Impeachment was always going to turn out like this — a partisan display of chivalry aimed at two completely distinct audiences interpreting the same nakedly damning case in such different ways that the facts themselves might as well be squirming away from a common understanding in real time. On Fox News, the investigation into President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine is a full-blown inquisition — on MSNBC, it’s Watergate. It was predestined to be this way as soon as it began, because of the incentives that govern politics and the media. People react to emotional appeals; we’ve built systems of network television and social media geared to distort politics into fitting within narrow frameworks that feed tribal emotions, rather than building consensus, or even reacting to shared facts. On Wednesday, Republicans and Democrats were grandstanding in stark terms about impeachment on the House floor.
“This vote, this day, has nothing to do with Ukraine,” said Republican Rep. Chris Stewart (Utah). “It has nothing to do with abuse of power. It has nothing to do with obstruction of Congress. This vote, this day, is about one thing and one thing only: They hate this president. They hate those of us who voted for him.”
“I rise today not to disparage and embarrass the president of the United States, but to defend our precious democracy,” countered Democratic Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (La.). “I speak today not because I hate this president, but because I love this body, the people’s House.”
It sounds nice. Richmond isn’t lying about his motivations. But can anyone really claim that impeachment on the whole isn’t an attack on the president? That fact isn’t really the fault of Democrats, and it’s not to say Trump doesn’t deserve such an attack. But all of the language in the House and in the press about the “historic” impeachment proceedings belies the relatively mundane truths about the proceedings — that something like this was almost set in stone as soon as Trump took his oath of office nearly three years ago. There was practically zero chance that Trump wouldn’t end up in this situation, because even as a candidate he proved himself to be an unpredictable actor with a fundamental incuriosity about the government he was running to lead and a penchant for inviting outside help. And there is practically zero chance now that the outcome of the vote hinges on anything except partisanship. Obviously, the Democratic House majority is going to vote to send impeachment to the Senate; just as obviously, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republicans who control the upper chamber are going to make the whole thing go away as swiftly as possible.
Then we’ll be right back to where we started, only with the president even less constrained than before. You can only fire the impeachment cannon once — right? Democrats seem to already be pondering that question, as they stare down the prospect of a second term for Trump that’s won after he’s already defeated the most severe opposition tool they have.
None of this is to say that impeachment is merely the result of rage-filled Democrats overreaching because they’re seeing red at the prospect of Trump in the Oval Office through 2024. Stewart is totally wrong — the case against the president is practically watertight according to legal experts, and the acts he’s accused of doing — leveraging American foreign policy for personal gain, stymieing an official congressional inquiry — are as worthy of punishment as anything Presidents Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton did. Democrats had no choice but to advocate for the impeachment of a president who used military aid to try and solicit a foreign government’s investigations of a political rival. If they didn’t initiate these proceedings, they’d be both morally and politically bankrupt.
Still, there’s something that feels inevitable and flimsy about the whole affair. Trump was always going to do something impeachable — his entire lifestyle as a businessman and celebrity over the past four decades has been about breaking the rules, corrupting institutions, and bullying the weak. His pressuring of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is merely a continuation of the same category of actions that have always defined him, whether that’s bragging about grabbing women by the genitals, allegedly committing dozens of sexual assaults, or apparently consistently flouting tax law. His entire existence depends on bending any and all societal or legal constraints in service to his financial and physical wants. This isn’t a secret; he shouted about all of it on TV for decades, and didn’t tone down his ugly id one bit during his campaign. That’s why he won the election.
Of course he was going to use the American presidency — the most powerful position in the world — in corrupt ways, leaving his opponents no choice but to try and remove him, clinging desperately as they are to the norms he keeps shredding. And of course his opponents are going to fail. Nixon had to leave office because the damning case against him was presented clearly on national news to millions of Americans, who generally believed what they were hearing. Trump has something Nixon never had: a vast media and political edifice devoted to shouting down any implication of wrongdoing, and grinding facts down into pulp for the grievance mill. Factual critiques have long been secondary to charisma and emotion in politics — information is ammunition used by politicians to make their constituents feel listened to and part of something, rather than something valued in and of itself. But in the past, facts at least defined the limits of how this manipulation could take place.
By leaving facts behind entirely, Trump and his supporters have enabled him to manipulate reality in real time. And he’s backed up in ignoring all inconvenient facts by a “news” organization in Fox News that parrots his arguments ad nauseam. Overall, this system allows him to achieve a near-total state of shameless demagoguery. He never has to admit that he’s wrong if there are always going to be powerful people saying that he’s right.
With Trump, everything is personal, and everyone is out to get him.
Our media and political environment rewards people who are able to position themselves on the extremes. The near-constant churn of content means only the most sensational bits stand out — all the better for those who weaponize information to warp reality as they fight for their personal causes. Trump is denying that he asked Zelensky to investigate the Bidens, even though he provided the public a summary memo of a phone call with the Ukrainian leader where he does just that. Moreover, the memo was edited by the White House, begging the question of what more was left on the cutting room floor. (Or, for that matter, what other damning call logs with foreign leaders are hidden in the classified server that the whistleblower flagged to Congress.)
Beyond that, Trump’s go-to response of “witch hunt” to any attempt at holding him accountable — echoed in the tantrum of a letter he sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday — exemplifies why his approach has been so successful. He doesn’t engage with his critics on the merits of their case against him, ever. Rather, with those two words, he’s able to frame impeachment (and the special counsel investigation before it) in terms of fiery emotion rather than the dry enforcement of constitutional limits on presidential power. It’s, for lack of a better word, a trump card; how can Trump’s critics try to censure him based on centuries-old norms when he disregards and belittles them with every turn? With Trump, everything is personal, and everyone is out to get him. The victim narrative drastically weakens impeachment, allowing the president’s supporters to continue to ignore facts and turning a historic development in our national history into yet another episode of the reality TV show that the Trump presidency was always going to be.
On its own, this strategy would fail. Nobody, not even the president, can scream into the void alone, forever, and still win hearts and minds. But the entire force of Fox News and the vast majority of elected Republicans are screaming behind him. This lends what he says weight in a media that reflexively feels the need to cover both sides of every argument. Trump is singularly adept at taking advantage of this dynamic. After all, he didn’t become a reality star just because of his loud mouth and flashy business dealings — he was able to capture the nation’s attention for so long because he has an innate understanding of how people react to dramatic developments. Audiences respond to loud, simple declarations of anger, hatred, and love. They don’t react to legalistic appeals to reason and the historical sanctity of the Constitution.
The warped incentives of the American political system have been increasingly encouraging similar modes of expression for a while now. Trump has merely sped up the process, putting the foot on the gas as the country speeds full tilt towards government by soap opera. Wednesday’s impeachment vote is just another episode.