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Trial and Error

I generally try to avoid politics here, if only to honor the old adage, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” It’s been a pretty sorry decade or so for American politics, and there’s honestly no relief in sight. Responding to every outrage and disgrace that hits the headlines is like complaining about every individual drop of rain that falls, and about as effective.

The last few weeks have seen a new low, however, as we endured an absolute train wreck of an impeachment trial that precisely no one believed would come out any differently than it did. Predictably, the president is claiming exoneration on all charges, even though acquital only came because his party controls the Senate. Even most of the senators from his own party won’t go so far as to say he was innocent, only that what he did wasn’t “bad enough,” because “abuse of power is not an impeachable offense.” (Translation: we value our jobs more than justice).

On the other side are the Dems, who managed to catch Trump dead to rights in a flagrant abuse of the powers of his office and still couldn’t gain much traction in the court of public opinion because they’d spent his entire presidency — starting indeed a few months before he even took office — calling for his impeachment by whatever means necessary. It might’ve been easier to adopt the role of the dedicated public servant, indignant at the shocking revelation of a president’s misdeeds, if they hadn’t been chanting “resist” since November of 2016.

So now in my lifetime I’ve seen two impeachments, two Senate trials and two acquitals. The upshot is that with two failures on the books, “impeachment” has gone from what it was intended to be on paper — a somber process to protect the nation from an unchecked despot, or crook — to what it now appears to be in practice: an exercise in political Kabuki the outcome of which depends, in the end, not on facts or ethics but on which party holds the most seats. If Democrats held the majority in the Senate, he’d have been “guilty,” but with the GOP in control he’s “not.” Everyone on “the jury” was also a complainant, or defendant. Impeachment, then, is devolved into a political cudgel, and going forward, any outcome — be it acquital or conviction — will never be seen as the impartial administration of justice, merely politics.

As a bonus, we’ve now tossed away one of the core tenets of the Constitution: that the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches hold each other in check to avoid abuses by any one branch. This president, and all who follow, are pretty much free to do as they will, so long as their party holds a majority in the Senate.

As exhausting and unpleasant as it is watching the antics of the White House’s current occupant, what’s really depressing to me is what this era portends. Everything we’d come to historically regard as “presidential”: a sense of decorum and manners, a refusal to stoop to personal attacks against critics, at least the appearance of eschewing nepotism and cronyism, are all revealed as non-essential to the office. And now little things like using government funds and the power of office to further your own personal interests are fair game as well (as Alan Dershowitz would say, it’s okay as long as you’re convinced that whatever’s good for you is also good for the country). Having set the bar so low, why would we expect any future president to aim higher?

But whenever I get worked up about this stuff, I realize what I’m really mourning isn’t so much decency and propriety as it is the shattered illusion of shame. Deep down, I know that the vast majority of presidents were probably jerks and crooks who behind closed doors were as crude, petty, opportunistic and unpleasant as could be. What I’m mourning is the thin veneer of civility and class that was thrown over those clowns, the little acts of make-believe that made the office seem dignified and respectable. Maybe in a way I should be grateful to The Donald for shattering all those illusions so we could stop fooling ourselves.

Still, it’s hard to be too grateful, all things considered. Not so long ago, we thought presidents had to act presidential, and that impeachment was a powerful tool to save us from ruin. Now we know that “presidential” needn’t mean anything more than “what the current guy decides to do” and impeachment is a toothless tiger, intrinsically flawed in its basic concept and utterly without value to our system of government. Our old illusions may have been false, but they sure made it easier to sleep at night.

With a whole year of campaigning to look forward to, I’m probably going to crawl back into my hole and leave this the last political post for a while. If you can’t say anything nice…

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