Today, Donald Trump gets his comeuppance. No, it’s not the comeuppance he deserves. If we had a serious Republican Party, all this would have happened long ago; there would have been several impeachment counts, and perhaps a quarter or so of House Republicans would have joined the Democrats in voting to pass the articles Trump has so obviously earned.
And, if we had a serious Republican Party, the extent of Trump’s high crimes would be made manifestly clear on a bipartisan (enough) basis to the three audiences that matter in a moment like this: the American people, the world, and history. He would either have been convicted in the Senate or, like Richard Nixon, saved the embarrassment of conviction by old-bull members of his own party who went to the White House and told him the gig was up. Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott, a Pennsylvania moderate, did that for Nixon. In our time, if sanity still prevailed, it might have been Orrin Hatch and Lindsey Graham. But Hatch has stayed silent, and Graham, well, you know about him.
[NOTE: Loyal reader George S. writes in to remind me that Hatch is retired. Thanks and apologies. Lamar Alexander would be the right person here.]
But even if Hatch still had some of his old bipartisan conviction and Graham any scruples, that wouldn’t have worked. Trump would have ordered them out of his office, tweeted crudely about them, and set about finding lackeys in Utah and South Carolina to run against them. They’d be tarred as “deep staters,” and soon enough, the Fox News crew, and Bill Barr’s Justice Department, would be after them. That is the reality that Trump has created, and the one for which Republicans are constantly making excuses and explaining away as normal.
But we don’t have a serious Republican Party, so we have to take what we can get—two articles, passed on a wholly partisan basis (with maybe a couple of Democrats voting no). We, the constitutionalists, the real patriots, will just have to settle for a punishment that doesn’t fit the crime.
I’ve wrapped my head around that, reluctantly. But there’s something else that bothers me on this front. Any historical event like this has two phases: the event itself; and how the event is remembered in history. And while the constitutionalists will win the event itself (at least insofar as Trump will bear the mark of impeachment forever), the real battle will come in how history interprets it.
This is important. It isn’t just about bragging rights and what kinds of pictures of Trump, surly or beatific, they show in future grade-school textbooks. This will likely have severe constitutional ramifications down the road.
Let’s go back to the Civil War. The North, of course, won the Civil War. But after the war came the war over the war—how it would be interpreted and remembered. And that war was won by the South. As the Yale historian David Blight among others has shown, in his great book Race and Reunion, Northerners emphasized the importance of reunion, welcoming the South back into the American nation and creed, which had the effect of downplaying how evil slavery was—that is, how evil was the “cause” of the South. This made room for the kind of revisionism about what the South was fighting for that exists to this day.
This happened in part because Northerners thought, “Well, it’s over, we won, slavery is ended, that’s that.” But to Southerners, that wasn’t that. From Jim Crow to D.W. Griffith to the Daughters of the Confederacy to Gone With the Wind, a ferocious industry of revisionism arose to paint the Confederates as victims and people of honor. The consequences for our politics were profound and horrifying.
We’re going to have the same kind of fight over this impeachment, and over Trumpism generally, for the next 20 or 30 years. Trump and his defenders will keep at this and at this and at this. There will be three tasks.
The first order of business will be to get him acquitted in the Senate, which will happen without effort. The second order of business will be to get him re-elected, because if he wins re-election even after having been impeached, they will paint the whole thing as having been not only a sham, but a sham that backfired.
Then, the third order of business will be to win the broader fight over whether this impeachment was legitimate. You may have noticed the letter signed this week by more than 750 historians. “It is our considered judgment that if President Trump’s misconduct does not rise to the level of impeachment, then virtually nothing does,” they write. And of course they’re correct.
But the pro-Trump right wing will spend lots of time and money to convince Americans not to see it that way. If they succeed, they won’t simply be exonerating Trump personally. They’ll be saying that everything he did was fine. The obstruction of justice was fine. The constant interfering with federal investigations was fine. The refusal to cooperate with Congress in any way was fine. The hijacking of the Justice Department was fine. And the request to a foreign leader to interfere in our next election was fine.
And the door will be open for the next Trump to do all that and worse.
So the impeachment fight in the House ends today. In the Senate, it will end in about five or six weeks. But just remember that in the larger culture, it will never end. The Trumpists are going to fight this one forever, both for the sake of doing what they can to salvage Trump’s historical reputation and to establish for history that it’s perfectly fine for a president—a Republican president—to do these things. So we’d better be ready to fight for a long time.