I’ve had the displeasure to watch some hours of the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry. It’s an excruciating spectacle, alternately boring, confusing, and infuriating.
Where have the Democrats set the high-crime-and-misdemeanor goalpost today? Is it the “Russian collusion” for which Adam Schiff had “direct evidence” even before the Mueller investigation? How about the “10 different episodes of presidential obstruction of justice” for which Jamie Raskin told us “the evidence is overwhelming”? No, really, they got him on “quid pro quo”! Or is it “abuse of power”? Wait, it’s “bribery.” Final answer. (They focussed-grouped it!) Bombshells all.
I have no interest in parsing the minutiae of the purported case Schiff is now making against Trump. (I’ll leave that to Aaron Maté, who does it so well.) I’ve said before that I think it’s political folly. Here, I would like those who are enthralled by the ongoing impeachment frenzy to focus for a moment on one glaring contradiction in the logic of the Democrats’ position—a contradiction that reveals that the Democrats are speaking with forked tongue about what they are actually trying to do.
Prime Directive A: The Absolute Most Important Thing Ever In The History Of The Universe (or at least The American Republic) Is To Defeat Trump in 2020.
We’ve heard this incessantly from Democrats since election day 2016. For establishment Democrats, this injunction governs all political discourse and behavior in the party. It has been the bedrock mandate for Democrats going into election 2020, the basis of a hoped-for party discipline in the primary debates. It requires that any “left” candidate (only Bernie and Tulsi could be so characterized, and only Bernie is a real electoral threat) must temper his or her promotion of system-changing social policies like Medicare-for-All or an end to regime-change wars, and refrain from sharply calling out reactionary “nothing will fundamentally change” opponents. The most consequential questions and debates about social policies that affect all Americans must be subordinated to the imperative to win the 2020 presidential election. Don’t be divisive. Don’t criticize “centrist”—i.e., reactionary and imperialist—Democrats. Vote Blue No Matter Who.
In May, Nancy Pelosi herself defined Democratic strategy—and, it’s important to note, her refusal at the time to pursue impeachment—in terms of this injunction, as “focused on pursuing center-left policies she thinks will help her party out in 2020 — a focus on pragmatic improvements … that emphasizes beating Mr. Trump.” And she and her colleagues have continued to enforce that injunction on the Party since.
Now, there’s Prime Directive B: We Must Impeach Trump, even if doing so helps to re-elect him!
It’s that stark of a contradiction. Aware that “more voters believe [impeachment] will strengthen Trump’s re-election chances than hurt them and … will [even] hurt Democrats’ chances at retaining a majority in the House,” Pelosi’s response is: “It doesn’t matter. Our first responsibility is to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It’s a huge “political risk,” but “That doesn’t matter. That doesn’t matter. Because we cannot have a president of the United States … undermining our national security, and undermining the integrity of our elections.”
It “doesn’t matter”—three times.
New Party discipline, not just from Pelosi, Schiff, and establishment but from progressive Dems, too: Must vote to impeach Trump, “political risk” be damned! It’s our constitutional duty.
It’s inspiring to hear that Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff have risen above politics to constitutional duty, but there’s still an absolute contradiction in these positions that has to be recognized. There cannot be two “most important” things. Either the most important thing is to defeat Trump or it’s to impeach him.
If you try to wriggle out of that by saying: “The best way to defeat Trump is to impeach him,” don’t, because you have to recognize that Pelosi is emphatically not saying that. Pelosi recognizes that an impeachment process is virtually certain to fall short of removing Trump from office, and may very well help him retain the Presidency and the Republicans regain control of the Congress. She, Schiff, and the Democrats are saying “We are not impeaching Trump because we think it’s the best way to defeat him. We know it’s not, and indeed that it carries a great risk of strengthening his rule. We are doing it because it’s our constitutional duty as patriotic Americans.”
You can believe in the sincerity, rather than the moralizing hypocrisy, of that proclamation—and I’m sure there are some Democratic congresspersons who at least believe it when they say it. But you cannot ignore the evident contradiction between the conflicting Prime Directives, or the strange fact that Democrats are ignoring it, simply pretending it’s not there. (It’s what Althusserian theory would see as a classic ideological construct: a contradiction that’s produced [even obvious] but not recognized.) Once you do recognize this contradiction, as a sentient creature in the American political universe you’d have to be extremely naïve not to suspect that something else besides “constitutional duty” explains what is going on here.
After all, wasn’t the point of the Democrats’ first Prime Directive precisely that re-electing Trump would itself fatally harm the Constitution and the Republic? Does not pursuing “politically risky” impeachment instead of concentrating on winning the election effect that very harm?
It might clarify what else is going on to notice that the Democratic leadership wants us to accept that Prime Directive B requires us to have a divisive debate about a whole bunch of things; while Prime Directive A still forbids us from having a divisive debate about social policy.
Democrats say we now must take the “political risk” of Trump being re-elected and the Republicans controlling the legislature, via a prolonged and divisive debate over such things as Adam Schiff’s interpretation of the oath of office, the emoluments and bribery clauses, the need to arm Kiev without any delay, the need to recognize and confront “Russian aggression” in Ukraine and Georgia and to expand NATO, the dismissal of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election, the parsing of overheard telephone calls, and the meaning of the word “though.” All that matters.
But we still cannot and must not tolerate a sharp debate about whether Americans should have healthcare, education, jobs, housing, and forgo regime-change war. That doesn’t matter.
One set of things matters, and merits risking division and electoral failure. One doesn’t.
