What to make of the recently concluded impeachment hearings against US President Donald Trump? After a parade of witnesses — notable for their forthrightness and professionalism — it seemed like a slam-dunk for impeachment. As Julie Pace of the Associated Press concluded, the “mountain of evidence is beyond dispute.” If you are invested in democracy and the constitution, then you would agree that the impeachment proceedings did what they were supposed to do: marshal the evidence needed to establish a strong case against the president.
But if you are a Republican, none of this matters. Republicans have been engaged in a completely different sort of impeachment hearing. They live in another world. For them, it was not Trump who was on trial but his enemies. The facts uncovered in the hearings are irrelevant. Trump isn’t corrupt; it is rather the presidential candidate, Joe Biden, and his son Hunter. It is Hillary Clinton who ought to be locked up, and it is Ukraine, not Russia, that was responsible for interfering in the 2016 elections. From this perspective, Trump can do no wrong.
From the start, Trump has set the terms of his trial. Unlike Kafka’s K., he’s figured a way to position himself above the law. His strategy—to claim total innocence and blame those who blame him—has now been wholly embraced by the GOP. As Susan Glasser of the New Yorker wrote, “From the start of the inquiry… the President has defined winning as making sure that impeachment remained an entirely partisan issue. By that standard, he was winning before the hearings—and he is still winning after them. If anything, his political hand is now even stronger as Republicans, presented with incontrovertible facts, have chosen not to accept them—and to become even more vociferous in Trump’s defense.”
Unlike Nixon’s impeachment when key Republicans broke from the president, the party today has effectively become the Church of Trump. They have faith not in what he says, but in the fact that he can say and do whatever he wants and get away with it. What matters are not the facts of this world, but those of another universe established in the conspiratorial imagination of Fox News and amplified in Trump’s screaming tweets.
In other words, Republicans believe less in the president’s innocence, which is beside the point, as in his power. They share in his wounded attachments—that he is the victim, not the perpetrator of crimes, buying into the president’s sense of victimization. Indulging his exorbitant narcissism, they, too, assume everyone is wrong—especially the media, those “enemies of the people”—and he’s the only one that’s right.
Such is the difficulty of challenging Trumpism. It is hard to go up against a sociopathology fed by the hatred for democracy and social justice. Echoing a long line of neoliberals from Hayek to Thatcher, Trumpsters reject the notion of the “social.” Society for them is a liberal myth, a site from which to make claims for social justice that allows the State to assume inordinate powers. Only individuals and groups should exist like consumers in the marketplace. Society and democracy can only pose a threat to their freedom by paving the way for a totalitarian state. By contrast, the “free subjects” of neoliberal Trumpism are those subject to the manipulations of fake news that they can choose to take for truth. They are energized by what they consider to be existential threats posed by dark-skinned and female others.
Alongside the dislike for democracy, Republican support for Trump is also a matter of sycophancy. In defending Trump, they flatter him and so buttress their chances for reelection and profit. Indeed, the corruption at the heart of his administration—the very quid pro quo he vociferously denies but everywhere practices like a true Mafia boss—is enabled by a politics of flattery that seeks to excuse his words and acts, elevating these instead into evidence of his power rather than his criminality. Even as he refuses accountability, the president proclaims to be unjustly tormented by his enemies.
Small wonder that the impeachment trial is seen by the GOP as a coup attempt, an effort to dethrone Trump. And they are going to fight for their King rather than see him led away to the guillotine. The sobering fact is that the impeachment hearings may well have strengthened rather than weakened this President.
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Vicente L. Rafael is professor of history at the University of Washington, Seattle: [email protected]
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