In the arc of American history, the early 21st century will be remembered, above all, as an era defined by the death of civility and the rebirth of political tribalism. It is a shift explained, in part, by globalization and America’s inability to grapple with where it has gone wrong, leaving the American experiment, as it is rightly called, in a precarious position.
“Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization,” Timothy Snyder writes in “On Tyranny,” “to the real and perceived inequalities [globalization] created and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them.”
It is hard to overstate the level to which America finds itself confronting similar ground, vulnerable to exuberant leaders who, as Snyder writes, deny objective truth in favor of glorious myth, claiming to be the direct voice of the people.
From this vantage point, leaders like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders can be understood as one in the same. They both claim a monopoly on reason, flying in the face of reason itself, their respective movements less a cult of ideology than a cult of personality.
Their emergence, and emerging popularly, underscore how consequential in nature the impending impeachment trial will prove to be. This is why, as impeachment — an act of governance whose weight pales only in comparison to the declaration of war — moves on, Americans should use the guide of history as a lens for interpretation.
America is not immune to the collapse of democracy, nor is it immune to the destruction which has historically followed. As is so often the case, the implications of Trump’s impeachment trial — resolved either by acquittal or removal — are unknown. Posterity will be the only judge.
Yet, as I see it, both resolutions are sure to leave America worse off than before.
Think back to the ’80s. Imagine if the Reagan-Bush campaign had met with Soviets looking for political dirt to help beat Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election. Or if President Reagan, amidst Soviet election interference, stood next to Mikhail Gorbachev and sided with the Soviet leader rather than the entire American intelligence community. Or imagine, then, if President Reagan withheld security assistance to Afghans fighting against a Soviet invasion, all in a smug attempt to gather compromising information about his soon-to-be political opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale.
It’s hard to imagine that impeachment and acquittal would have followed — especially in the face of the Trump Administration’s complete and total rejection of congressional oversight.
Not only is congressional oversight a critical component of the Constitution, but it may be the predominant force separating democracy from tyranny. Think of what would be hidden from the American public without it: the CIA’s use of torture, family separation at the southern border, Watergate, abuse of power in intelligence-gathering, the Iran-Contra affair.
The corrosion of long-held institutions, like congressional oversight, bears a lasting impact. Even if Trump has not completely crossed the line, he has nonetheless paved the path for future presidents to do so — and political polarization has afforded many principled Americans, across the political spectrum, a willingness to compromise on their values because Trump (at least for now) is on their side.
All of this underscores our misplaced but collective tendency to assume that, in trying times, institutions will automatically endure.
“Mr. Hitler and his friends … will not suddenly deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the jealous and murderous impulses of the mob,” proclaimed a 1933 editorial directed at German Jews. “They cannot do this because a number of crucial factors hold powers in check …” The point of this anecdote is not to suggest Hitler and Trump are comparable but to accentuate that institutions cannot protect themselves — and they must be protected, even if one can hardly imagine an American leader betraying them.
In the case of removal, however, one must also grapple with the implications of removing a sitting President supported by nearly half the country.
“A narrowly voted impeachment or an impeachment substantially supported by one of our major political parties and [not] the other,” Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) rightly declared in 1998, “would lack legitimacy, would produce divisiveness and bitterness in our politics for years to come and will call into question the very legitimacy of our political institutions."
With these dangers in mind — at this momentous epoch in American and democratic history — senators will fill the Senate floor this week, required by law to remain in silence. Maybe that silence will demand a tone of humility Americans have not yet seen, revealing the weight of what it means to remove a sitting President and the array of possibilities that inevitably arise from it.
To glorify this moment is to forget that democracy is fragile — that cultural institutions underpin democracy. Those cultural institutions are of course disposable. And solemn is the day those institutions fall.
To expect perfection, in temperament and performance, from our elected leaders is a naive endeavor at best. But the American story, though grisly at times, is in its totality a story of choosing the path of advancement, of progress toward a more perfect union. I, like many Americans, have no trust in Donald J. Trump fulfilling that vision — which is why I remain a reluctant supporter of impeachment, uncertain at times about the merits of my own position.
Yet, whatever happens in the days and weeks to come — every high and every low — will leave an indelible mark on America and thus democracy itself. And I sincerely hope that, when posterity inevitably casts its gaze back to this moment in American history, democracy will have won, and no cultural divide will have usurped the promise that is America.
Hancen Sale is a senior majoring in economics. He can be reached at email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @hancen4sale.
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