Revisiting Act II

Six months ago, I started writing about the Trump administration as a reactionary play in three acts.  As the impeachment process takes hold, let’s revisit that framework. On March 7, I wrote:

Act I was an orgy of norm destruction enabled by congressional Republicans boxed in politically by their embrace of an outlaw administration, where congress and the president operated like conjoined institutions fused together by shared political needs rather than constitutionally-mandated separate institutions at loggerheads over their distinct prerogatives.

 

Act III, when it comes, will be a denouement where conflict is certain and accountability is possible. It will end either in renewal or chaos, the likelihood of either having been determined by the course of Act II.

 

Act II is about discovery. It is about presenting the country with a clear and comprehensive narrative built around testimony and facts uncovered by multiple House committees performing their constitutionally mandated oversight function. The narrative it will reveal is powerful and simple: Donald Trump is the leader of a crime family. He is a lawless crime boss who tramples on the interests of the country to enrich himself.

It took a few months longer than I thought it would, but by last week the second act of the Trump administration — an act that started with the Democratic takeover of the House in January — had entered rather dramatically into a new phase. Driven by a united House Democratic caucus, the impeachment narrative (as we anticipated last week) has drowned out everything else in the political universe. It has frozen the 2020 presidential campaign in place and is starting to capture the attention of the public. Questions about impeachment now mix with questions about bread-and-butter issues at constituent town halls. Public opinion has moved rapidly behind the House investigation. The desire to remove Trump from office is swelling, led by Democrats consolidating around House leadership and some movement among independents, notably educated suburban white women who abandoned Trump in 2018 but who had been lukewarm to impeachment until now. I expected this might happen eventually, but not as much as it has in one week.

Then again, it was a devastating week for Trump, whose blustery and incoherent response to the release of text messages confirming the existence of an arms-for-political dirt exchange with Ukraine betrayed an administration devoid of a strategic approach to cascading events. The week ended with the possibility that another whistleblower is thinking of coming forward, confirming my sense that more officials will rush for the exits in acts of self-preservation as the breadth and scope of the administration’s culpability is revealed. This will widen the scandal and provide more ammunition for impeachment, while making it harder for Trump to cover things up. 

Last week I pointed to the absence of comment from Republicans, especially Senate Republicans who will serve as jurors in an impeachment trial. I called their silence a leading indicator of the shifting political winds. One week later — still nothing, save for a tweet of stern condemnation from Mitt Romney that stopped short of calling Trump’s behavior impeachable and a laughable resort to the “he was only kidding” defense of Trump’s televised call for China to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden from noted invertebrate Marco Rubio.

This is telling. Trapped between the fear of crossing a president who retains the unbreakable loyalty of the party base and the inability to find a justifiable excuse for his actions, Republicans are frozen in place. But they can’t stay there forever. Pressure will build first on Republican senators in competitive races next year, especially as independent voters decide that something here is very wrong. These senators will be cross-pressured by base voters who will demand they defend Trump to the end. And they will have no way to cobble together a winning re-election coalition without both groups. 

National punditry to date has fixated on how the politics of impeachment has been fraught for Democrats who have had to reconcile the demands of their energized base with the concerns of members representing reddish-purple districts. This narrative dominated political news until Nancy Pelosi united her caucus behind impeachment. Now, the more relevant question is: What are Republicans going to do? As a purely political matter, defending or abandoning Trump is a zero-sum choice. Notwithstanding bouts of conscience, defending him will be easy for senators who represent states like Idaho and North Dakota but excruciatingly difficult for those up for re-election who represent, say, Colorado, Maine, Arizona or North Carolina. If events continue to unspool at the rate we saw this week, senators looking to their political futures in places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin may have to calculate how to survive in a post-Trump Republican Party.

Two weeks ago, I said that nothing had changed the most fundamental dynamics of our political era — that a bimodal distribution of public opinion with a small but monolithic and defiant Republican base forces Republicans, if they wish to remain in power, to excuse all forms of norm-bending and lawbreaking. This remains the case today as it will be the case two weeks from now and into the foreseeable future. But the prevailing assumptions about our politics have shifted — suddenly and with little notice or fanfare — from accepting those irregularities as the new normal to pushing back against them. The impeachment process is shaping up to be the reassertion of institutional prerogatives and procedures against the forces that had been shredding them. Suddenly, the rules protecting whistleblowers are relevant again. Contempt charges and articles of impeachment loom for those who defy congressional subpoenas. The threat of trial and imprisonment from new a Justice Department, perhaps as soon as fifteen months from now, may be starting to focus the minds of those who fear exposure. You can feel the balance shift, however gradually, from defiance toward accountability.

Republicans have little room to operate in this changing environment. Like Trump himself, it is easy to act with abandon when there are no perceived consequences, but a much different story if the judicial system or the electorate threaten one day to hold you to account. Although re-establishing the norms and expectations of America circa 2016 will be a long and arduous process, and while the outcome of this episode in our national life remains uncertain, Republicans have to start thinking about what would happen if they were forced to justify how they act today in a future world no longer defined by Trump’s rules. This version of the future offers them no good options, so they remain silent. But they cannot be silent forever. The final act of the play is coming.