If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
If an avalanche felled the tree, does it make sense to focus only on the fallen tree and to ignore the broader and more terrifying cataclysm that caused it?
House Democrats, apparently buoyed by last Tuesday’s election results, are prepared to begin the public hearing phase of their Trump impeachment inquiry. According to public announcements, they will presumably hold their hearings, centered on the Ukraine scandal, then refer the matter to the House Judiciary Committee, which will be charged with drafting articles of impeachment to be brought to the House floor for a vote.
Will the hearings, starting with two important but not particularly prominent officials connected to the Ukraine affair, be heard by the broad public in a way that matters politically?
Will hearings focused primarily or even exclusively on “Ukraine” get at the larger and more dramatic and consequential ways that Trump has abused his power and endangered constitutional democracy?
I am very concerned about this. I am no longer questioning anything about the way Pelosi and Schiff have handled things in the past. I am worried about whether the impeachment process, moving forward, will be sufficiently publicly compelling and politically mobilizing. And I am afraid that an approach that is too narrow or legalistic could be politically foolish and counterproductive. There is a real opportunity to be seized now, by effectively linking the public exposure made possible by legislative hearings; the broader political critique being waged in the primary electoral campaigns; and citizen politics. It needs to be seized.
A tiny selection of headlines from major news outlets over the past few days frame my concern: “Trump makes falsehoods central to impeachment defense as incriminating evidence mounts,”“Lindsey Graham says he won’t read transcripts of testimony in ‘sham’ impeachment process,”“Trump’s allies turned to online campaign to unmask Ukraine whistleblower,” “Republicans Try Different Response to Ukraine Call: Quid Pro Quo Isn’t Impeachable: The new line of attack is a turnabout for Republicans, who for weeks had rallied around the cry of ‘no quid pro quo,’”“Senate Republicans consider including Bidens in Trump impeachment trial; Justice Dept. trying to finish a report on Russia probe before Thanksgiving.”
Adam Schiff is the most reasonable, responsible, judicious, and efficient Congressperson imaginable to spearhead the public phase of impeachment.
And it is not unreasonable to worry that the Democrats are once again bringing a knife to a gunfight.
It is beyond any reasonable doubt that the Democrats have Trump “dead to rights” on Ukraine, on his abuse of power (“quid pro quo”), his perversion of the foreign policy process, and his obstruction.
It is also beyond doubt that very little in Washington these days can be described as “reasonable.”
The constitutional crisis that is unfolding is not “about” Ukraine. It is about the Constitution and democracy, and Trump’s long train of abuses of his constitutional authority.
It is about the legal, constitutional means that are available, in the U.S. system of government, to hold public officials accountable for their severe abuses of power. Impeachment is one way. Democratic elections are another way. Right now, both political processes are intertwined, and everyone knows it. But only the Republicans are acting like they know it, while the leading House Democrats seem to continue to treat impeachment as a merely legal process, whereby “evidence” is submitted to “the bar of reason” and individuals are presumably “judged” for their conduct.
I think this is a mistake.
It should come as no surprise to any serious political analyst that the Republican party—which has enabled Trump’s rise to power and which has willingly placed itself at his disposal, making itself a vehicle of his personal aggrandizement of power and wealth—is doing what it is now doing: articulating and enacting an utter disregard for constitutional democracy, the rule of law, public safety, and simple honesty, and standing by their man whatever is true about him. And perhaps even because of what is true: he is an authoritarian and they are authoritarians.
It is improbable, indeed near impossible, that this Republican-controlled Senate will handle any House impeachment charges with respect, much less vote to support them. The headlines make this clear. Indeed, it is almost sure that the Republicans—in the Senate, in the House, in the White House, at Fox News, and Trump Tower—will escalate the conflict, bringing Hunter Biden, or even Joe Biden, to testify; smearing any and all witnesses and obstructing testimony and evidence; and doing everything in their power to turn the entire impeachment process into a public referendum about the 2016 election!
This is why the Mueller Report cannot simply be filed away—because the Republicans will try to use it against the Democrats. They have made this clear. Trump’s best “defense”: in 2016 the Democrats colluded with “deep state” agents and Ukrainians (and the Bidens and Bursima and maybe also Colin Kaepernick and who knows who) to support Clinton and to prevent Trump from winning, but they failed, and everything since has been a “coup” against Trump, The Greatest and Most Popular President in the History of Mankind.
Are the Democrats in the House prepared for this onslaught, which has already begun and which will only intensify in the coming weeks and months? Are they ready for the ways that Trump will use his “bully pulpit” to bully and incite and threaten and distract and to tar the Democrats as the party of “liberalism” and “socialism” and “treason”—and this no matter who turns out to be the Democratic presidential candidate?
And are they prepared to make the most compelling public case against Trump, with the public itself as the primary audience for this case?
