Donald the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584) was a very bad person. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when a review (behind a paywall) of a new biography reminded me of another cruel, mentally ill ruler whose behavior is often rationalized by people who should know better (such as reporters for The New York Times):

Ivan complains that as a boy he was treated as a sovereign only on ceremonial occasions, but that otherwise there was no “element of servility to be found” in those looking after him. “How can I enumerate such countless sore sufferings as I put up with in my youth?” he asks….. “Many a time did I eat late, not in accordance with my will.” Even when he was old enough to understand, others presumed to instruct him. “And so neither in external [state] affairs, nor in internal [personal] affairs, nor in the smallest and pettiest things (and [I refer to such things as] footwear and sleeping)—was anything according to my will…while we remained, as it were, a child.” Ivan also complains that [Prince Andrei Kurbsky] once hurt his feelings by giving presents to a nobleman’s daughters while forgetting to give any to Ivan’s. The childhood hurt, and the child’s whining response, can still be heard in the thirty-four-year-old ruler….

Around 1560 he began seizing property and ordering executions….[He demanded] that he receive a free hand to punish anyone in any way he chose without delay, legal process, the traditional consent of the boyars [aristocrats], or the clergy’s right of intercession on behalf of the accused. As he later explained … although he had always felt he should be “free to reward and punish,” he had to follow judicial procedures and endure the clergy’s interference. That was all very well for lesser rulers, like Elizabeth I, whose power was limited, or the Holy Roman Emperor, who was elected, but Ivan found it infuriating that his power, while absolute in theory, was not unlimited in practice. He insisted not on the power to do anything specific but on the absolute freedom to exert his untrammeled will….

Ivan’s oprichniki—a terrifying army … —dressed in black and wore a uniform featuring a dog’s head and a broom, to show they would sniff out treason and sweep it away…. noble ladies were forced to give birth in the snow, and “any peasant who attempted to assist them on the way was promptly executed.” The dead were left unburied, a special horror at a time when Christian burial was supremely important.

…. there followed “a veritable orgy of arrests and killings, in which it is difficult to detect a specific policy.” Historians have struggled to find a rationale for Ivan’s [behavior]. If his goal was to plunder in order to finance his war on Livonia, as some have suggested, then why the wanton destruction of taxable assets? Why the indiscriminate killing of servitors when soldiers were needed? Some have argued that Ivan’s actions resemble those taken by contemporaneous Western rulers consolidating central power, and that his repression of the boyars was “progressive.” But no Western ruler ever thought of dividing his realm in half so that one part could prey on the other….

…. historians seem to have combed the evidence for support for their belief that Ivan must have acted in a rational way: “Hence theories had to be devised, according to the intellectual fashions current at the time, which made it possible to interpret events as having been planned with a view to well defined and positive outcomes.” In the twentieth century, that meant describing a struggle with the tsar and lower-ranking gentry on one side and the “reactionary” upper nobility on the other. When explanatory fashion shifts, some other narrative will doubtless be found to explain what happened.

Russians were especially shocked that along with massacring the elite, Ivan executed their families and followers. For the first time in Russia, it became common to kill a condemned man’s wife and small children—as well as his peasants—and to devise imaginative forms of torture…. Entire families were summarily killed, some by Ivan himself. “Even the wives of the peasants were stripped naked and driven ‘like beasts’ into the forests, where they were cut to pieces…

The oprichniki were free to do anything they liked. Courts were instructed to find them not guilty of any charges. Pillage, rape, and seizure of property were the obvious consequences….

Heinrich von Staden, a repulsive foreign adventurer who joined the oprichniki, describes in his memoir one of his plundering expeditions. Staden explains matter-of-factly that “if a prisoner did not want to respond nicely” by revealing the location of his wealth, men “held him and tortured him until he told.” Running up some stairs during a raid, Staden was “met by a princess who wanted to throw herself at my feet. Seeing my angry face, she turned to go back into the room. I struck her in the back with the axe and she fell through the doorway.” He boasts that he set off on Ivan’s expedition against Novgorod in 1570 sharing a horse with two other men but returned with forty-nine horses and twenty-two wagonloads of goods.