Seeing what actually matters to the Democratic Party and what doesn’t discloses the governing principle and the actual logic underlying the seemingly contradictory Directives. Though he is presented as the main focus in both cases, what matters is not Donald Trump. He is the most garish puppet in their Punch and Judy show, but it is not about him. What matters is maintaining neo-liberal capitalist (“centrist”) domestic socio-economic policies and neocon, imperialist foreign and military policies. Both Prime Directives are based on that.
The real point of Prime Directive A is, exactly as Nancy Pelosi said, to “focus” the Party “on pursuing center-left policies”—i.e., to channel all discussion, and our undivided attention, away from insurgent social democratic and antiwar demands. For that purpose, the nomination of a candidate like Bernie Sanders or Tulsi Gabbard is the fundamental threat, and the frightening specter of a re-elected Donald Trump is held out to prevent it.
In light of that main objective, the real point of Prime Directive B is not contradictory, but complementary, to Directive A: To use attacking Trump as a means to ensure that the US continue “pursuing center-left policies.” In the realm of foreign policy that means reactionary “Washington consensus” exceptionalism and interventionism, and an insistence on the dangerous anti-Russia campaign that Democrats and Republicans have been pursuing at least since Bill Clinton decided to bring virtually every post-Soviet state into NATO. For that purpose, the scary, absolutely delusional, specter of “all roads lead to Putin” Trump that the Democrats have spent three years concocting via Russiagate and its extension, Ukrainegate, is held out again as the villain that has to be stopped—this time by an “undivided” coterie of Congressional constitutionalists.
Trump in this is a foil for reinforcing the imperialist paradigm. Behind all the blather about “constitutional duty” addressed to its gullible constituency, the Democratic leadership, which knows very well the enormous political risk that impeachment hearings will help Trump, is building a case for its other real audience—Republican senators. It is publicly—and I guarantee, privately—pounding on the theme of Trump as not a reliable steward of US imperialism.
The Ukrainian arms shipment may be the only thing in the public forum, but the full message in the cloakrooms is that Trump is the guy who wanted better relations with Russia, who said he might accept Crimea’s accession to Russia, who called off a military strike on Iran, who tried to withdraw troops from Syrian, etc. All these things defy the neocon “interagency consensus” that the Democrats, their witnesses, and the Republicans hold so dear, and they are being spun into a case that Trump must go, because, as Pelosi said, he is “undermining our national security.” This is the only pitch the Democrats want to make and are making, and that has a slight chance of succeeding with enough Republican senators. As I’ve indicated before, the timing suggests that Pelosi and/or Schiff may have indications, from interactions we are not seeing (Watch out for Bolton!), that it might work.
A very slight chance. From everything we have seen so far, this is moving toward a political disaster for the Democrats—if defeating Donald Trump were the measure of that.
Except, at the end of the day, the Democrats do not care if they fail spectacularly, since their main objective is not to impeach or convict or beat Trump electorally, but to protect the Washington consensus—to undermine the rising social-democratic demands in the party and keep the US on its interagency-assigned imperialist and Zionist trajectory.
That is the thing “above politics” to which they proclaim their ultimate fealty, misspelling it “constitutional duty.”
Sure, they would like to replace Trump, who’s too crass and unreliable, but only with someone who will be more reliable for those purposes. Otherwise, they are quite willing to stomach another four years of an ignorant, weak, and vacillating Trump, whom the neocons have been pretty successful at pushing where they need him to go.
As Canadian columnist Rick Salutin asks, and answers: “Does this mean party bosses would rather lose control of the country and presidency than cede power in their party? Absolutely.”
It takes only a minute of thinking past CNN/MSNBC’s blaring insistence that everything is going swimmingly for impeachment, which will be inevitable after the next blockbuster witness, to see how utterly stupid this is. Once this gets into the Senate, it is going to be child’s play for the Republicans—who will now control the witnesses and evidence—not only to go into the weeds of Biden-Burisma and Clinton Foundation corruption, but, as the Washington Post (WaPo) reports they are considering, to “scramble the Democratic presidential race” with a “lengthy impeachment trial” that would “[keep] six contenders in Washington until the eve of the Iowa caucuses or longer.” Much longer. Why not? Gotta be scrupulous in doing that “constitutional duty.”
Of course, two of those captured-in-Washington contenders would be, per WaPo, “the leading progressive candidates, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.” As Republican John Cornyn says: “Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden might like that.” The Democratic “party bosses” know it too, so they may not be unamenable to this Republican strategy.
As I feared, and as anyone could have foreseen, the Democrats’ impeachment theater is only making American politics worse. It has reinforced the worst elements of neocon militarism while wrapping itself in hypocritical moralizing about “constitutional duty.” There is nothing progressive that will come of it. In fact, the biggest fools in all this have been and are the “progressive” and #Resistance Democratic politicians and voters who pushed for impeachment, and went along as the process was inevitably taken over by “badass” CIA veterans and warmongering Russophobes.
It is likely to help Donald Trump get re-elected, and is certain to “scramble” the Democratic primaries as well as the general election campaign. Can anyone be dense enough to think that giving Trump the stage for the next year, and locking away in Washington two of his strongest (including the one left populist) potential opponents, is the smart strategy to beat him? We can measure how helpful that will be by counting how many speeches Democratic candidates have been giving about impeachment when they are campaigning outside the Beltway bubble.
If progressive politicians had any political sense, they would urge Pelosi not to pass articles of impeachment, go home for the holidays, and get on with the business of trying to elect a president that isn’t going to kill us all.
But they won’t, because, as Salutin says (in one of the best single sentences about the Trump era): “Their monomania over Trump exactly parallels his egomania about himself. Neither can get enough.”
This is Trump Derangement Syndrome, deliberately cultivated to distract. It’s that thing where, instead of ameliorating your friend’s craziness, you catch it.
So the logic of the two contradictory Prime Directives plays out: Defeat Trump or impeach him? Neither.