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The impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump with their abundance of political theater and insipid media coverage often treat Trump's crimes as the endpoint of an abuse of power and an illegal act. This is a grave mistake: We must understand Trump's crimes not as an endpoint but as symptoms of a long history of conditions that have led to the United States' slide into the abyss of authoritarianism.
Trump's impeachment battle is part of the wider historical and global struggle taking place over democracy. This is apparent, as Larry Diamond points out, in Trump's attack on "the independence of the courts, the business community, the media, civil society, universities and sensitive state institutions like the civil service, the intelligence agencies and the police."
Trump's crimes far exceed what is stated in the impeachment documents and include not only lies, threats and flirtation with extralegal violence, but also his attack on the press as the "enemy of the people" and his use of Twitter to spew relentless hatred at his critics and people of color. Ralph Nader argues that Trump's most distinguishing impeachable offenses reside in his "abuses of the public trust," which range from his lying and falsifications (over 15,000 lies since January 21, 2017) to his "endless racism and bigotry in words and deeds," his support for voter suppression, and his "incitement of violence on more than one occasion."
According to Nader, not only has Trump shredded and violated the Constitution, undermined its critical separation of power, and "illegally ordered his staff or ex-staff to ignore Congressional subpoenas to testify and provide documents," but he has also ignored Congress's right to declare war by inciting an unlawful crisis with Iran.
There is a lesson to be learned here regarding how history is reproduced in the present. Trump's killing of a high-ranking Iranian general "based on thin evidence with an eye towards domestic politics" mimics, if not recalls, an older period in history when Hitler, following the crisis produced by the Reichstag fire, seized upon the ensuing fear, terror and war fever to further consolidate his power.
For Trump, pushing the United States to the edge of war through a military strike not only draws attention away from the impeachment process and his ongoing crimes and misdeeds, but suggests, as Elizabeth Warren points out, that he will do "whatever he can to advance the interests of Donald Trump." Trump's war fever is also a self-serving fascistic affirmation of his toxic hyper-masculinity and his admiration for military power and authoritarian displays generally associated with demagogues who use such displays as a tool to produce respect among their followers.
Undoubtedly, there have been serious political debates regarding the impeachment of Trump, but they have not gone far enough. The debates have focused mostly on issues such as the inadequacy of the Democrats' efforts to impeach, arguments regarding whether the impeachment charges go far enough, and the more favorable view that the impeachment process, however limited, is necessary to stop Trump from using the resources of the government to influence other governments to interfere in U.S. elections for his own personal and political gains.
There are also more extreme views largely coming from Trump and his supporters. Some have argued that the impeachment process is pure theater a staged theatrical hoax. Others, such as Senators Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell, have claimed that the process is an attempt on the part of the Democrats to win favor in the 2020 elections. Trump himself has angrily dismissed the impeachment process as corrupt, and claimed, among other things, that he is the victim of a socialist plot.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to produce a well-worn pattern of threats against his critics. He and his allies frequently respond to congressional Democrats involved in the hearing by weaponizing language, turning it into a vehicle of threats and intimidation. For instance, he has stated that House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff "should be arrested for treason." In addition, Trump suggested that Schiff should "be violently punished" in a manner of justice displayed by dictatorships such as Guatemala.
Jean Spanbauer, a Trump supporter, mused online that "Shifty Shiff (sic) needs to be hung. There is more at work here than the indiscriminate insult or infantile mocking. Language, in this instance, operates in the interest of violence, functioning so as to divert and punish. According to Victor Klemperer, an expert on Nazi Germany, this type of language has a precedent in the Third Reich in which it operated "as part of a linguistic malignant disease designed to spread the poison of mass seduction [and] destroy the intellect which defies it." As Washington Post reporter Ishaan Tharoor observes, the use of such volatile and dehumanizing language in the current moment is not innocent and often leads to violence. He writes:
"There are immediate consequences to such demagoguery, not least in the form of far-right terrorist attacks and violence carried out by people inflamed by this sort of rhetoric. But there's also a long-term toll, one that's more imperceptible, yet no less corrosive, to the body politic. It's the kind of erosion on display in places such as Hungary, Poland and Turkey, where majoritarian, nationalist politicians have steadily undermined democratic institutions and the liberal norms they're supposed to uphold."Political Theater in the Age of Relentless Lies
Within the current crop of competing discourses analyzing the impeachment, the Democrats present themselves as the "last line of defense between constitutional democracy and tyranny" while Republicans repeat conspiracy theories and accuse the Democrats of producing a show trial whose purpose is the ultimate reversal of Trump's 2016 election to the presidency. The Republicans have been particularly egregious and have used the hearings to badger witnesses, and showcase their "emotive hand-wringing, faux exasperation and yelling," all the while making outlandish claims that turn the hearings into a "propaganda circus."
In some cases, more insightful commentary has been produced such as comments from legendary journalist Bill Moyers, who views the impeachment hearings as a potential site for a lesson in civic education. For Moyers, the value of the impeachment proceedings lie in that making visible "things you would never know otherwise." Bringing the concept of civic education to understanding the impeachment process is crucial, but what people learn from such events is limited by what is actually revealed both within and outside of the hearings. In this case, Trump's impeachment process in the House was reduced to a political spectacle and served to undermine reason and informed judgment while promoting a steady stream of the performative diversions produced through a regimen of ignorance, self-serving lies and the triumph of illusion.
Unfortunately, the mainstream 24/7 news cycle, with its relentless torrent of dramatic sound bites, did its best to turn the House impeachment hearings into political theater by largely focusing on the political risks Democrats faced by conducting the hearings. In addition, mainstream media mostly adhered to the empty tactic of providing "balance" without trying to tell the truth about a president that enacts cruelty as an act of "patriotism," justifies oppression in the name of national security, views undocumented immigrants as disposable, allows elections to be bought by the highest bidder, demonizes and threatens critics, and regards truth as a liability. What does balance posited by the mainstream media mean when Republicans in both the House and Senate have attempted to indict the impeachment process rather than listen to the evidence and issues at hand and presented arguments that appeared to come from Trump's Twitter feed?
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