The attack on Novgorod began by devastating towns on the way. Ivan’s men sacked Tver for five days. Arriving in Novgorod, Ivan piously attended the Epiphany service before resuming the mayhem. Humiliation was a crucial part of his repertoire: he married Archbishop Pimen to a mare and drove him out of town seated backward on the animal. Then Ivan conducted treason hearings. The population of Novgorod, the realm’s second-largest city, was about 30,000; Ivan’s hearings led to the executions of some 2,200 people, but that number includes neither the oprichniki’s own victims nor deaths from starvation and freezing occasioned by the destruction.

Worse soon followed. On July 25, 1570, Ivan began his executions on Moscow’s Pagan Square. He appeared, armed and dressed in black, as the public looked on at huge stakes in the ground and cauldrons of cold and boiling water that had been set up in the plaza. Three hundred people crawled forward on broken limbs to hear their fate. Ivan pardoned 184. The rest suffered the tortures of the damned…. Nothing of this kind had ever happened in Russia. As a display of Ivan’s arbitrary will and his ability to do anything imaginable, nothing better could have been devised.

Much as Stalin concluded the Terror of 1936–1938 by purging the purgers, Ivan next turned on the leading oprichniki. Then, in 1572, he abolished the oprichnina—indeed, he forbade anyone ever to use the word. Again, no one knows why. He sprang his next surprise three years later by pretending to abdicate in favor of a baptized Tatar, Semyon Bekbulatovich. Needless to say, Ivan kept the treasury and all real power in his hands, but his humble, self-denigrating, and obviously insincere petitions to the ostensible new ruler have come down to us. Even historians ingenious enough to discover a rationale for the oprichnina have admitted defeat in accounting for this episode….

Perhaps historians have failed to understand Ivan’s purposes because they look for a certain kind of purpose, like creating a centralized state, building a modern economy, or some other recognizable political objective. Any other purpose, even if Ivan stated it explicitly, would not look like a purpose at all…. Ivan writes [to Kurbsky], “You began still more to revolt against me…and I therefore began to stand up against you still more harshly. I wanted to subdue you to my will”—volya, a word that … can denote “total freedom to pursue one’s arbitrary will …” Could it be that Ivan’s main purpose was simply the ability to exercise his will without restraint? That would explain why he demanded not specific reforms but the right to act outside all law and tradition. If his actions seem arbitrary, it may be because arbitrariness was his primary goal.

Stalin, too, used arbitrary terror, with people arrested by quota, and achieved the ability to do anything he liked. But, unlike Ivan, he did so to accomplish ideologically driven goals. Ivan wanted unlimited power for its own sake, perhaps, so that he would never again experience anything like his childhood frustration of will—regardless of whether the object of his will was a pair of shoes or the suffering of another person. If so, the best preparation for understanding him may be Crime and PunishmentThe Brothers Karamazov, and Dostoevsky’s other great explorations of the state of mind in which “all is permitted.” Several Dostoevsky characters strive to become what Ivan Karamazov calls “the man-god,” a being whose will encounters absolutely no restraint: “There is no law for God. Where God stands the place is holy.” That was the condition to which Ivan the Terrible aspired, not to realize any specific goal but as the supreme goal in itself.

The House Begins To Present Its Case

This afternoon, members of the House of Representatives submitted a Trial Memorandum “in re [the] impeachment of President D—– J. T—–“. It summarizes the case for the prosecution in the president’s Senate trial. (The president’s lawyers are supposed to submit their response before noon on Monday.)

In theory, all 100 senators will read the prosecution’s memorandum before the trial starts next week. You can read it, even if they don’t (all 111 pages).

There is an eight-page introduction. Here’s how it begins:

President D—– J. T—– used his official powers to pressure a foreign government to interfere in a United States election for his personal political gain, and then attempted to cover up his scheme by obstructing Congress’s investigation into his misconduct. The Constitution provides a remedy when the President commits such serious abuses of his office: impeachment and removal. The Senate must use that remedy now to safeguard the 2020 U.S. election, protect our constitutional form of government, and eliminate the threat that the President poses to America’s national security.

The House adopted two Articles of Impeachment against President T—–: the first for abuse of power, and the second for obstruction of Congress. The evidence overwhelmingly establishes that he is guilty of both. The only remaining question is whether the members of the Senate will accept and carry out the responsibility placed on them by the Framers of our Constitution and their constitutional Oaths.

