Tipping Point

The release of the Articles of Impeachment (AOI) in the din of Republicans howls marks a tipping point in public trust and political legitimacy. The problem is not just adversarial political opposition, but rather the bulwark stance against the underlying order that privileged decency, respect, and commitment to our social institutions. Many politicians are motivated by fear of President Trump’s wrath to oppose their next election. Seasoned diplomats and decorated veterans are pilloried and intimidated when they report under oath about White House shenanigans that run counter to established procedures and protocols involving national security and foreign relations. Even the FBI is attacked for investigating well-documented Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Basic assumptions of honor and duty among members of the House of Representatives no longer operate. Some House Democrats will probably oppose impeachment, but no Republicans will support it. Does anyone really think that all Republican members of Congress believe that the President’s actions with the Ukraine were appropriate and worthy of the most powerful office in the world? The politics of fear makes it unlikely that any GOP member of the Senate will vote to convict the President. Former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake told National Public Radio in September that at least 35 Republican Senators would vote to remove Donald Trump if it was a secret ballot, adding, “There’s a lot of fear of what it means to go against the president.” Referring to President Trump’s July 25 phone call, Mr. Flake said, “That was a pretty damning transcript. . .That was not anything you want your president to be doing.” Mr. Flake did not run for reelection, and the previous independent leader of Senate Republicans, Arizona Senator John McCain, is dead.

Those Arizonans were not afraid of President Trump’s wrath, but many cower who remain in office. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham stated that the impeachment is “partisan nonsense,” adding, “This thing will come to the Senate, and it will die quickly, and I will do everything I can to make it die quickly,” and he does ‘Not Pretend to be a fair Juror’. This revealing admission agrees with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said “I’m going to take my cues from the president’s lawyers.” These two may be true Trump believers, but some likely Senate Republican supporters are fearful and intimidated as Politico’s Tim Alberta explained. Mr. McConnell’s promise to align his Senate leadership position with the Impeached president is shocking because as Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin observed, “If Senator McConnell is saying there’s no chance that there’s a conviction and he’s coordinating with the White House, he essentially has surrendered the constitutional mandate that the Senate conduct a trial.” The Republicans likely unanimous opposition to the Articles of Impeachment represents a tipping point toward fear-based autocratic rule and is a fundamental break with democracy and negates our Constitution’s principle of the separation of powers. This unprecedented step may be more significant than the Impeachment process.

So, autocratic control will not permit a single Republican to vote for any of the AOI. This is unique in our history and it is consequential for what it portends. The wholesale rejection of AOI has little
to do with the facts and evidence supporting impeachment. It has everything to do with abandoning a collective theory about progress, right and wrong, basic values, and democracy itself. This represents a tipping point toward autocratic rule and is a fundamental break with democracy and the idea of progress that has governed American culture. Many people in the United States no longer aspire to progress, or the movement toward a better future. The idea of progress is less about a political agenda than a vision and plan for improving life. Eminent sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote in 1980 that the essence of progress, as the most important idea in the history of civilization for 3,000 years, boils down to 5 premises:

1) Value of the past

2) Nobility of Western civilization

3) Worth of economic/technological growth

4) Faith in reason and scientific/scholarly knowledge obtained through reason

5) Intrinsic importance and worth of life on earth.

The United States has been guided by this vision of progress for many decades. Today, at best, only point 3, economic growth, seems to inspire the White House. We used to believe in possibility for a better future in the United States for our children, as well as much of the world. And people fought for this through political campaigns, women’s suffrage, labor unions, and civil rights to name a few. Indeed, until recently, the United States was the world’s beacon of progress. The U. S. espoused the belief and practice of fixing and improving things. No longer. Exasperated allies now openly mock U. S. autocratic leadership.

The new theory that has captured the Republican Party leadership is that America has been going in the wrong direction until Donald Trump was elected. Many elected officials and millions of voters support policies that have been anathema to American sensibilities and human rights for decades: Attacking immigrants, caging children, tolerating dictators, hate groups and White Nationalists, disparaging journalists and scientists, violating treaties, and antagonizing international allies. The new theory is that any support for evidence or facts that do not sustain the current approach—whether it is climate change or political corruption– is forbidden and risks future political support. This is a major tipping point for not just Congress and the Presidency, but for our entire country.

David L. Altheide is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Gonzo Governance: The Media Logic of Donald Trump (2023).