I was based in Washington and reported from Capitol Hill during Bill Clinton’s impeachment, which was the last time the country entered waters like these. It was ugly, and Democrats and Republicans traded vicious words.
But Clinton never publicly accused his detractors of treason or floated the idea that one of them be arrested on those grounds, as Donald Trump just did with Adam Schiff.
Clinton and his defenders raised the specter of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” to use Hillary Clinton’s infamous phrase, thus asserting that he was being persecuted for his politics, not punished for his misdeeds.
But they didn’t insist, as Trump and his defenders routinely do, that a vital part of the federal government was an evil cabal intent on undermining our democratic processes, which is Trump’s self-serving characterization of the intelligence community. Their central strategy wasn’t to ignite a full-blown crisis of confidence in the institutions of government. They weren’t serving dire notice, as Trump essentially is, that if the president goes down, he’s taking everyone and everything else with him.
The Clintons possessed and projected a moral arrogance that was laughably oxymoronic under the circumstances. And they and other prominent Democrats junked the party’s supposed concern for women’s empowerment to savage Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones and others who came forward with claims about the president’s extramarital sexual activity, including serious accusations of sexual violence.
But they didn’t equate the potential fall of the president with the fall of the Republic. They didn’t go full apocalypse. Bill Clinton didn’t prophesy that his impeachment would lead to a kind of “civil war” from which the country would “never heal,” as Trump did by tweeting an evangelical pastor’s comments on Fox News along those lines.
I wrote last week that the prospect of Trump’s impeachment terrified me, and one of the main reasons I cited was what we’re seeing now: his histrionic response, which is untethered from any sense of honor, civic concern or real patriotism.
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He’s not like most of his predecessors in the White House, who had some limits, at least a few scruples and the capacity to feel shame. Their self-pity wasn’t this unfathomably deep, their delusions of martyrdom this insanely grand. “There has been no President in the history of our Country who has been treated so badly as I have,” he tweeted last week, and the violins have wailed only louder and weepier since.
While there were fellow narcissists among his forebears, was there a single nihilist like Trump? I doubt it, and so the current waters are in fact uncharted, because the ship of state has a sort of madman at its helm.
That he’s fighting back by impugning his critics’ motives, stonewalling investigators and carping about the media shouldn’t disturb anyone, not if we’re being grown-ups. Richard Nixon, confronted with his impeachment, thrashed and seethed. Clinton assembled a war room in an effort to outwit his adversaries. That’s the nature of politics. That’s the right of the accused.
But in the mere week since a formal impeachment inquiry was announced, Trump has already gone much farther than that and behaved in ways that explode precedent, offend decency and boggle the mind. We’re fools if we don’t brace for more and worse.
For grotesque example, he has suggested — repeatedly — that government officials who tattled about his crooked conversation with the Ukrainian president are spies who deserve to be executed. Had any other president done that, many Americans would speak of nothing else for the next month.
But from Trump, such a horror wasn’t even surprising, and it competed for attention with so many other outrages that it was dulled, the way so much of his unconscionable behavior is. When you churn out a disgrace a minute and no one expects anything nobler, you’re inoculated by your own awfulness.
He has taken his vilification of the media to new depths, content on this front, as on others, to pump Americans full of a toxic cynicism so long as he profits from it. He and his handmaidens have disseminated distortion after distortion, lie upon lie, including the claim that deep-state officials tweaked the criteria for whistle-blowers just so that someone could ensnare him.
They have instructed Americans not to believe their own eyes, their own ears, their own intelligence. They mean to put truth itself up for grabs, no matter the fallout.
Lindsey Graham, the sycophant of the century, called the whistle-blower’s complaint a setup, as if it didn’t rest on the sturdy foundation of a reconstructed transcript — released by the White House — that shows Trump imploring a foreign leader to do political dirty work for him.
Trump keeps saying it was a “perfect” call, which is like seeing Dom Pérignon in a puddle of sewage. Then again, his presidency has long depended on such optical illusions.
There’s light, though, and it’s this: As corrosive as his tirades are, they may also be what does him in. He’s poised to take this persecution complex too far.
Already, there has been a swell of support for impeachment, according to new polls released by CNN and Monmouth University, and I bet that trend continues as revelations of his wrongdoing cascade and as he wildly overreacts.
That probably wouldn’t be enough to get Republican senators to convict him and remove him from office, should the House follow through with impeachment and a Senate trial ensue. But it would affect November 2020.
He’s in a bind, because his burn-down-the-house defense against impeachment makes the best case that he must be impeached — that a leader with no bounds and no bottom can’t be allowed to rage on unimpeded. The impeachment inquiry is laying Trump bare. As scary as that is for us, it may be even scarier for him.
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