Impeachment season is just beginning

On the cynical nature of Trump's second impeachment

The Capitol building and the White House.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

It certainly was not one of those "Tell your grandchildren" moments. For the second time in a year, Donald Trump was impeached on Wednesday afternoon in the House of Representatives by a vote of 232-197, which included 10 members of his own party, after a few hours of unmemorable speechifying. The most shocking thing about it was not being able to read Trump's own reaction.

If I were one of those commentators inclined to deal in facile superlatives, I would say that this is among the lowest points in the history of our much-vaunted lower chamber. Not because the resolution it approved was an especially wicked entry in the register of the crimes, follies, and misdeeds of the United States Congress, but because it was so painfully cynical.

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Instead most of the three-page document reads like a Washington Post story. Among other high crimes and misdemeanors of which he is apparently guilty, "President Trump repeatedly issued false statements," we are told, and "reiterated false claims that 'we won this election, and we won it by a landslide.'" The would-be smoking gun is even more absurd: "He also willfully made statements that, in context, encouraged — and foreseeably resulted in — lawless action at the Capitol, such as: ''If you don't fight like hell you're not going to have a country anymore.'"

If telling your supporters to "fight" is an impeachable offense, every politician in the United States should be censured tomorrow. If doing so in the context of a speech in which you also urge them "to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard" amounts to "insurrection or rebellion," then words, Trump's and those of his enemies, have no meaning. There is no discrete identifiable explanation for the events of January 6. The relationship between the actions of a few hundred fringe protesters in a crowd of hundred of thousands, accompanied throughout by eager photojournalists, and years of media gaslighting, lockdowns, economic downturn, educational decline, technological atomization, and questionable decisions made by the Capitol Police, is a complicated one that cannot be reduced to a single boilerplate speech by the outgoing president.

Here are some things that are true. Trump is not going to be removed from office by the Senate. There are only six days between now and the inauguration of his successor. Mike Pence is not going to be the 46th president, a bizarre footnote in the National Portrait Gallery and on those placemats still (I hope) used by children.

What did Trump's second impeachment accomplish? It certainly will not convince half the country that they were wrong to support him in November or that they are mistaken in their belief that the election was highly irregular and conducted in circumstances meant to favor his opponent. It will certainly not leave his supporters with the impression that his opponents acted against him in good faith.

As far as I can tell the only practical consequence of Trump's impeachment will be normalizing what was once an extraordinary procedure meant to get around the problem of having a head of state from whom all federal legal authority flows at the head of a partisan government. The campaign to impeach Trump began before his inauguration and continued even after it had been completed. In the future, presidents will regard the most extraordinary censure our federal government can deliver as a partisan slap on the wrist, like being held in contempt of Congress after refusing to cooperate with an absurd subpoena.

The political currency of "impeachment" has been so thoroughly debased during the last four years that any attempt to argue against Wednesday's proceedings would be as pointless as objecting to the congressional baseball game. I expect every president in my lifetime to be impeached on some absurd pretext or other, including Joe Biden.

Impeachment season is just beginning.

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