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.
The Language of Violence in the Age of the Spectacle
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 “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? It means that the media functions largely as a disimagination machine operating in the same world of denial and misinformation as the politicians. This isn’t journalism but a form of political theater concerned less about the truth than about increasing audience ratings. Under such circumstances, everything becomes a spectacle and politics is treated as entertainment. Certainly this is true from politicians such as Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, who suggested that the witnesses who appeared before the House Intelligence Committee were actors who had learned their scripts while rehearsing for what he called “the Democrats’ star chamber auditions, held … in the basement of the capital.”
Beyond the Two-Party System
What is missing from mainstream and conservative discussions regarding Trump’s impeachment is that both Democrats and Republicans share an unwillingness to address a range of social and political issues that brought Trump to power. These include illegal wars, state-sanctioned torture, the creation of black sites, economic policies that promote massive inequality and mass incarceration, an attack on public goods and racist policies that undermine democracy itself.
Both parties in different ways claim they are protecting the Constitution, whether in the service of defending Trump or attempting to remove him from office. Both parties have aided and abetted in different degrees elements associated with a totalitarian state — these include political corruption, unwarranted state surveillance, support for a bloated military machine, the rise of white nationalism, the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a ruling elite, increased support for policies that promote the concentration of the media in few hands, and a willingness to corroborate with a government that is controlled by narrow financial interests. All of these issues are largely absent from the questions and issues raised around the impeachment process and the conditions that made it necessary.
Democracy may be in crisis, but there is little or no indication from the media, ruling elite or established politicians that the impeachment crisis is more than a free-standing event. We need to push back against this erasure of history and analyze Trump’s crimes within a more comprehensive politics that exposes the mobilizing passions of the fascist politics that has led to the Trump presidency and its rein of corruption, lawlessness and abuse of power.
What must be rejected is the notion that the impeachment process signals a crisis rooted in a power struggle between the two established political parties, one of which is at the forefront of the resistance to the growing authoritarianism accelerated by the Trump regime. While there are significant political and ideological differences between both parties — especially given the fact that the Republican Party has been taken over by ideological extremists — discussions focused on these differences fail to address the ideological and economic foundations of a toxic neoliberal capitalism that has become increasingly more dangerous at home and abroad. A discussion of these foundations would need to acknowledge that both parties are involved in defending existing power structures and the most basic rudiments of the corporate and surveillance state.
A Party of Right-Wing Extremists
While the Republican Party and Democratic Party share a fundamental commitment to the ideology and institutional structures of neoliberal capitalism, the Republican Party is far more extreme in its attacks on the U.S. press, judiciary, labor unions and protesters, as well as in its support for reversing environmental protection laws. Moreover, as Paul Krugman has argued, the Republican Party under Trump has become “a party of sycophants” that ignores Trump’s use of his office for personal gain; and who, like a cult, compares its leader to Jesus Christ. Ken Burns, the acclaimed filmmaker, columnist George Will, and New York Times opinion writer Paul Krugman (among others) have labeled Trump’s loyal party followers Vichy Republicans, referring to the war-era collaborationist Vichy government of France — run by cowardly French sympathizers and appeasers who gave their faithful loyalty to their Nazi German occupiers.
The Republican Party’s claim to stand for small government, fiscal soundness and national security is now palpably untrue. Instead, its most paranoid and racist elements now control the party. The Republican Party’s move to the right intensified in the 1990s under the influence of Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove, and later with the rise of Sarah Palin and the defeat of the centrist Mitt Romney in 2012.
Today, the Republican Party almost unilaterally has become a party of white supremacists, blood and soil nationalists, and political corruption, activating white panic, supporting voter suppression and defining citizenship in racial terms. The GOP openly supports race-baiting and dangerous foreign policy strategies, regardless of the excesses and ongoing assault on the country’s democratic institutions. This includes a racist campaign strategy, caging children, brutal attacks on undocumented immigrants, devaluing critics by calling them “treasonous,” slashing social provisions such as food stamps, a potential war with Iran and Trump’s serial lying. Acquiescence to Trump has become a defining feature of the Republican Party, in spite of his celebration of demagogues such as Kim Jong Un, whom he called a “real leader,” and overtly fascists leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.
Paul Krugman makes it clear that there are also the foreboding clouds of authoritarianism which extend far beyond the political career of Donald Trump. Krugman writes: “For whatever may happen to Donald Trump, his party has turned its back on democracy. And that should terrify you. The fact is that the G.O.P., as currently constituted, is willing to do whatever it takes to seize and hold power.” The impeachment hearings further reinforce an image of a party that, in the face of egregious crimes by the president, either remain silent or overtly support him in a show of ideological certainty, or what Robert Jay Lifton calls an act of “absolute purification” and a cult-like totalizing vision that reproduces a politics of “malignant normality.”
Democrats: A Party of the Financial Elite and War
Neither political party offers a substantive challenge to the military-industrial complex, or views capitalism as the enemy of democracy, if not the planet itself. In different ways, both parties have hollowed out democratic institutions and cozied up to dictators. In addition, neither party historically used the impeachment process to indict George W. Bush for launching an illegal war in Iraq – or, for that matter, George W. Bush for illegally kidnapping, jailing and torturing what he indiscriminately labeled as “enemy combatants.” Nor was Obama charged with a war crime when he “gave the executive branch of the government the right to act as judge, jury and executioner in assassinating U. S. citizens.” There is more at work here than acts of bad faith; there is also a thread of moral hypocrisy and a flight from social responsibility on the part of both parties.
One indication of a collusion between both parties is obvious in the fact that as the Democrats were railing against Trump’s abuse of power, they approved the reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act and the National Defense Authorization Act, which are deeply reactionary laws that attack individual privacy and civil liberties, while criminalizing protest in the interest of “national security.” Moreover, they have given Trump $1.4 billion for his border wall, and supported a $738 billion bloated military budget. This is a party defined by a sordid ruling class politics, an imperial foreign policy and a culture of war.
The politics of impeachment should be a rallying cry to put on trial both the Republican and Democratic Parties and the naked brutality of the political and economic system they have supported since the 1970s. That is, impeachment should become a call to arms for a massive protest movement that moves beyond the ritual of trying Trump for an abuse of power. Instead, impeachment should become a call to battle to put on trial the capitalist system while fighting for structural and ideological reforms that will usher in a radical and socialist democracy worthy of the struggle.