Thursday, January 23, 2020

On Trial

As Alexis De Tocqueville famously observed in his 19th-century classic Democracy in America, "There is hardly any political question in the United States that sooner or later does not turn into a judicial question." That American peculiarity is now very much on display in the ongoing impeachment trial of the president. That strangely solemn and stately proceeding is now at last underway, and it already has warranted comments about how exhausting it is - a commentary on contemporary attention-spans as much as on the absurd schedule adopted by the Majority Leader and his party. 

The House Managers, led by the eminent Adam Schiff, are providing the country with an eloquent exposition of presidential corruption. The contrast between the Managers' performance thus far and the comparatively unserious performance of the President's lawyers' speaks volumes - even while highlighting the fundamental disorder at the heart of our contemporary political malaise, of which this trial is neither a cause nor a solution. 

As Gail Collins observed in The New York Times“Schiff elevated the saga with a lot of American history. He mentioned the founding fathers 28 times in the first 15 minutes. … For much of our modern history Republicans have tended to be the ones continually quoting the founding fathers, usually in regard to the dangers of an over-powerful federal government. Now the tables have turned.”

Meanwhile, each side seems especially preoccupied with complaining about the process. Process is important. Proper procedures are essential to good order, civility, fairness, and democratic governance. But debates about process should support the stage not dominate it. The seemingly endless argument about hearing witnesses and access to documents is especially attractive to both politicians and the media commentariat, because it is so understandable and so obviously touches on the fairness of the proceeding. The result, however, as, Osita Nwanevu noted in The New Republic, "The trial, so far, is largely about the trial itself."

Of course, inasmuch as the trial is not really about removing the president from office (an outcome no one seriously expects as an even remote possibility), there is a sense in which this trial is inevitably about the trial - or rather about what the trial reveals (or, at least, confirms).

Obviously the president is on trial - only the third president in history to experience this indignity. So what the trial reveals (or confirms) about presidential corruption is important - if not for the intended purpose of an impeachment trial, then for the judgment of the voters later this year and, maybe more importantly, for the judgment of history.

However it is not the president alone who is on trial. It is the 21st-century United States, what we have become as a society and whether we still have a capacity for constitutional self-government, that is on trial at least as much - and ultimately more importantly.


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