Yes, it's time to impeach Donald Trump — but the failure of democracy is much bigger than him

Trump's assault on democracy and press freedom is the culmination of a long process. We must face that first

Published May 26, 2019 12:05PM (EDT)

William Barr; Julian Assange; Donald Trump (Getty/Salon)
William Barr; Julian Assange; Donald Trump (Getty/Salon)

After a week when Donald Trump’s push toward authoritarian rule appeared to accelerate dramatically, talk of impeachment is everywhere. Trump’s apparent or obvious “high crimes and misdemeanors” are without number, like the stars in heaven or the sands upon the Red Sea shore. Those who despise him can pick from an abundant café menu of possible reasons to impeach. If I’ve finally and belatedly come around to favoring impeachment — which I’ve long viewed as a futile and puritanical exercise — it’s not exactly for the same reasons as MSNBC viewers steeped in the paranoid (or at least paranoia-inducing) arcana of the Mueller report.

Trump’s sustained assault on the First Amendment and freedom of the press reached a crescendo last week with the indictment of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on numerous charges drawn from the notorious Espionage Act of 1917. That alone would be reason enough to impeach any president, or at least it would be if so many Americans weren’t so blinkered by partisan politics that they have effectively stopped caring about such things.

If that sounds like a self-serving, excessively high-minded or downright puzzling opinion, I hasten to add that the narcissistic and sometimes catastrophic failures of the American media have contributed to this problem, to a very large extent. If Americans are no longer convinced that the press has a critical role to play in democracy, and are likelier to perceive it as a warped tool of politics, most useful for coddling one’s own side with infantile propaganda or gouging out the eyes of one’s enemies, our profession needs to take a long look in the mirror before deciding whose fault that is — and even whether that perception is unfair.

If Americans have largely lost touch with what the First Amendment is supposed to mean as a legal and philosophical principle, and whom it is meant to protect, that too is symbolic of much larger failures. It stands as a shining example, perhaps the primary one, of the way all the dire warnings issued about democracy’s innate tendency toward self-corruption and self-stupefaction, from Plato to Nietzsche and beyond, have come true. Democracy has become a religion, in an age when religion has become hypocrisy. So much of our so-called democracy has become a pro forma exercise, sound and fury signifying nothing, a hallowed ritual performed by doddering, drunken priests who have long since forgotten the meaning of the ancient texts they mumble.

Sometimes this hollowness is too obvious to ignore, as with the Electoral College, which has never even remotely pretended to fulfill its (bizarre) intended role as a last-ditch elite legislature that could prevent mob rule or halt the rise of tyrants. (The less said about pathetic liberal self-trolling on that topic after the 2016 election, the better.) But we consistently pretend that Congress and the Supreme Court, for example, still function within some approximate distance of their original design, or that their flaws are recent and inexplicable anomalies that can be corrected with some degree of institutional tweaking.

If you ask me, grotesque contemporary figures like Mitch McConnell and Brett Kavanaugh have performed a vital public service by pushing beyond the boundaries of normalized corruption into bacchanalian self-parody. They have lifted the curtain and shown us the leering goblins that lie beyond. If we choose to look away again, and to embrace the belief that another middle-road Democratic president or another “blue wave” can set America back on the paths of virtue, that’s honestly not their fault.

There is of course another grotesque contemporary figure one could mention. To blame any of this on Donald Trump is an excessively literal-minded example of putting the cart before the horse, or mistaking the symptom for the disease. Still, it’s a uniquely horrible symptom and a really ugly cart. The public drama of impeachment is about 99 percent unlikely to result in Trump’s removal from office, but it could have immense symbolic and therapeutic importance — although not, I suspect, if it is understood as an end in itself.

To return to my proximate example, the use of the Espionage Act against Julian Assange is a shrewd deployment of outright fascist suppression against a soft target. I don’t care whether you despise Assange or view him as a “real journalist” (whatever the hell that is supposed to mean) or believe he is single-handedly responsible for defeating Hillary Clinton and electing Trump. All that stuff is ironic, perhaps, and it is surely legitimate, as I have previously argued, to view Assange as a man who misjudged his own importance and was brought down by hubris. But as Attorney General William Barr has certainly told the president, this intended prosecution opens up a whole new avenue of executive power, while pretending to be singularly focused on a marginal weirdo whom most people across the political spectrum view with contempt.

The Espionage Act — originally crafted to crack down on real or imagined German spy networks during World War I — has been long feared by journalists and civil libertarians precisely because it holds out the possibility of punishing those who reveal state secrets, regardless of where in the supply chain they happen to fall. For most of the law’s tortuous and oft-amended existence, it has been held over the heads of leakers and whistleblowers; by convention or custom (but not quite as a matter of legal precedent) it has not been applied to reporters or publishers. As Masha Gessen of the New Yorker explains, the path to this particular moment has been paved by both parties, and carries a bitter aftertaste of “Thanks, Obama!”:

Like many Trumpian attacks on democracy, this one is novel but rooted in a long devolution of American institutions — it is a leap, but from a running start. Government use of law against speech goes back at least to the George W. Bush Administration. Prosecutions ramped up under Barack Obama. Prosecutions, however, focussed on whistleblowers and leakers; journalists, who, like the Times reporter James Risen, could be called up as witnesses, were targeted indirectly. But journalism has not been collateral damage in this battle — it has been the target. The Trump Administration has made that clear by jumping the fence that the Obama Administration had merely approached and charging Assange, under the Espionage Act, for practices typical of journalists.

There’s no point in dragging out the “plague on both your houses” jeremiad here and now, nor in aggressively throwing shade at Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer about why, exactly, they are so reluctant to go after the Trump administration over its big-picture blatant corruption and its fascistic assaults on democracy, and are focused instead on narrow legalistic or institutional concerns. I have no idea whether it’s a short-term political mistake for House Democrats to go down the road of impeachment and I’m pretty sure nobody else knows either, despite the line of expensive experts outside Pelosi’s office armed with gigabytes of data. Indeed, I believe it’s the wrong question, and I think it’s time for people of conscience to make clear that we don’t care.

Impeaching Trump or otherwise denying him legitimacy is a prospect that has hovered in the air since the early hours of Nov. 9, 2016, when America woke up to a sudden awareness of its disrepair. Actually, as Trump himself is acutely aware, that idea predates his election by a fair bit. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was largely focused on the tragicomical implausibility of Trump as the actual president of the actual United States, a message that resonated strongly in California and Massachusetts and was a lot less effective in the Rust Belt. Trump’s monomaniacal obsession with the text messages between FBI lovebirds Peter Strzok and Lisa Page is precisely because they joked about undermining his presidency in advance (as did millions of other people).

But if impeachment becomes a magical process devoted to erasing or negating one malign individual, or a liberal-inflected version of the crusade to make America great again, it will accomplish nothing. The Trump administration’s sustained assault on damn near everything — democracy, press freedom, the constitutional separation of powers and, for that matter, the basic precepts of truth and knowledge on which those things depend — demand exposure, consideration and as much deep historical reflection as we can manage.

Whether impeachment is a “good idea” in instrumental terms — whether it can break through the moral paralysis and willful blindness afflicting our republic, whether it may rebound to Trump’s benefit, whether it’s an imaginary solution to the wrong problem — is another matter entirely. None of that is knowable in advance, and may well be debated long into the future. I suspect impeachment is only worth pursuing as one facet of a larger systematic strategy to rebuild democracy from the ground up, not as a medical miracle that by itself can cause the patient to spring up from his deathbed, flush with vigor. There are some signs of hope in that direction, but the task is daunting and the recent patterns of American history are not all that encouraging.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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