Impeachment as Soulcraft

Well, it’s all over but the shouting. And it turns out that shouting is all it would ever be.

In the view of many, impeachment was a fool’s errand, useless or worse, further emboldening the president, forcing his party to demonstrate the depth of its feckless fealty, and supercharging our polar politics to the point of electrocution. With a result so starkly bleak, and so quixotically foretold, what can we possibly have gained?

Surely not knowledge. Everything we saw on display we knew, or should have known, already. Our politics are marketed so precisely as mold to us like second skins, which once worn, are impossible to peel. As a result our democracy, once a contest of ideas, is increasingly one of identities. The political implications of this are ruthless and dire. When majority rule is no longer a matter of persuasion but of population, its ideal type is no longer Athens — it is Rwanda.

So there is some symmetry to the warring tribes ringed around the pugilists of the impeachment trial. But as I listened to them — and to the nightly reverberations from MSNBC, CNN and Fox — of course I heard different versions of the facts: but beyond that, contrasting stories about America. Around the turn of the millennium, Eric Foner published “The Story of American Freedom,” which traced the concept from the days when colonists yearning for “freedom” described their relationship to Britain as “slavery” even though they themselves owned slaves. Freedom has always been a contested, crooked, broken thread weaving through the fabric of American history.

In the post-World-War-II era, two divided paradigms of freedom have dominated our politics: the conservative ideas of freedom as free enterprise and American international supremacy, and the liberal ideas of political liberalization, civil rights, and economic justice. These paradigms have been our yin and yang, always in contention, sometimes — at our moments of greatest achievement — in alignment, but never truly at war. Until, perhaps, today.

Today Republicans openly embrace an authoritarian leader and a lockstep party structure on the grounds that it is good for the short-term economy. They champion native-born privilege at the expense of the historic immigrant narrative, thus reserving American freedom as a privilege for its citizens only and sacrificing the universalistic concept of America as an idea. They enable and excuse a president who admires and emulates dictators.

Democrats, in turn, champion a politics of identity that emphasizes difference over unity, regulation over opportunity, centralization over autonomy, taxation over economic liberalization. The farther Donald Trump moves to the right, the American left moves in equal and opposite reaction. The more conservatives fuel economic inequality, the more Democrats demand a wealth tax.

And between them, a small group of civil servants. Members of the national security establishment, the diplomatic corps, the administration itself. Professionals who have served the nation under Democrats and Republicans, and who have seen how these ideas grind together where the rubber meets the road. Who know that, to keep the struggle from turning into complete chaos, there are boundaries to be respected. Rules of law. Norms of integrity. Standards of practice. And if these are lost, so are we. They stood up and objected to Trump’s Ukraine dealings, not out of political calculus, or because they thought they could win. But because they had to. Because they knew that the boundaries were at stake, and if they didn’t defend them, nobody would. I supported impeachment because I stand with them.

We are entering a phase of our history in which there will be less and less middle ground. I deeply value free enterprise and individual autonomy. But if forced to choose, I value democracy and justice more. And if forced to stand up and be counted, I will do so, because the alternative is to accede to the twilight of authoritarianism that is eclipsing the globe, country by country and year by year, as we speak.

The impeachment trial, and the election this fall, are ultimately about those differing ideas of freedom. The Senate ultimately succumbed to the idea that whether presidents should be subject to rule of law and justice is now a question open for debate, to be decided by the electorate.American voters will be asked the question again and again, through the primaries and the general election. I don’t think there’s any such thing as asking the question too often right now. If the current trends continue, we may miss it.

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