history. They knew — and we have forgotten — that every hero has a tragic flaw, an Achilles’ heel; it is usually his greatest strength carried too far. Donald Trump’s is that he thinks that he is smarter than everyone else and consequently he doesn’t learn from those whom he considers of inferior intelligence, which is pretty much everyone. He goes through advisers like snowflakes on a hot sidewalk. Few, if any, are left who know how Washington works well enough to keep him out of trouble, and even if he gets good advice, will he heed it?
To see how Donald Trump’s tragic flaw is the key to his impeachment, consider a thought experiment. Suppose a president, any president, wanted to persuade another country to investigate corruption. The careerists who work for the National Security Council would draft talking points for his call with the incoming president of that other country. The draft talking points would more or less implement his policy, but not exactly in the way that he would prefer. We know that the NSC staff did in fact draft such talking points for Donald Trump’s call with the incoming president of Ukraine. Based on his character, I surmise he never read the staff’s draft. Big mistake, Donald. Yes, they weren’t exactly what you wanted, but I guarantee that they did not contain the following two sentences, for which you were impeached:
There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it.
In a recent article, I argued that Donald Trump had a legal, indeed a constitutional, right to ignore the talking points that the staff had prepared for him. I stand by that, but it doesn’t mean that he was wise to do so. Let’s do a little alternative history: Suppose President Trump had read the draft talking points and said to the experts, “This is a good start, but I thought I’d mention a few specifics like Hillary’s server and the Bidens.” The staff would have replied,
We’d strongly advise against that Mr. President. Mentioning a political opponent to a foreign government could get you into a lot of trouble, plus it is unnecessary. If you just ask for a general investigation of corruption, Clinton’s server and Burisma are going to be on the agenda anyway, so why take the risk?
Even Hillary concedes that would have been okay. Because he refused to let the career staff show him how to do what he wanted to do, Trump handed the Democratic majority in the House a marginally plausible pretext on which to impeach him, which they had been trying to find unsuccessfully for the previous three years.
Undoubtedly, President Trump sincerely feels his call with the president of Ukraine was “perfect.” Trump has been being investigated by his political opponents since before he was elected and during his entire time in office; he must think, “How can it possibly be wrong for me to ask another government to investigate a political opponent?” What he doesn’t get is that how you do something matters more in Washington than what you do. That is how the Obama administration got away, so far, with its outrageous behavior of conducting surveillance, a.k.a. “spying,” on the presidential campaign of the opposing political party: they observed the forms of legality by going to the FISA court. The former general counsel of the FBI was even on CNN demanding an apology. There wasn’t any “spying” on the opposition political party, he insisted; it was just legal surveillance under a court order, and that happens every day, he said. In Washington, it’s not “spying” if you do it right.
The 19th-century financier J. P. Morgan was asked why he used Elihu Root, who served as secretary of state and secretary of war under three presidents as well as in the Senate, as his lawyer. “Most lawyers tell me what I cannot do,” he responded. “Mr. Root tells me how to do what I want to do.” The federal government is like that. The career staff will help you do what you want to do — provided that it is legal, and if it isn’t, you don’t want to be doing it anyway.
The second most important conversation of my life — the first being when my brilliant and lovely wife agreed to marry me — took place one early evening at EPA after I had been general counsel for about a year. My special assistant, E. Michael Thomas, now a successful lawyer in private practice in Boston, walked into my office and shut the door behind him. Michael had been at EPA for about a decade, and I hired him not only for his intelligence and expertise but also because I had known him at Yale Law School and knew he would always tell me what I needed to hear. He did. “Don, you may think you are smarter than the 250 people who work out there in the Office of General Counsel,” he began, “but you are not 250 times smarter! You are going to be more successful if you learn how to lead them to do what you want them to do.”
The defining legal issue of our times is the relationship between the administrative state and democratically elected politicians. Until Trump, a quiet power-sharing arrangement had been in place. Under this truce, politicians and their political appointees made certain decisions, while the career staff made others. This compromise worked reasonably well, until Trump defied it. As a former businessman with a high opinion of his own intelligence, he regards bureaucrats with contempt — and worse yet, he doesn’t hide it. But what he needs to understand is that he will be more successful in achieving his goals in a second term if he convinces the millions of career government employees to work for him rather than against him. They may not be as brilliant as he is, but they know a lot more about their specialties than he does. Plus, they will be there after he is gone, a phrase they often repeat to one another. They will extend, or undo, his legacy. Permanent change in government is achieved by changing the permanent government.
Trump may think he is smarter than the million people who work for him in the executive branch. He may even be smarter than they are, but he is not a million times smarter.