The story Republicans are really telling themselves about impeachment
Cynicism comes easy in an era of maximal polarization. Different parties embrace different ideologies, agendas, and sometimes even entirely distinct constellations of facts and truths. From inside either closed world, the other one appears shot through with delusion — with its leaders blamed for actively encouraging deception for the sake of political gain.
That's what I've accused Republicans of doing in a pair of recent columns. I've called them cynics who manipulate voters by intentionally deceiving them with lies — and sometimes even by eliding the distinction between truth and falsehood altogether — for the sake of winning political advantage. But there is something more than a little cynical about this very accusation itself. Some, like President Trump and his most loyal minions in Congress (I'm looking at you, Devin Nunes), may well be comfortable spreading a miasma of epistemological confusion out of political expediency. But that's not all that's going on on the Republican side of the debate about impeachment.
There is at least one story that Republicans are telling themselves about impeachment that rises above cynicism. I find it largely unconvincing, but it is not reducible to a clamoring for power at all costs or an indifference to the distinction between truth and lies. Many on the right actually believe it to be true and defensible. And it's worth making an effort to understand it from the inside, so that we can better understand our fellow citizens.
This story has been nicely encapsulated in a recent New York Times op-ed by author Daniel McCarthy, the Trump-supporting former editor of The American Conservative magazine and contributor to The Week. It's a variation on the story told by Michael Anton in the eponymous “Flight 93” essay that encouraged conservatives before the 2016 election to embrace Trump. You'll also regularly find other versions of it in essays run by The Claremont Review of Books and its sister publications, as well as on right-wing talk radio, on Fox News, and in talking points regularly spouted by more intelligent Trump-defending members of the House and Senate.
The story goes like this: America's much-vaunted political establishment, which thinks very highly of itself and the bipartisan norms with which it wields authority in the nation's capital, is corrupt and a failure. It brought us the disaster of the Iraq War and the many other endless “interventions” of the War on Terror, as well as the financial crisis of 2008 that decimated the American middle class. The U.S. is in decline as a result of these and the other world-historical screw-ups.
The thing the country most needs is for this establishment to be overthrown and replaced by someone more skeptical of military adventurism abroad and more willing to put the interests of American workers and families ahead of other actors and considerations (including global markets, corporate shareholders, and humanitarian do-gooders). Trump is a deeply imperfect vehicle for this insurrectionary agenda, but he's what we've got. And for all of his many defects, his instincts are mostly sound, and he has the right enemies.
The reason why the intelligence community, the diplomatic corps, and other members of “permanent Washington” have reacted so severely to Trump from day one is mainly because he has their number. He refuses to accept their self-aggrandizing stories about how American military escapades and multiplying commitments abroad are always and everywhere good for the country. In many cases they are not.
This includes misadventures in Eastern Europe. Every Trump accuser who has testified before the impeachment inquiry in the House has assumed that the government of Vladimir Putin deserves to be considered a mortal enemy of the United States, and that it is in American interests to side strongly with Ukraine in its military and territorial conflict with the Russia. Indeed, at times in the inquiry it has sounded like the president's greatest impeachable transgression was his refusal to accept this consensus view of the establishment, along with his tendency to look at Ukraine and its elected government with suspicion.
Those who are responding so rashly to the president's actions in Ukraine thus have quite a bit at stake.
First, there is political power and influence. The establishment rules by unspoken consensus. It is unprepared for and thus deeply frightened of having to justify and defend its views in the political arena because it intuitively grasps that there may be insufficient public support for policies it is unwaveringly convinced are good for the country and the world. By resisting the consensus view, Trump puts its advocates on the defensive, which is an uncomfortable and threatening place to be. These advocates consider this intolerable and are willing to go to great lengths to make it stop. Even if it means taking down the president and his administration.
Second, there is private advantage. America's political class benefits handsomely from the establishment consensus. It's what allowed the wayward and troubled son of the American vice president (Joe Biden's son Hunter) to land a highly lucrative position on the board of a corrupt energy conglomerate in Ukraine. The arrangement was simple and exemplary: Biden's son would make a very nice income, and the conglomerate and its stakeholders would gain access to and presumed influence on the second most powerful man in the world.
That's the kind of corruption — elite self-dealing — that Trump claimed to see at work in The Clinton Foundation and that he hoped President Zelensky of Ukraine would help him investigate and expose with regard to Joe Biden's family. In this matter, as in many others, what might have advanced Trump's political interests (by making a potentially formidable political rival look bad) would also have furthered American interests — by helping to further expose the kind of corruption that pervades the inept American establishment.
That's the story Republicans are really telling themselves about Trump and why he deserves to prevail in the impeachment fight. There's obviously a lot of hyperbolic exaggeration and motivated reasoning going on in the account, and its blindness to Trump's own corruption, which dwarfs anything previously seen in Washington, is almost total.
But it isn't obviously absurd, and it isn't simply a function of cynical manipulation of the masses. Growing numbers of Republican voters and office-holders believe large parts of its thoroughgoing indictment of the political establishment. And as long as they do, they will excuse just about everything Trump might do to tear down the dreaded leviathan.
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