As the impeachment of Donald Trump becomes increasingly popular—45 percent of Americans now support the investigation of the president over his dealings with Ukraine—nobody knows exactly how it's all going to play out. But this much is gloriously clear already: The behavior revealed in call transcripts, the emerging parallel story line about Joe Biden's son Hunter, and Trump's refusal to go gentle into that good night are forcing us all to come to terms with ugly truths about how power operates.
Because Trump is cartoonishly simple, he is revealing of how things actually work; we can see in him the moves and machinations that more sophisticated and suave operators are able to mask. The real test for the country is whether we will use this moment to admit we've been living all sorts of lies that we choose to obscure with soaring political rhetoric and false politeness. Whether Trump is removed by the Senate, fails to be reelected in 2020, or serves a second term, we need to restructure the size, scope, and spending of government so the political class isn't able to wield so much power.
Trump's presidency is like an immersive production of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, a play set in a New York saloon populated by beaten-down drunks and prostitutes who swill booze all day while lying to themselves that they're about to get their lives back on track and finally fulfill their dreams. A couple of times a year, a hard-drinking traveling salesman named Hickey comes to town and leads the rummies on a bender. But as the play unfolds, Hickey arrives sober as a judge and methodically works his way through the characters, forcing them to acknowledge they are living total lies before admitting that he has murdered his wife and turning himself into the police (The Iceman Cometh debuted in 1946, so all spoiler alerts are off.) Like Hickey, Trump is forcing us to come to terms with the vast gulf between the falsehoods with which we comfort ourselves and the realities we know to be true.
In the already endlessly dissected call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, it's patently clear what Trump is up to. He's asking for dirt on Joe Biden, a domestic political opponent. Whether that action is an abuse of power or the mere exercising of power is a fair question. Trump doesn't defend what he was doing in the call as much as declare that what other people do is far, far worse. Hence the speed with which he tries to shift the conversation to Joe Biden and the various deals his son Hunter has secured over the years, including a plum gig with a Ukrainian energy company.
President Trump lashed out at @Reuters reporter @jeffmason1, who asked him what he wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to do when Trump brought up the business ties to Ukraine of Hunter Biden, son of Joe Biden https://t.co/3aiSLeOfBL pic.twitter.com/AQF3dpkChs
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) October 2, 2019
The strategy is not subtle, but it is effective, as even anti-Trump observers grudgingly acknowledge. At the end of a long Vox piece tellingly titled "Hunter Biden, the black sheep who might accidentally bring down Trump, explained: A troubled guy at the center of a fake scandal that became a real scandal," Matt Yglesias helpfully corrects many of the specific accusations hurled by Trump at the Bidens, but in the end he concludes:
Some aspects of Hunter Biden's career and life story are a bit extreme…but the kid who trades on family connections to make money is much more a case of business as usual than an extraordinary scandal. "Business as usual in Washington," however, is normally the subject of scorn in American politics. Any focus on Joe Biden's son is likely to remind people of at least some of what they don't like about it.
Trump is great at reminding people about all the things they don't like about "the swamp" in D.C. And while Trump may well be removed from office, it's much more likely that Joe Biden is the real casualty of the telephone call now at the center of the impeachment process. The same poll that finds 45 percent of Americans favor an impeachment investigation of Trump also finds that by a margin of 42 percent to 21 percent, Americans "there are valid reasons to look at the behavior of Joe and Hunter Biden in Ukraine." Biden has long campaigned as a working-class stiff whose career is completely aboveboard (never mind his history of plagiarism). All of the details emerging about the way his son used his father's position to live large—"Hunter Biden's whole career is being Joe Biden's son," as Yglesias puts it—betray an ugly reality that helps explain why Americans have been losing trust and confidence in "the system" for decades.
Here's a short video that the president posted the other day on Twitter, which was taken down over copyright claims and then reposted by Trump supporters. It's a great shorthand for the way Trump operates, which is to rub the establishment's face in its own apparent hypocrisy (the "Ukraine gas exec" identified in the photo is American businessman Devon Archer, who brought Hunter Biden onto the board of Burisma). Again and again, he uses his own misdeeds as a pretext to attack his rivals.
President Trump Tweeted this Meme
Twitter took it down.
— ALX ???????? (@alx) October 3, 2019
Trump's political power has always been to reveal in raw form the dynamics that political rhetoric is designed to obscure. In the 2016 campaign, he shredded his dozen-plus adversaries by speaking obvious truths directly and calling people the sorts of demeaning names we all conjure up in our minds, from "Low-Energy Jeb" to "Lyin' Ted" to "Little Marco." Despite his own extensive accusations against him of sexual grossness, including the infamous "pussy-grabbing tape," he seated three women who had accused Bill Clinton of rape and assault directly in Hillary Clinton's view during a presidential debate. Again and again, he doesn't defend himself against charges as much as he forces us to entertain the reality that he is not fundamentally different from the people already holding power. Often he's right.
This is, to be sure, a hugely cynical strategy, and it may not guarantee his survival even as it scorches the earth around him and brings down his rivals.
For obvious reasons, partisans want to focus on specific, procedural claims because they want their side to win and take over the apparatus of power. Thus, Republicans are zeroing on irrelevant claims that the whistleblower may not have followed proper procedure in exposing Trump's behavior. (Who cares, especially if the underlying documents are real?) Democrats are rushing to map out intricate timelines to document that Hunter Biden's deals took place after his father was out of office or that there was firewall between dad and son, as if any of those details matter when the system itself is the problem.
The only bad outcome of the current brouhaha would be if the large and growing plurality of us who stand outside rabid tribal politics allow the current moment to pass without calling attention to the larger system of power that's being revealed. "The kid who trades on family connections to make money is much more a case of business as usual than an extraordinary scandal," writes Yglesias with the empathy of someone safe and snug within the system. But in a moment when more and more people feel as if they are on the outside looking in, "business as usual" is the scandal. Whether it's Trump and his kids cashing in on his presidency or Hunter Biden jetting to China on Air Force Two on business trip doesn't matter. The fact that any of it's happening is what matters.
At the end of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, after Hickey reveals his murder and the cops haul him off, all of the characters but one (who commits suicide) return to their self-delusions and their drowsy drinking. That more than anything is what we need to resist—a return to where we were before Donald Trump strode into the White House, rubbing our faces in the brutal reality of political power. Trump is the culmination of long-term trends, and the challenge is to find a way to preclude the people who run the government from using it to enrich themselves long after they have left office.