There follows a section describing the president’s abuse of power (the first article of impeachment), when he illegally delayed military aid to Ukraine in order to get the Ukrainian government to publicize (not necessarily to carry out) a criminal investigation into Joe Biden, one of the Democrats’ leading candidates for president, and Biden’s son:

President T—–’s solicitation of foreign interference in our elections to secure his own political success is precisely why the Framers of our Constitution provided Congress with the power to impeach a corrupt President and remove him from office. One of the Founding generation’s principal fears was that foreign governments would seek to manipulate American elections…. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams warned of “foreign Interference, Intrigue, Influence” and predicted that, “as often as Elections happen, the danger of foreign Influence recurs.”

The Framers therefore would have considered a President’s attempt to corrupt America’s democratic processes by demanding political favors from foreign powers to be a singularly pernicious act. They designed impeachment as the remedy for such misconduct because a President who manipulates U.S. elections to his advantage can avoid being held accountable by the voters through those same elections. And they would have viewed a President’s efforts to encourage foreign election interference as all the more dangerous where, as here, those efforts are part of an ongoing pattern of misconduct for which the President is unrepentant.

Then there is a section concerning the president’s obstruction of Congress (the second article of impeachment), his interference in the House’s investigation of the president’s apparent abuse of power:

President T—– obstructed Congress by undertaking an unprecedented campaign to prevent House Committees from investigating his misconduct. The Constitution entrusts the House with the “sole Power of Impeachment.” The Framers thus ensured what common sense requires—that the House, and not the President, determines the existence, scope, and procedures of an impeachment investigation into the President’s conduct. The House cannot conduct such an investigation effectively if it cannot obtain information from the President or the Executive Branch about the Presidential misconduct it is investigating.

Under our constitutional system of divided powers, a President cannot be permitted to hide his offenses from view by refusing to comply with a Congressional impeachment inquiry and ordering Executive Branch agencies to do the same. That conclusion is particularly important given the Department of Justice’s position that the President cannot be indicted. If the President could both avoid accountability under the criminal laws and preclude an effective impeachment investigation, he would truly be above the law.

But that is what President T—– has attempted to do, and why President T—–’s conduct is the Framers’ worst nightmare. He directed his Administration to defy every subpoena issued in the House’s impeachment investigation. At his direction, the White House, Department of State, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) refused to produce a single document in response to those subpoenas. Several witnesses also followed President T—–’s orders, defying requests for voluntary appearances and lawful subpoenas, and refusing to testify. And President T—–’s interference in the House’s impeachment inquiry was not an isolated incident—it was consistent with his past efforts to obstruct the Special Counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The Introduction ends with a brief summary:

…. The impeachment power is an essential check on the authority of the President, and Congress must exercise this power when the President places his personal and political interests above those of the Nation. President T—– has done exactly that. His misconduct challenges the fundamental principle that Americans should decide American elections, and that a divided system of government, in which no single branch operates without the check and balance of the others, preserves the liberty we all hold dear.

The country is watching to see how the Senate responds. History will judge each Senator’s willingness to rise above partisan differences, view the facts honestly, and defend the Constitution. The outcome of these proceedings will determine whether generations to come will enjoy a safe and secure democracy in which the President is not a king, and in which no one, particularly the President, is above the law.

The House memorandum then goes into greater detail concerning the rationale for impeaching and removing the president. It concludes with 61 pages of “material facts”, i.e. the evidence for his removal.

If D—– J. T—– were simply a mob boss or a corrupt businessman (him? are you kidding?) on trial for bribery or obstruction of justice, and members of the Senate were serving on the jury, each one of them would convict the defendant, D—– J. T—–, without a second thought. That especially holds for the Republicans, who still fancy themselves Congress’s strongest proponents of “law and order”. The prosecution’s case is overwhelming. And the verdict in this trial doesn’t even have to be unanimous! Sixty-seven out of 100 senators can throw the bum out.

But here it’s as if most of the jurors are the defendant’s underlings, fearful of his power and willing to protect him no matter what. The men who wrote the Constitution imagined a corrupt president, but they couldn’t have imagined most of the Senate being corrupt too. They assumed most senators, if not all, would take their oaths to uphold the Constitution quite seriously.

Soon we’ll know if Jefferson and Adams, Hamilton, Franklin and Washington, got the future very, very wrong.