The British Constitution is helped or hobbled, depending on circumstances and your point of view, by the reality of its not being a single document anyone can point to. It is, perhaps, more oral than written. It’s a collection of loosely bound historical conventions and a few uncoordinated documents enshrined by tradition, not unlike a comet that’s really a huge collection of pebbles and dust, hurtling through space and bound together by Newtonian gravity and kept on the same course by momentum. That one can make sense of the overused phrase “Constitutional crisis” in a British context at all is a miracle of intractability. It is altogether too tempting to insist that the crisis is created by a pebble in the comet that isn’t really part of the comet at all – as a cheap way of escaping the whole problem.
To the credit (and at times, dismay) of the British people, that temptation is seldom succumbed to, and when in 1936, often referred to as “the year of the three kings,” King George V died, a genuine Constitutional crisis emerged at the ascension of the Prince of Wales, styled, but never coronated, as Edward VIII. David, as he was known to his family and friends, at that time was seeing an American divorcee named Wallis Simpson with whom he was irrevocably smitten. Against the advice of friends and family he was determined to marry Mrs. Simpson, in contradiction to a constitutional tradition strictly prohibiting the King marrying a divorced woman, let alone a commoner, let alone an American without so much as a single tie to the aristocracy.
And that is the story of David and Wallis. It would have made a perfectly marvellous love story had it not been for one thing: Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson were two thoroughly awful human beings. Hateful, gossiping, vindictive, Nazi sympathizing and elitist to the point of insufferability, they would have made for a malignant choice as King and Queen. So before the year ended, David abdicated, bringing to an end the constitutional crisis and thrusting his stammering and wholly unprepared brother into the purple – as George VI, father of the current Queen.
It should be noted here, for coherence, that there existed for many centuries in Britain an unwritten rule that the monarch was infallible. When he or she was in error it was always down to their advisors. The savage excoriations and not infrequent executions of ministers to the monarch were common, and served as adequate surrogates for bad policy and other missteps on the part of the monarch.
In America it is, if anything, easier to identify a Constitutional crisis. After all there is but one Constitution residing in a single place. At a mere 7,591 words (including the amendments) it can be read at average talking speed in less than an hour. If anyone is in doubt about how to interpret it, one need only turn to the United States Supreme Court for an answer.
Even so, an American Constitutional crisis can be every bit as vexing and baffling as a British one, and rarely lends itself to neat and final outcomes, as in the case with Edward VIII. All of which is to say that we have learned much from our British ancestors whose system we are, in part, its inheritors, including the ill-advised notion of the separation of the monarch from legal consequences. We continue to make that mistake when we speak of “the office of the president,” as in, “we may have no respect for the man but we must respect the office.” It is how a partisan memo written on behalf of an impeachable president, stating that a sitting president of the United States may not be indicted, has mysteriously been transformed into a pebble in the hurtling comet of our very own “oral” Constitution.
This alone isn’t what makes Donald Trump so infuriatingly hard to get rid of. It also takes partisan hypocrisy of Olympic proportions, the kind that will wait to tell you what kind of person you are after it finds out what party you belong to and whose side you are on. To hear Republicans tell it, I am still understandably loyal to the Mormon Church because I was born in Utah, never mind that I left the place at age four, never mind that I despise Mormonism, its hypocrisy, its racism, its origins in an obvious, notorious nineteenth century con man named Joseph Smith.
To hear Republicans tell it, Colonel Alexander Vindman is an old school Soviet worshipper of Stalin. You can forget his spotless service to his country, his rise from poverty, his boot-strapped Ivy League education, his enlistment as an officer, the sliver of shrapnel still in his leg from a roadside bomb, his subsequent Purple Heart. No, the relevant part stems from what bit of real estate his mother was standing on when he was born. It is contemptible, superstitious rubbish. It is infuriating innuendo intended to harm the reputation of a fine American. No, better yet, it’s chickenshit. Let’s call it what Nicolle Wallace called it: chickenshit.
This is America’s new Constitutional crisis, the willingness of Republicans and their lickspittles at Fox News to stand on an open street corner and shred the Constitution of the United States and hurl it into our faces. This is Republicans destroying a fine man’s reputation, murdering his good name with innuendo in the craven act of punishing him for the honest exercise of his First Amendment rights. This is Republican hypocrisy shamelessly stooping to preserve, protect and defend a villain, a rapist, a liar, a thief, a psychotic monster.
The traditional way of dealing with Constitutional Crises of the past, when they occurred in both Britain and the United States, was for one or both contending parties to back down and seek compromise. The Republican way is to declare the impeachment of Donald Trump as unconstitutional by ignoring or destroying or misrepresenting the Constitution itself and mistreating, slandering or lying about anyone who gets in their way. There is no sacrifice too great – including the sacrifice of the Constitution itself – in the service of preserving at all cost, at any cost, their new pig-god named Trump.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.