In order to understand the great impeachment charade, it’s important to keep three facts about the strange bird known as the United States uppermost in mind.
The first is that the U.S. is the ultimate law-based society, one whose structure derives entirely from a single four-thousand-word document created in 1787. The second is that while Americans think of the Constitution as the greatest plan of government known to man, it’s actually the opposite: a grotesque pre-modern relic that grows more unrepresentative and unresponsive with each passing year. A pro-rural Electoral College that has overridden the popular vote in two of the last five presidential elections; a lopsided Senate that allows the majority in ten urban states to be outvoted four-to-one by the minority in the other forty; lifetime Supreme Court justices who can veto any law at variance with an ancient constitution that only they understand – it’s a broken-down old rattletrap in need of a top-to-bottom overhaul. Yet it’s so thoroughly frozen that structural reform is all but unthinkable.
The third thing to keep in mind is that as the constitutional system grows more and more undemocratic, the two-party system that grew out of it in the nineteenth century grows more undemocratic as well. The result is a bipartisan race to the right. Sometimes, the Republicans seem to be in the lead as Trump imprisons thousands of immigrants fleeing murderous conditions in Central America that the U.S. war on drugs helped create. Other times it’s the Democrats as they beat the drums for imperialist war against Russia.
Take all these factors – xenophobia, mindless obeisance to ancient law, a president imposed against the popular will, etc. – mix thoroughly, place in a super-hot oven due to a growing imperial crisis, and impeachment is what pops out. The process itself is very old, a by-product of fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman law. (Impeachment derives from the Old French empeechier, meaning to ensnare or entrap.) The British abandoned it in the late eighteenth century when Edmund Burke wasted seven years impeaching an Indian colonial governor named Warren Hastings on grounds of corruption. (The House of Lords finally acquitted him in 1795). But then the Americans took it up and now, two centuries later, are immersed in the same brainless exercise.
The results were all too evident in mid-December when one Democrat after another took to the House floor to denounced Donald Trump for violating the ancient constitution by withholding lethal military aid from the neo-Nazis of the Ukraine’s Azov Battalion.
“We used to stand up to Putin and Russia – I know the party of Ronald Reagan used to,” declared Adam Schiff, the Democratic point man on impeachment, his voice quivering with emotion. The fight to defend the Ukraine is “about more than Ukraine. It’s about us. It’s about our national security. Their fight is our fight. Their defense is our defense…. And when the President sacrifices our interests, our national security for his election, he is sacrificing our country for his personal gain.”
This was the Democratic line in a nutshell. In order to safeguard the ancient republic at home, the U.S. must pay foreign satraps to defend its imperial interests abroad. Since no patriotic American could possibly disagree, any and all problems must stem from meddling by the evil dictator Vladimir Putin and his traitorous puppet in the Oval Office. Americans must therefore fulfill the ancient law by impeaching him just as the “founding fathers” would have wanted. Only then will peace and freedom return to the land of the free and the home of the brave.
It’s all quite ridiculous, but what’s even more bonkers is that millions of Americans think it’s true. Trump is meanwhile in his element. Now that Democrats have voted to impeach him in the House, he’d like nothing more than a lengthy trial in the Senate because (a) acquittal in the upper house is a certainty and (b) it will allow the Republican majority to put the torturers to the rack by subpoenaing everyone from Joe and Hunter Biden to Adam Schiff himself and declaring them in contempt of Congress if they refuse to testify. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has described an all-out Senate war as “mutual assured destruction,” and he’s right since, once unleashed, the ancient constitutional machinery will grind everything to dust in its path.
American politics will grow only more farcical. If Putin looms larger and larger on the world stage; if “the moment has come,” as the Times Literary Supplement recently announced, “for even the most hardened skeptics to admit that he is one of the most successful world leaders of our era”; if the U.S. at the same time staggers from one imperial disaster to another even while descending into civil war – then it’s not because the Russian leader is particularly clever, but because the U.S. is locked in an ancient mindset that is increasingly divorced from reality. It’s lost in a constitutional labyrinth of its own making, and impeachment is leading it deeper and deeper into the maze.