If (like me) you’re old enough to remember Richard Nixon, you should be able to recall how the country felt in 1974. There was a sense of moment, a deep and abiding feeling that something somber and monumental was happening, shared by Americans regardless of where they stood on the question of Nixon’s guilt. Sober and shrewd, Richard Nixon was a serious figure who for over two decades, like it or not, was a towering player in American politics. He ran a serious administration and presided over a political party that was invested in American political norms.
This sense of gravity is lacking in 2019 as the public phase of the Trump impeachment investigation begins. Donald Trump is not a serious person or a serious president. He is a creature of reality television who spends his days rage tweeting, engaging in “executive time” and holding ego-puffing campaign rallies. That he thoroughly owns the Republican Party is evident in how his fellow partisans in congress are determined to overlook the grave charges he is facing and turn what should be somber hearings into a circus worthy of the head clown.
With impeachment, the Republican Party is facing a crisis of existential dimensions, made so by Trump’s complete control of the Republican base and the hold of the base on Republican elected officials. To turn against Trump would be to turn against their voters and fracture the party. But in the Ukraine matter, this will require defending an indefensible position, to say nothing of ignoring the serious ramifications of Trump’s actions on national and global security. If Republicans take the hearings seriously and engage witnesses on the facts they will lose the argument and risk their hold on power. Their only option if survival is their goal is to take a turn toward fantasy worthy of the Trump administration itself.
Let’s understand what Republicans have to combat. Over the next several weeks, the country will hear witnesses from within the administration with corroborating first-hand knowledge that Trump extorted Ukraine by withholding critically important congressionally-sanctioned military assistance unless and until Ukraine coughed up manufactured dirt on Trump’s main presidential rival. Another word for this is bribery, and it is one of the charges explicitly mentioned in the Constitution as an impeachable offense. When put this way it sounds awfully serious, perhaps the most serious charge to be leveled at any president in American history. If Republicans rose to the moment and joined Democrats in a serious investigation of witnesses and evidence, the gravity of the experience would rival and indeed surpass Watergate. They would also have no choice but to convict and remove Trump from office.
So they will not engage. They may try to impeach the character of the witnesses who come before them, or rail against the impeachment process itself. They may cede ground on the merits of the case, accepting as some Republicans have already done that there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine but that it didn’t matter, or contending that bad actors in and around the administration were operating without Trump’s knowledge. They may even accept that the whole episode happened but contend that somehow it doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment.
The problem is, these strategies will wither in the heat of the testimony we are about to hear. So Republicans may feel their only move is to upend the process entirely by turning it into an unserious spectacle. Look for Republicans to deflect by pushing debunked narratives about Joe Biden or about how Ukraine was actually trying to help the Clintons in 2016, by yelling about how they were not allowed to call witnesses to advance these debunked narratives, and — when all else fails — by turning what should be a solemn occasion into a farce, acting in ways that Howard Baker, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Watergate Committee, would have considered abhorrent. It is likely that the evidence will seep through anyway. In the end, the Republican argument will boil down to: he did it, we know it’s impeachable, but we don’t want to convict him.
This requires completely suspending reality. But they will do it if a descent into fantasy is the only approach that addresses the political interests of the party, its leader and their supporters. Congressional Republicans — many of whom know better — find themselves trapped in a struggle for political survival between a president who lives in a world where everything he asserts is true and a base that desperately wants to believe what he says because he is their last hope for staving off the loss of their own power and station.
So we enter this harrowing moment for the country and the world without the sense of purpose and importance it should command. It will be left to those outside the Trump base to pay attention and let the facts speak to them, because while it is impossible for any political figure to lose the entire country in this most divided of moments, it is possible to lose enough of the country to put intense political pressure on those stuck with an indefensible defense. If the facts somehow transcend the carnival ride we are about to take, some senate Republicans will feel caught between the demands of their base and the outrage of the rest of their constituents. To survive a dilemma such as this and preserve their viability in 2020 will require defying gravity.