An Emperor and his Enablers.
After two weeks of public impeachment hearings, a few things seem remarkably clear.
The first is that Trump clearly subscribes to the notion that his personal interest by definition is the state’s interest. And, conversely, that the institutions of state have no greater duty than to tend to his every whim. Hence the vitriol directed at the whistleblower who used perfectly legal channels to voice his concern about the July 25th phone call. Hence the threatening, taunting, barrage launched against Alexander Vindman, Marie Yovanovitch and others who have testified before Congress. Hence the ordering of state department and other officials to simply ignore Congressional subpoenas.
The second is that the GOP now subscribes to the same Führerprinzip doctrine as does Trump himself. Watching Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan at these hearings over the past couple weeks gives one an idea of what the clacking, baying, Nazi politicians who willingly signed away to Adolf Hitler their legislative and oversight powers in the Reichstag must have sounded like eighty five years ago. These Congressmen may not have literally sworn a personal loyalty oath to Trump, but in their actions they might just as well have. In their high decibel table thumping, their insults, their weaving of new ad hoc defenses each time old ones were torn down by witnesses, in their embrace of any and every conspiracy theory peddled by Trump, by Giuliani, by far-right websites and overseas trolls, one hears the death rattle of democracy.
The third is that evidence in an increasingly totalitarian political environment simply doesn’t matter to Trump and his enablers. Of course, we’ve known that throughout Trump’s presidency. We know that Trump has lied or misrepresented facts many thousands of times since he was inaugurated. We know that scientific advisers are fired if their reports are inconvenient. We know that people Trump knew one day suddenly, when they are shown to be corrupt, he declares he never knew. Through a few well-timed tweets, he erases them from his life, much as Stalin’s people cut out dissidents from photos that featured the Great Leader. We know that constitutional passages, such as the Emoluments Clause, that stand in the way of profit are simply declared by Trump to be “phony.” But despite all of that, seeing this fact-free potion distilled down to its purest essence in these hearings has been utterly extraordinary.
This is what a high-tech totalitarian vision looks like. It involves an ability to so intrude into the daily reality of tens of millions of followers that their willingness to tack in whatever direction you choose to take them on any given day is absolute. This is what a modern-day Cult of the Personality really is. All has been on full technicolor display over the past couple of weeks.
And the fourth, as numerous witnesses have now shown, is that Trump has so broken the institutions of government that entire departments are now little more than adjuncts of the Trumpian propaganda machine. The energy department. The state department. The justice department. All bending to the president’s will. All lacking the breaking mechanisms to slow the lurch away from democracy.
Even the Pentagon, which has been somewhat more reluctant to so bend, is now being brought to heel. It’s no coincidence that in the middle of the impeachment hearings Trump pardoned three war criminals, against the strong advice and protests of senior military figures. And, then, not satisfied with pardoning them, ordered that one, Edward Gallagher, charged with killing several civilians, be restored to his position as a Navy SEAL. This despite the express opposition of the Admiral in charge. Trump is sending a strong message here: he is intent on making every institution of government fully complicit in his criminality.
All of this is a calamity that will far outlast Trump’s actual administration. It undermines the country’s basic democratic structures, and, more insidiously, its broader democratic culture. And it opens the door to an overt kleptocracy, sustained by intimidation and thuggery, of the kind that Putin has locked into place in post-Soviet Russia.
Some commentators on the left have bemoaned the Democrats’ hawkishness on Russia in these hearings. And it’s certainly true that the party has moved far from notions of coexistence and détente in the last few years. But that is a separate issue, and a separate matter for debate, than the notion that Trump, and a shockingly large number of his inner circle, illegitimately tried to bludgeon the Ukrainian leadership into opening investigations into a domestic political opponent.
These impeachment hearings should be as simple as that. Not a broad foreign policy debate. Not a discussion of which overseas relationships are more or less important. Not a discussion of the role of America on the global stage and whether or not its footprint is too large and too belligerent. There’s plenty of time, and, yes, need, for those debates. But right now, the issue at hand is corruption. It’s about the personal venality of a president, and about the willingness to engage in a criminal conspiracy, in smear campaigns, in the use of shadowy operatives outside of the official structures of government, all for no grander strategic aim than to score cheap domestic political points.
There’s something not just tawdry about this, but, ultimately, incredibly puny. We see a shrinking of the American role on the global stage from dominant actor to bit-part extra. We see grand historical narratives replaced by nothing larger than narcissism. Shakespeare displaced by Duck Dynasty.
When one contrasts the great public policy debates and the global strategies of past administrations, be they Democrat or Republican, and compare them to the personal scrabble for power and wealth of today, it’s hard not to be shocked. Not necessarily at the corruption – for, truth be told, American political history is speckled with such episodes, be it the graft of late nineteenth century administrations, or the machine politics of Tammany Hall and other city governments, or President Warren Harding and his Teapot Dome scandal – but at the sheer myopia. This is an Administration interested only in short-term plunder, in using power not for the sake of any ideals or long-term vision of the future, but solely for personal aggrandizement. Time and again it behaves more like a dynastic regime, beholden and accountable to no-one, than an elected Administration.
The GOP, in these hearings, has shown its willingness to serve simply as a sort of political praetorian guard for its self-dealing emperor. The great question now, as the 2020 election approaches, is whether the bulk of the public will continue to tolerate this ghastly spectacle.