Trump’s Ukraine scandal is the tip of an iceberg of abuse of power, dereliction of duty, corruption, and contempt for the real material concerns of ordinary American citizens. It is fine to seize on Trump’s apparent Ukraine misdeeds. But it is foolish to ignore the connection between these misdeeds and Trump’s many other more important misdeeds.
The Mueller Report is a damning indictment of Trump. Mueller failed to present this powerfully, and the Democrats failed to frame this effectively, and Barr succeeded in lying about and thus politically “killing” the Report. This was a Democratic political failure. But the information contained there is still there. It is true. And it is damning. It is worse than foolish to allow the Republicans to keep it in some black memory hole.
The impeachment needs to link the Ukraine scandal with the Mueller report.
The leading Republicans among the hundreds of former federal prosecutors who declared that the Report was a damning indictment of Trump need to be called in public hearings. Let the Republicans try to savage George Conway or Charles Fried, perhaps the most prominent conservative jurist in the country, who served both Nixon and Reagan.
The Democrats need to present a strong overarching narrative of Trump’s malfeasance.
Jonathan Chait has produced a very compelling enumeration of “The (Full) Case for Impeachment: A menu of high crimes and misdemeanors.” There is no reason not to use the Ukraine scandal to engage all of Trump’s crimes. It is possible to tell a compelling story about the many corruptions that preceded “Ukraine,” that enacted the same disregard for the rule of law as “Ukraine,” and whose accumulation, over three horrendous years, has brought us to this point.
Such a story will not persuade Republican Senators or members of the Trump cult of personality to desert their Leader.
But it might persuade more significant numbers of American citizens to oppose Trump and to throw him out of office in 2020, along with many of his enablers in the Senate and House.
The impeachment must be seen as more than impeachment.
It is about the politics of opposing a dangerous and authoritarian president who merits the appellation “aspirational fascist.”
This means that the impeachment ought to feed the broader campaigning leading up to the 2020 election, and articulate themes that are indeed widely shared among the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. A recent Vox piece says it all: “Trump claims the impeachment inquiry will ‘backfire.’ Polling indicates he’s wrong. House Democrats’ newly formed impeachment inquiry has broad support even in battleground states Trump won.” This does not mean that Democratic campaigning can afford to avoid “kitchen table” issues and “retail politics,” and it certainly does not mean that anything about the opposition to Trump can be taken for granted. Nothing can be taken for granted! It means only that there is a fairly wide path that has opened to link the impeachment to broader issues in a way that is potentially electorally and politically advantageous to Democrats—if Democrats are smart enough to take advantage of the opportunity.
So the impeachment must be linked to the election, in conception and execution.
But there is more. For the democratic resistance to Trumpism requires more than legislative hearings and more than effective campaigning to elect Democrats. It requires extraordinary citizen action, to mobilize voters, and do campaign work, and do bridge-building work within the opposition coalition, and to take to the streets when the moment is right—as David Leonhardt argued powerfully in a recent New York Times piece. I don’t think the time for that has yet arrived—though who knows how such timing is determined, and there surely might be more than one appropriate time between now and November 2020! But surely if the House does bring impeachment charges against Trump, as it most certainly will do, it will make sense for there to be massive public demonstrations timed to support the opening of the Senate trial and/or to insist on a conviction before voting.
Such political action will not persuade either Republican officials or core Trump voters. Nothing will. But if done right, it could mobilize and expand the Democratic base, and even reach beyond that base, to “undecided” or “independent” voters who will be able to watch a real political drama unfold before their eyes, pitting a crass and cruel president and his lying enablers against a severe political opposition and a mobilized citizenry who are demanding not the harsh treatment of some Other (“Lock her up!” “Build a wall!”) but the preservation of democratic equality and the rule of law.
There is a way to do this right, perhaps. It requires a broad political strategy that links legislative and electoral and movement politics. It requires the savvy use of all media to expose Trump’s abuses and lies and to make the case against him. It requires thinking about politics not only as a legal process but as performance and even spectacle, involving public enactments of democratic critique and democratic courage. There is a crucial role to be played by legislators and responsible civil servants, and journalists, and ordinary citizens.
Schiff and Pelosi and Nadler and AOC are fine. Their impeachment work is essential. So too is the work of Warren and Sanders and Biden and Buttigieg and the rest, who are contending with each other but also hopefully advancing a broader message about a future beyond Trump that is capable of attracting voters and of unifying activists. These leading Democrats should not see themselves as working on parallel tracks. They should be working together on a single track, to oppose a corrupt party in power and thus to defend democracy. If they can do this with integrity and political vision, they will earn the support of the public that they seek. If they don’t, we are all fucked. And so we must do what we can to help them to do the right thing and project the right message and be heard. The future of democracy in America may well hang in the balance.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.