23 January 2020

A disciple looks at impeachment

"But does he really need to be removed?" Source.
Almost exactly a year ago I commented favorably on Yoni Appelbaum's article advocating impeachment of Donald Trump. I agreed with Appelbaum's hope that impeachment might funnel some of the chaotic, bombastic accusations flying back and forth between Trump's critics and supporters into a more dispassionate, dignified, orderly process.

I'm writing this as the House managers, the seven congresspeople in charge of presenting the impeachment to the Senate for trial, have completed their second full day of presenting their case. They have indeed presented the limited and focused series of charges that were formed by the House House's impeachment hearings and debates rather than the long list of scandals and grievances that have accumulated since Trump's inauguration. Of course this has not eliminated all the chaos from public arenas, but at least there is another show in town that offers us a way to distill the central issues that have put our republic in danger, and to measure the performance of our legislators in confronting the crisis.

As I write this, the president's defense team has not yet begun its presentations and rebuttals, which may begin on Saturday. However, comments from individual Republican senators and from Trump spokespeople provide two chief talking points that are likely to be part of the defense:

The House provided insufficient evidence to back up the alleged abuses. (To which Democrats will either ask for the evidence being withheld by the Trump administration, which would presumably strengthen the House case but could also give alternate explanations more favorable to the president.)

The Hunter Biden/Burisma case is evidence of actual corruption in Ukraine, and therefore Trump's perfect phone call had a legitimate purpose in asking for investigations. (To which Democrats have already responded: There's no sign that Trump cares about Ukrainian corruption more generally, or cared even about the Biden case until Joe Biden became a candidate with favorable polling vs. Trump. Also: how does Trump explain the abusive treatment of Masha Yovanovitch, the highly irregular role of Rudolph Giuliani, and the illegal withholding of military aid under cover of secrecy, and without policy consultation or justification? Finally, isn't it a dangerous precedent to ask for another country to investigate a U.S. citizen, never mind one who is a political rival?)

A legally irrelevant Republican talking point, heard both yesterday and today, is that the House presentations have been highly repetitive. Attorney Jay Sekolow was quoted in the Washington Post as saying "We're hearing the same things over and over." That criticism is inconsequential when compared to the question, "Are these 'same things' TRUE?"

However trivial in the larger context, the criticism itself is definitely true: almost every detail of the case against Trump has been presented at least three times -- in the service of arguing for documents and witnesses, then in a lengthy and very detailed chronology, and finally (?) in thematic form, reflecting the division of charges into two broad articles. I would not be surprised if, tomorrow, it were all repeated again!

The strategies of both sides reflect the reality that the Senate itself is not the only audience of their presentations and rebuttals. It might not even be the major audience. The nation as a whole is the ultimate audience, and each side seeks to mobilize its electoral base. The House impeachment managers, for their part, want their messages to communicate at times of convenience to all members of their national audience, wherever and whenever they happen to have a chance to listen to the news. The repetition may be irritating to senators, but most members of the wider audience can't spend the whole day watching the trial -- they will probably rely on mass media summaries that will comb out the repetition in favor of the most recent or most dramatic iteration.

They also want to assure that audience that no Republican senator can now claim ignorance of the serious charges they are leveling, and the evidence already collected to support those charges. If those senators vote for acquittal, the Democrats will point to the blatant absurdity of a whole party caucus turning their back on "high crimes and misdemeanors" without seriously engaging with questions of truth.

Likewise, the president's defenders will not be primarily speaking to the Democratic senators. In fact, they may realize that their assertions in defense of Trump will sound to Democrats and many observers as completely disconnected from reality. Their primary audience (in addition to Trump himself) is Trump's electoral base, who will, if past experience serves as guidance, accept their talking points at face value. These defenders know that the care with which the House managers assembled their indictment, including their hundreds of quotes, clips, texts, and legal citations, are not likely to weigh nearly as much with that base as the mocking commentary of Fox News and other Trump allies.

If it's not already obvious, my own point of view is that the House case as presented was effective and persuasive. However, I wasn't pleased with all of it. For rhetorical reasons (just to give an example), to make Trump's cat and mouse game with Zelenskii even more dastardly than it certainly already was, the managers probably exaggerated the "desperation" of Ukraine to obtain an Oval Office meeting with Trump for their new president.

For us contemporary descendants of the "Publishers of Truth" (a nickname for the first generation of Quaker evangelists), the issue of truth continues to be a central priority. Adam Schiff's summary tonight focused exactly on that concern:
If "right" doesn't matter, [then] it doesn't matter how good the Constitution is. It doesn't matter how brilliant the framers were. It doesn't matter how good or bad our advocacy in this trial is. It doesn't matter how well-written the oath of impartiality is. If "right" doesn't matter, we're lost.

Three more defenses of Trump have been floating around in social media, and all of them concern me. They're not likely to be repeated by Trump's Senate defense, because they're either harmful or irrelevant to the defense, but they help to explain why "right" and truth require our constant attention.

One goes more or less as follows: Sure, Trump may have done those things, but what's the big deal? So does everyone else. This line of reasoning feeds on the cynicism people have about politicians and amplifies it. It's a variation of "whataboutism" that doesn't encourage an actual inquiry into whether or not previous presidents observed norms, courtesies, and ethical boundaries that Trump has long since trashed. It would be equally lazy to assert that all previous presidents were angels who never lied or trafficked in secret intrigues. Actual truth requires a willingness to go deeper.

Another popular "so what?" defense of Trump is basically, But look what he's done for the economy / the anti-abortion fight / guns / conservative judges / freedom of religion! Once again, it's important to look beyond labels and slogans to see what he's accurately claimed and actually done (abortion; religious liberty), and at what cost, rather than assuming that those who advance these slogans are shining apostles for fair and trustworthy rhetoric.
Context matters! Two very different unemployment graphs, both drawing on valid stats. The one you choose to post on Facebook probably reflects whether or not you're a Trump fan.  
Sources: Fox Nation; Business Insider.
Finally, the frequent Republican charge that the whole impeachment proves that Democrats want to reverse Trump's 2016 election victory: This charge is truthful, in a way. Many of us predicted that the election of Trump was an unprecedented disaster, permitting an impulsive narcissist to gain access to the world's most powerful office.

However, no Democratic "coup" was necessary or attempted. Trump himself provided the grounds for "reversing" the election by way of impeachment. His own illegal and unethical acts, fulfilling our predictions, are the immediate cause of this process.

A related charge is that Democrats will do anything to "destroy" Trump. This is typical political exaggeration and maybe should be ignored ... except that it is constantly repeated within the isolation chamber of the Trump personality cult. For those of us who pray daily for the president and want nothing more than plain justice, this charge constitutes false witness.

A public service: Jim Kovpak's (Russia without BS) articles on disinformation.

Another public service: Optimists make everything good. (You're welcome!)

A fabulous recently-discovered treasure trove of Soviet-era photography.

What's missing from Sunday sermons? Well ... sex. (The author wants to hear from you.)

Flávio Guimarães and Álamo Leal:

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