Trump's America

Trump's impeachment: a familiar script, with new players

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Trump's impeachment: a familiar script, with new players

President Donald Trump greets former President Bill Clinton 2017 (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

The impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump are a swirl of allegations — Ukraine, Joe Biden’s son, selling out the national interest over Russia…

But none of those topics touches on the daily lives of the average American. And for more than four years, the biggest headline in American life, day in and day out, has been some variation of, “Can you believe what President Trump did?” Very little that the president does shocks anyone anymore; people decided what they thought of this president a long time ago.

Right now, in the FiveThirtyEight aggregation of polls about impeachment, 47.3 per cent of respondents support the removal of Trump from office, and 45.8 per cent oppose his removal. That’s about where the numbers have been since early October, and they are more or less in line with the president’s job approval ratings and re-election head-to-head numbers in swing states. The impeachment hearings went exactly as House Democrats wanted — but public opinion didn’t budge.

If you’re old enough to remember the state of American politics in 1998, you’re witnessing an amazing turn-about: everyone’s getting a taste of what the other side felt 21 years ago.

If you were a conservative and following politics in 1998, you started that year off with a mix of shock, outrage, and glee. You already detested the president — a sleazy, slick horn-dog, who shamelessly lied as easily as he breathed. You couldn’t believe the American people elected and reelected him, although you note he didn’t win a majority of the popular vote either time. You had been convinced that long and thorough investigations — by both Congress and the independent counsel — would expose him as the dishonest crook that you knew he was the first time you saw him on television.

Now this egomaniacal narcissist had been caught having a sexual affair with a 22-year-old White House intern!  It was a sleazy, illicit, secret arraignment — the president wanted a dirty deed, and Lewinsky wanted help getting a job. The president’s close advisor with lots of powerful clients, Vernon Jordan, was up to his neck in making sure the shady deal went through. The president had even been sexually engaged with her while on the phone to members of Congress, seeming to not even care who could be listening or could hear!

Even worse, the president had lied about it under oath, and then even worse than that, he had encouraged other people to lie about it under oath, suborning perjury. He had the brazen solipsism to believe he was the victim in the whole sordid affair.

Bill Clinton had proved himself reckless, selfish, utterly incapable of controlling his ugliest impulses, unable to separate his private desires from his official duties as president. But an odd thing happened in the eyes of conservatives: a lot of Americans didn’t seem to care about the president’s obvious wrongdoing. They didn’t approve of it, but it didn’t seem important enough to remove a president from office for the first time in the country’s history. The economy was roaring, and that outweighed outrage over the president’s misdeeds to many Americans.

The president’s party offered pro forma disapproval here and there, but was almost entirely united in opposition to impeachment. The House of Representatives voted to impeach on a largely party-line vote, and the Senate acquitted the president in a vote that came nowhere near the two-thirds majority required to remove him. The Republicans walked away convinced the outrage was that the president got away with it; the Democrats walked away convinced that the real outrage was that the opposition believed this justified his removal from office.

But now things are different, you see.

Democrats started this autumn with a mix of shock, outrage, and glee. They already detested the president as a sleazy, slick horndog who shamelessly lied as easily as he breathed. They couldn’t believe the American people elected him, although they note he didn’t win a majority of the popular vote. They were convinced that long and thorough investigations — by both Congress and the special counsel — would expose him as the dishonest crook that they knew he was the first time they saw him on television.

Now this egomaniacal narcissist had been caught having an inappropriate affair with the Ukrainian president! It was a sleazy, illicit, secret arraignment — the president wanted dirt on a potential opponent, and Zelensky wanted help getting Javelin missiles to defend his country. The president’s close advisor with lots of powerful clients, Rudy Giuliani, was up to his neck in making sure the shady deal went through. The president had even proposed this shady deal while on the phone — seeming to not even care who could be listening or could hear.

Even worse, the president lied about the deal, insisting there had been no quid pro quo and that it had been a perfect call. He defied all Congressional subpoenas and requests. He had the brazen solipsism to believe he was the victim in the whole sordid affair.

Donald Trump had proved himself reckless, selfish, utterly incapable of controlling his ugliest impulses, unable to separate his private political interests from his official duties as president. But an odd thing happened in the eyes of Democrats: a lot of Americans didn’t seem to care about the president’s obvious wrongdoing. They didn’t approve of it, but it didn’t seem important enough to remove a president from office for the first time in the country’s history. The economy was roaring, and that outweighed outrage over the president’s misdeeds to many Americans. The president’s party is offering pro forma disapproval here and there, but is almost entirely united in opposition to impeachment.

The House of Representatives is likely to impeach on a largely party-line vote, and the Senate is likely to acquit the president in a vote that will come nowhere near the two-thirds majority required to remove the president. The Democrats are likely to walk away convinced the outrage was that the president got away with it; the Republicans are likely to walk away convinced that the real outrage was that the opposition believed this justified his removal from office.

Everybody in politics now knows how the other side felt back then.

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