By Frank Bowman
Today, I joined with my friend Alan Baron and a group of other distinguished commentators on Politico to consider the likely verdict of history on the impeachment of Donald Trump. The entire series of commentaries can be found at this link. My original submission to Politico was (entirely sensibly) edited for length. I reproduce the original slightly longer version here:
Donald Trump has been impeached by the House of Representatives. Sometime next month, the Senate will acquit him. All will proceed as long predicted by the cynics, or, if you prefer, the realists. Inevitably, some of those realists will adopt a tone of world-weary wisdom and deride the impeachment effort as pointless at best, and as a political blunder at worst.
The realists will be wrong.
I say this regardless of the fact that impeachment will not immediately remove Donald Trump from office, and regardless of the suggestion (implausible though it seems to me) that impeachment may somehow aid him in his reelection. Whatever the short-term consequences, this impeachment is the right thing to do.
It is right because the truth matters. The United States is an inheritor of the Enlightenment conviction that the world is comprehensible, reality is discoverable, and social arrangements should be built on clear-eyed assessments of fact. American democracy depends on a special elaboration of the Enlightenment ideal which insists that truth is not the private property of priesthoods or aristocracies, but is the public province of every citizen, the necessary predicate to informed communal choice.
Our president is a liar. He sits at the center of a web of falsehood, constantly spinning grotesque new entanglements, constantly abetted by his hired sycophants and, more consequentially, by a dark element of the media which finds in Trump the perfect champion of its own impulse to transform the press from arbiter of truth to purveyor of profitable propaganda. Trump’s dishonesty is so integral to his personality and to all his works that to support him requires that one become a liar oneself, or at least to become willfully indifferent to mendacity.
The House impeachment process was essential to the cause of recovering truth as a public value. Without it, Trump’s misconduct in relation to Ukraine would have remained a mere scandalous rumor, blithely denied by Trump and generally ignored by the public. More fundamentally, the hearings in the House Intelligence Committee recaptured, for a blessed moment at least, the world we are in danger of losing, a world in which it is natural for honest public servants to serve their country impartially and speak the truth when they witness a betrayal of its values. This impeachment calls us to renew our mutual obligation of public candor.
This impeachment is necessary because right and wrong matters. It is wrong for an American president to use the vast power given him as a public trust for his private selfish ends. It is trebly wrong for a president to engage in a contemptible extortion of a vulnerable people struggling to resist foreign aggression, a people aspiring to join the community of free democracies we, until recently, had the honor to lead. The offense is rendered blacker still when the result is to abet the totalitarian aspirations of Vladimir Putin and to damage our own security and that of democratic Europe.
Until the ascendance of Trump, no serious person of either party would have defended any particle of what Trump did in Ukraine. It was simply, and unequivocally, wrong. And considered in the round, it is the quintessence of the “violation of … public trust” for which the founders designed the impeachment remedy.
This impeachment is inescapable because the constitution must be defended. The framers wrote into the constitution a president of limited powers, not a king. Trump’s plain ambition, plainly announced, is for personal rule, unfettered by law, rule, regulation, judge, or Congress itself. In this, he is being actively encouraged by populist ideologues, white nationalists, unitary executive zealots, and media screamers, while being passively enabled by party functionaries and Republican legislators who know better, but are cowed by the legions easily whipped to fury by his Twitter bile.
The constitution gave Congress many tools with which to assert control over a misguided or demagogic president, but this Congress, or more particularly the Republicans in this Congress, refuse to wield them. In such a case, the only tool remaining to the one party not under his sway is impeachment. If, in the end, Republicans refuse to either to restrain Trump or to oust him, Democrats at least have the consolation that they sounded the alarm and gave their colleagues the chance to rise to the occasion.
Finally, the value of any public act cannot necessarily be measured in its immediate success of failure. By voting to impeach Donald Trump, Democrats express their faith in, to adapt a phrase from Charles DeGaulle, a certain idea of America. An America that is commonly truthful, unusually generous, customarily trustworthy, instinctively democratic, committed to human freedoms and individual rights, self-protective without being selfish, always imperfect but perennially challenging itself to do better. An America that, to borrow a favorite image from a man Republicans used to revere, at least aspired to be the world’s shining city on a hill.
Loyalty to that certain idea of America matters, as did DeGaulle’s lifelong allegiance to “une certaine idée de la France.” DeGaulle was a difficult, stubborn, arrogant, sometimes impossible man. But he proclaimed his “certain idea of France” through the darkest time in French history, when the country was occupied by Nazis and its politics dominated by enthusiastic collaborators and cynical defeatists. DeGaulle’s certain idea was in some respects a delusion – a vision of French political and cultural superiority and national glory that had never truly existed in the past and could certainly never be wholly realized in the modern world – but it spoke to Frenchmen’s vision of their best selves. It sustained them, rallied them, and then inspired them to restoration of a France that could again take pride in itself.
We are assuredly not yet in so dire a strait as Vichy France in 1942. But we are under threat from some of the same resilient external forces, as well as dark internal impulses never entirely vanquished in any culture. It is not hyperbole to suggest that our Republic is in peril. In impeaching Donald Trump for his betrayal of American values, we reassert to each other our commitment to a resurgent democracy. And we speak not just to each other but to a watching world. We demonstrate that, although for the moment America is in the grip of madness, there remains a sturdy contingent of Americans willing to fight for the hopeful America upon which so many of the world’s highest aspirations depend.