Impeachment and America's cult of punishment
What Americans want most out of politics
I do not think any undue significance should be attached to the latest attempt by Democrats to impeach Donald Trump, much less the remote possibility that a Senate with a narrow Republican majority will vote to remove him from office. As things stand, Trump enjoys the powers and other trappings of office only in the narrowest formal sense. Indeed, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that his suspension from various social media platforms over the weekend was vastly more significant than his forced departure from the White House would be for both the man himself and his supporters.
The most interesting thing about calls for Trump's removal, which began within hours of his inauguration four years ago and continued more or less apace amid a series of ever-shifting justifications, is what they tell us about the American people and the leaders who, in a very real sense, represent our most pressing interests.
I have long argued that the maintenance of publicly traded stock prices (which is not the same thing as the ordinary facilitation of commerce) is the most basic principle of our society. But resting just above it, the penultimate turtle in the stack, is the desire for the punishment of our enemies, real or perceived.
It is the cult of punishment rather than competing philosophical assumptions about the size and scope of government or prudential disagreements about the wide variety of supposed "issues" — those sublime objects of ideology which we group under headings like "Health Care" and "The Environment" — that undergirds our two-party system. It is the desire to see those who belong to an opposing faction in public life humiliated — by the bare fact of ending up on the losing side or worse — that appears to drive a majority of voters to the polls. It is the centrality of punishment to our public discourse that gives us the absurd saga of a senator tacitly calling for a careless employee of a retail corporation to be deprived of employment only a week before the same politician finds his book contract canceled. It is the appetite, which occasionally assumes the form of actual bloodlust, that explains why after a summer of reactionary fantasies about the streets running red with the blood of the state's enemies (who were, of course, synonymous with opponents of the president), the decorous columns of our major newspapers are now full of nonsense about "sedition" and the growing terrorist threat of Parler, and why the employees of liberal pressure groups call for the president's execution.
Punishment is the only meaningful use to which both of our two major political parties have put their victories in recent elections. It is why the Tea Party-era Congress is remembered almost entirely for repurposing the subpoena power of the House and holding a series of showboating hearings, and why the same body under Nancy Pelosi will be synonymous not with infrastructure legislation that it could have passed with the cooperation of Trump administration but with Adam Schiff's smug visage. The same impulse lies behind the bipartisan repurposing of myths about the American Founding and the Constitution, which provide a half-respectable cover for fantasies about exiling "socialists" or "fascists" to a place beyond that of supposedly rational debate. The response to our two most recent presidential elections, both of which have been rejected by the losing sides in favor of conspiracies about Russia and tech CEOs, has been the blind unseeing rage of factions deprived not of their chance to govern but of the opportunity to persecute their opponents.
It goes without saying, one imagines, that in the coming months and perhaps even years punishing Trump himself and various administration officials, his congressional allies and other political associates, even members of his family, will be the main priority of the new Democratic majority. The calls for a second impeachment, his removal from Twitter, his Bedminster golf course being stripped of a major tournament next year — all of this is only the beginning of a lengthy series of recriminations that could end with him and goodness knows how many others imprisoned. A thousand justifications for these actions, which any of his opponents would have taken months or even years ago, will present themselves effortlessly. How fitting that a presidency that began amid raucous cries of "Lock her up!" will end with an echo of the same demands.
It would be absurdly priggish to object to any of this. I am not writing in objection to Trump's removal of office within days of his opponent's inauguration, which could in any case be argued against on sane prudential grounds. Rather I think it is worth asking ourselves why even the most ostensibly serious political concerns — mitigating the spread of coronavirus, as vaccines rot in freezers, for example — are somehow always less important than the endless performative calls for retribution.