Several days ago, I was pleased to have Slate publish my post on this blog asserting that Mr. Trump’s efforts to induce federal law enforcement agencies to investigate his political enemies constitute an impeachable offense. One of the most fascinating aspects of those occasions when this blog’s content gets a national audience is getting a blast of feedback from reader comments.
Sometimes, astute readers will point to apparent gaps in an argument or flaws in reasoning. That keeps me honest and can inspire further, and I hope better, analysis. I think that was the case following my article on the pardon of Sheriff Arpaio, where reader comments led to a string of additional posts on particular aspects of that problem.
Other times, however, reader comments can drive me nearly to despair about the prospects for American democracy. At a minimum, they often highlight what may be an insuperable obstacle to any effort to remove Mr. Trump. One comment posted directly to this blog this morning illustrates the problem starkly. To summarize, the reader made three points:
(1) He said that “by your [meaning Bowman’s] logic,” Bill and Hillary Clinton, President Obama, and Bob Mueller should be “investigated and charged with treason for the Uranium One deal,” the Clintons should be hung, and Mr. Mueller should be imprisoned for life as their “bag man.”
(2) He said, “And you mentioned Benghazi and the culpability of Ms. Clinton and Obama and others” for the deaths of several U.S. Embassy employees.
(3) He concluded that my argument for the impeachability of Mr. Trump for attempting to use law enforcement agencies against his enemies demonstrated “why our children that attend institutions of ‘higher’ learning come out indoctrinated in Marxism and Maoisum [sic].”
Of course, it goes without saying that nothing in my article implied that the Uranium One affair has any substance or that the Clintons, President Obama, or Mr. Mueller have any culpability, legal or otherwise in connection with it. Indeed, my piece contained multiple links to authorities carefully explaining why the Uranium One affair is an invented non-story. The reader made no reference to those sources and no attempt to rebut the facts they lay out. Moreover, the reader had obviously made no effort to reflect on the sheer absurdity of what he was saying. Leaving the mountain of other impossibilities in the Uranium One conspiracy theory to one side, the idea that Bob Mueller — decorated Marine veteran, career federal prosecutor, former FBI Director appointed by George W. Bush, and lifelong Republican — is a “bagman” for the Clintons is just daft.
More revealingly, the reader claims that I “mentioned Benghazi” when, of course, there is no reference whatever to Benghazi in my article, and in any event, whatever happened in Benghazi is utterly irrelevant to my thesis. And, perhaps inevitably, the reader concluded with the assertion that, because I am a professor, I am part of the grand conspiracy in higher education to indoctrinate America’s youth into communism.
It is easy to sneer derisively at this sort of thing and to dismiss the reader as a “wing nut.” But that is the exact reverse of my point. The reader is plainly a person of some intelligence and politically aware enough to follow current news and read and comment on articles like mine. Yet he has so far surrendered his own critical faculties to the echo chamber of the segment of the media he consumes that he is apparently unable, or at least unwilling, to make independent judgments. If he allowed himself to think independently, to analyze critically the information he’s getting, he’d see for himself the manifest weakness of the claims he’s making. Again, this a pretty smart person. Yet his response to an article suggesting that Mr. Trump has violated basic American political norms is almost Pavlovian — Uranium One, Benghazi, professors are Commies.
I do not mean to suggest that if this reader, and the millions of others with similar habits of thought, adopted a more critical stance to what they hear and read that they would all become happy liberal Democrats. That’s silly. What the country desperately needs is not a uniformly liberal electorate, but a uniformly literate and reflective electorate. We need intelligent, independent, critical thinkers on the right every bit as much as we need them on the left and in the center.
It is hardly a novel observation that American voters are increasingly isolated in their own information echo chambers. This is deeply unhealthy for our democracy. And this phenomenon has particular implications in the context of possible impeachment of Mr. Trump. The success of the impeachment investigation that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon was possible only because the majority of Republicans, both elected officials and ordinary citizens, were finally convinced that their president had misbehaved badly enough that he had to go. The slow conversion of millions of reliable Republican partisans was possible only because Americans of all political persuasions shared norms of acceptable and unacceptable political behavior, and because almost everyone trusted institutions like the major organs of the press, the courts, and the Justice Department as fair arbiters of truth and falsity.
We no longer inhabit that world. Mr. Trump daily challenges the norms that support democratic governance, but they have been under assault for a long time. And people on both sides of the political divide have slowly migrated into information silos that armor them against critical thought. That said, the information silo effect is notably worse on the right. As I have observed repeatedly here, Mr. Trump himself lies pervasively and obsessively, and an entire segment of the media has perverted itself to excuse or amplify even his most nonsensical claims. The success of this effort is sadly evident in my reader’s comments, which exemplify the views of a large, and politically critical, segment of Republican voters.
In the end, if the seemingly impermeable information barrier around the Republican base cannot be breached, it will not matter what Mr. Mueller uncovers or how egregiously Mr. Trump abuses his office. Regardless of the objective facts, even if Democrats capture the House in 2018, neither impeachment, nor indeed healthy politics of any kind, are in our immediate future.