As headlines and news hosts proclaim the historic weight of Wednesday’s impeachment of an American president, there’s a barely spoken murmur of malaise that few are willing to state out loud: it just doesn’t feel that historic. For conservatives, it’s a barely registered bump on the road to either Trump’s re-election or some version of a Second Civil War. For liberals and progressives, Trump’s impeachment provides less an exclamation of justice than a notice of strategic defiance. This act may ultimately be designed less for immediate accountability than to ensure the opposition party acted appropriately against this lawless president in the eyes of history.
This is not the Democrats’ fault. Impeachment feels less historic than it should because the Republican Party has utterly abandoned its sense of shame and responsibility to the country. The unprecedented event Wednesday was less about the impeachment itself than the Republican Party’s unanimous refusal to hold to account a corrupt tyrant clearly unfit for office. If it feels like our democracy is slowly spiraling out of control, that’s because it’s true.
First, the obvious: President Trump is so clearly guilty of attempting to bribe and extort Ukraine that it hardly requires repeating here. His own doctored transcript states the case bluntly even as he declares it “perfect”; multiple witnesses that he appointed corroborated his guilt during Congressional testimony; and Trump’s own Chief of Staff openly admitted as much in a public press hearing—he likely thought it was so obvious that it was better to brazenly deny that Trump’s behavior was a problem than to attempt to deny it happened at all.
The President and his administration then stonewalled every attempt by Congress to gain documents and direct witness testimony, in a transparent act of obstruction designed to run out the clock. Having blocked all direct witness testimony through specious declarations of executive privilege, Republicans had the audacity to dismiss the evidence as a matter of hearsay.
Anyone who listened to the so-called “debate” over the articles of impeachment on the House floor could hear with unease the cracking of the pillars of democracy. Alternating side by side in 90-second presentations were a diverse set of Democratic representatives laying out the awful reality of what the president had done and the moral necessity for acting to save the country, followed in turn by angry old white men from gerrymandered and unrepresentative corners of the country yelling about a “sham” process. In one case, a GOP lawmaker compared Trump to Jesus on the cross and the witches at Salem.
If it felt surreal, that’s because it was. It was designed to. It was strategically calculated by Republicans to inflame the passions of partisans while annoying and befuddling the very few politically unaffiliated remaining. If a person tuned into the debate without a significant political allegiance and without prior knowledge of the facts, they would be utterly unable to sort fact from fiction. Most normal people assume that when two people argue, there is some sort of shared reality among them—an agreement over a certain baseline of facts. Or at least, an assumption of good faith and genuinely held perspectives from each side. It would not occur to these viewers that one side was engaged in a conspiracy to ignore obvious realities and shred the norms that hold democracy together, in a desperate attempt to hold onto a slipping partisan advantage at all costs. Republicans, in other words, fear of never again winning a fairly conducted national election.
And that’s the point: Republican tactics are predicated on the notion that an average observer would be unwilling to believe that an entire political party could be so willingly engaged in extreme depths of cynical malevolence. They also rely on entrapping a press corps dependent for its credibility on objective non-partisanship, knowing that traditional news organizations will be unwilling to raise the alarm and call them out for it, lest they be wrongly seen as the partisan propaganda organs like Fox News.
In this context, Trump’s ongoing crimes and bizarre screeds have become almost banal. He is what everyone, including his own supporters, know he is. He is the archetype of the carnival barker, the would-be tyrant buffoon, the loud-mouthed bully who survives only as long as no one successfully pulls back the curtain to lay out his inadequacies. On his own, he cannot succeed; he must be enabled by intransigent forces willing to look the other way for their own benefit. The response of the Democratic opposition seems almost perfunctory in its helplessness no matter which direction it takes: either ignore him and seem feckless, or respond with force and get dragged into Trump’s mud while distracting from the policy conversations that are both desperately needed.
What is historic here, then, is not Trump’s crimes or the act of impeaching him. It is the disturbing willingness of nearly every elected Republican in defending him when most of them know well that he is guilty and morally bankrupt. It isn’t the president’s extortion scheme that shocks the conscience so much as Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s bemused enabling of him in exchange for a few judges and tax cuts designed to forestall the consequences of wedding the party to a dying coalition of bigots, fat cats, and cranks.
The culpable character in this shop of horrors isn’t the voraciously carnivorous president. It’s his enablers willing to condone and commit even greater atrocities to avoid the hard consequences of their past decisions.
Democrats now have an unenviable decision. Do they submit articles of impeachment in good faith to the Senate, knowing that Republicans will make a partisan mockery of the proceedings as they have already promised to do, in defiance of their oaths of office? Or do they withhold the articles as leverage, potentially accelerating a Constitutional crisis of the Republicans’ making while appearing themselves to be the instigators? As usual, there are no good choices here in the face of such unprecedented sabotage of our shared national interest by Republicans.
This crisis will only be headed off by a resounding rejection at the polls. Other crises will still remain due to structural injustices—gerrymandering, Senate apportionments, etc.—that prevent the majority of decent Americans from solving problems like healthcare and climate change, even with overwhelming popular majorities.
That said, the saving of constitutional democracy itself must come first.