The Airing of Grievances

About a month ago, I predicted that House Republicans would try to upend the impeachment process rather than engage Democrats on the facts. I thought they would continue to push debunked narratives about Hunter Biden and alleged Ukrainian election interference, complain about the majority’s unwillingness to let them call witnesses who would advance those debunked narratives, and generally turn what should have been a solemn occasion into a circus. They would do this, I assumed, because it was their only political play in the absence of fact-based exculpatory evidence of Trump’s behavior and out of the partisan need to rally the troops on behalf of a president who expects total loyalty from his supporters.

If you spent any time watching the compact marathon that was the House Judiciary hearings, you saw this come to pass. Looking at that panel, the divide that defines this country never felt larger. On one side were representatives of the emerging electorate, where women are present in almost equal proportion to men, nonwhites outnumber whites, and there is such wide diversity with respect to background, gender, religion and age that only two members are white male Christians (and neither is particularly old). Overwhelmingly urban and suburban but far from exclusively coastal, these members spoke to the facts aligned against Donald Trump and to the importance of upholding the oath they took to protect the constitution in advancing the impeachment case against him.

On the other side were representatives of the traditional electorate. Exclusively white and almost exclusively male, they are largely Southern, Midwestern and rural. These members chose to decry the impeachment process as rigged and unfair, offering disingenuous claims about secret hearings and rules that prevented the president from defending himself, even as Trump was declining the opportunity to have his attorneys present. They ignored as a matter of strategy all evidence of presidential wrongdoing, instead spinning an alternative narrative about Joe Biden’s corruption that is alive and well in conservative media despite being fully debunked by US intelligence agencies and over and over in the mainstream press — then complaining when the majority would not permit them to call witnesses to advance their discredited ideas.

And they were angry. Were they ever angry. What Americans outside the Trump base saw in those hearings was a white-hot example of the irreconcilable perspectives dividing the country, but what the base saw was righteous anger. And that, really, is the point. The entire Trump Reaction is built on strong feelings of grievance leveled at the representatives occupying the other side of the dais. It is grievance about the fact that those representatives occupy the other side of the dais. I have written frequently that it is a mistake to question the intelligence of Trump supporters and best to understand their fears — that a rising tide of diversity and secularism is threatening to upend traditional assignments of privilege and power. Those fears are grounded in the loud reality of changing demographics, against which Republican partisans see Donald Trump as the last remaining defense against a country ruled by the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Jerry Nadler, Pramila Jayapal and Sheila Jackson Lee — who want to impeach Trump and remove him from office. Of course the process looks illegitimate to them. 

So, in this season of airing grievances, committee Republicans used their time to be aggrieved. Their case is political and amplifies the core rationale of the Trump presidency: they are out to get us and we can’t let them. No matter that impeachment is the constitutional remedy for adjudicating claims of presidential abuse of power. Democrats want to remove Trump, therefore the entire process is partisan and suspect. There is no need to examine the evidence, because anything and everything Trump did can be excused in the interest of survival. The other side is being unfair to us because they will do anything to win, so anything we do in return is justifiable self-defense.

This perspective is rooted in a fundamental rejection of the legitimacy of the Democratic majority and ultimately, as the other side speaks for regular order, in the rejection of constitutional institutions. It is advanced in order to save a man and his minions, regardless of the damage it does to the foundational democratic requirement of placing the constitution above self-interest. It is disturbing even if it is not surprising that Republicans feel the maintenance of Donald Trump in power is more important than loyalty to an oath of office that requires them to be serious partners in the evaluation of claims of presidential abuse of power and obstruction of congress. It is equally disturbing that we are heading into an election year where the dynamics on display in the Judiciary Committee will be magnified by the zero-sum choice we will have to make in November about what society, power and democracy will look like in the decade ahead.