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Joe Kennedy and the perils of media hubris

Trump’s impeachment is the death of liberal proceduralism

December 21, 2019

2:26 PM

21 December 2019

2:26 PM

‘Dear Ellie and James,’ said Rep. Joe Kennedy in his remarks to the House of Representatives as he voted to impeach Donald Trump, ‘this is a moment you’ll read about in your history books.’ Kennedy’s children will leave school in less than 20 years. Is 9/11 in the ‘history’ books? 

The young Kennedy — a handsome but slightly goofy looking man — was struggling and straining to convey gravitas. He closed his eyes. He paaaaaaaused. His pitch rose up at the beginning of a sentence and went down as he finished it. Frankly, it was a farcical display of posturing; a botched performance that made Nicolas Cage in The Wicker Man look like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.

Of course, only an idiot could sincerely believe that Donald Trump has been entirely honest about his Ukrainian adventures. Using his power for selfish reasons? My Donald? My Don Don? This is like feigning surprise if Andy Dick is arrested for indecent exposure.

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Trump’s more reasonable admirers tend to excuse his lies and bullying on the assumption that they are in the service of the American people but it has become depressingly obvious that they are often in the service of the Trump family itself. Granted, Hunter Biden’s dealings with Burisma Holdings reeked of nepotism, but Trump could hardly have a sincere objection to that given the prominence in his administration of his glassy-eyed daughter and preposterous son-in-law. Granted, I can believe that it had less to do with a calculated desire to harm the Biden campaign than with Trump’s bitterness over his treatment by his opponents and his desire to respond in kind but that is a limp excuse.

The strange thing is the Democrats getting so pompous about high-minded proceduralism. The previous Republican president escaped impeachment despite beginning two disastrous wars, the latter of which was promoted on a bogus pretext, and establishing a worldwide system of torture. His Democratic successor appears to have joined him in deliberate and systematic lying to the American people about prospects for the war in Afghanistan, as recent Washington Post articles — which, as someone who has been critical of that paper, I must admit provide a masterclass in diligent investigative journalism — have exhaustively revealed. When the futile deaths of thousands of American troops and tens of thousands of foreign civilians are business as usual but thuggish diplomatic opportunism is a shocking betrayal of the ‘sacred office’ of the American presidency it is hard to swallow Democratic sermonizing.

Of course, the existence of bigger sins does not make a smaller sin less sinful. That President Bush and President Obama faced no repercussions for the awful things that happened under their administrations does not mean President Trump is entitled to avoid the consequences of things that happen under his. But Americans will be entitled to ask themselves, if the impeachment attempt succeeds, what kind of system enables Bush and excludes Trump. A child complaining that he is being punished for less serious misbehaviour than his classmates have displayed does not excuse himself but he does raise serious questions about classroom management.

This, though, is not really what will divide Americans. Americans will be divided less by sincere beliefs about Trump’s alleged unconstitutional behaviour than by their membership of different ideological tribes. ‘Tribalism’ is the kind of word that people like to fling around to seem smart — ‘I’m not on the left or the right, now will you go on a date with me?’ — but it is worth thinking about what it means in this context. As Professor Adrian Vermeule has mordantly observed, Americans share so little politically that no one can even agree whether Trump has actually been impeached or not. Proceduralism works when people share a common allegiance to system of principles and norms. Americans have no such constitutional consensus, and the inability of their founding documents to protect their different sacred values related to marriage, abortion, immigration and numerous other matters has degraded its transcendent status in the public sphere. Republicans know that Democrats would not be waxing lyrical about the justice of impeachment if a Democrat happened to be in power, and Democrats know that Republicans would be wiping their eyes as they discussed the president’s transgressions against the ‘sacred office’ in such a world.

Joe Kennedy’s great-uncle, of course, was a president in an age where that office had a grand kind of mystique. Then Americans found that John F. Kennedy had been using that office to sneak prostitutes into the White House, and the sheen on the Resolute desk has been fading ever since. Special K can chirp his wholesome platitudes all he wants but his West Wing earnestness will only please the choir.

So, where does this leave the United States? With a president who is undoubtedly too reckless and self-interested to be a suitable candidate for office, but with politicians who have been so swollen with managerial and media hubris as to make the unsuitable seem acceptable. Hillary Clinton lost by neglecting issues that matter to Americans and focusing on the character of Donald Trump and it is still all that the Democrats have.


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