Wednesday was a historic day. On that much, the president and the lawmakers who voted to impeach him agree.
Why does it also feel like the end of history, evidence of a fatal turn for a democracy that has lost its way — and with it, any sense of common cause?
He’s why, of course.
“History will judge you harshly as you proceed with this impeachment charade,” President Trump wrote in a Tuesday letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that was so deranged, so packed with distortions and weird projections, so clear a demonstration of his unfitness for office, that in saner times it would shake the resolve of even his staunchest defenders.
These are not sane times, however, but broken ones. And it has been painfully clear for these last three years that the unprincipled resolve of Trump’s defenders — on Capitol Hill and beyond — will be shaken by nothing.
So much of what we once could agree was beyond the pale is now perfectly acceptable — even laudable — to nearly half the country, simply because Trump does it.
For example, we used to agree that inviting — let alone using the full force of the government to coerce — a foreign country to tip the scales in our democratic elections would be an unforgivable offense. No more.
Trump’s defenders delight in denying facts in the historical record, facts put there by the words of Trump himself, his chief of staff, his voluble attorney Rudy Giuliani, and a slew of witnesses who testified under oath. Others obsess over arcane questions of process and red herrings, to cloud the facts in the hopes that Americans get confused enough to throw up their hands in exhaustion. They rail because a president who refused an invitation to defend himself in the House has not been able to defend himself, and are outraged that witnesses who defied requests and subpoenas have not been able to testify.
All of these disparate and conflicting lines of defense were on pathetic display as Wednesday’s debate lurched toward its foregone outcome. As was some terrifying toadying: One Republican compared the impeachment vote to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Another, Georgia Representative Barry Loudermilk, compared Trump to Jesus, arguing that the man whom Christians believe was the crucified son of God was treated more fairly than the president had been by Democrats.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so dangerous.
In stark contrast to the brave Democrats from districts Trump won, who risked their offices to vote for impeachment, not a single Republican found the courage to do the right thing — not even one of the many who are retiring from the fray. So complete is this president’s hold on his party, and so secure the allegiance of his base, that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, erstwhile Trump critic Senator Lindsey Graham, and other senators aren’t even pretending that the Senate trial will be anything but a sham show.
Where Republicans could fulminate freely, Democrats had to go somewhat gingerly, trying to thread the needle, to hold a lawless president responsible for violating the Constitution without setting off a backlash that would hand him a second term.
But none of the old rules apply in this distorted age. The path to a 2020 victory, if it exists at all, runs not through some mythical bloc of voters who might be coaxed away from allegiance to Trump. It comes via turning out Democratic voters in such massive numbers that they overcome the huge GOP industry of misinformation and voter suppression.
Some of us may try to console ourselves with the notion that, in the end, history will sort all of this out, that it will look as unkindly upon Trump’s defenders now as it has on Nixon’s apologists of 45 years ago.
But liars can write history, too. Trump and his enablers have built a cult grounded in alternative facts. Can alternative history be far behind? Trump’s unhinged letter is, in its way, the first draft of that counter-history.
“You dare to invoke the Founding Fathers in pursuit of this election-nullification scheme,” he wrote, “yet your spiteful actions display unfettered contempt for America’s founding.”
This is ludicrous on its face. As this week’s remarkable letter from 700 historians makes clear, what Trump has done is precisely the sort of thing the framers had in mind when they provided for impeachment.
If even that simple fact is up for dispute, then we are truly sunk.
Will history redeem us? Probably not. Only voters can do that.