Those of us old enough to remember one or both of the presidential impeachment inquiries of the last half-century are always happy to harvest our memories and plumb the lessons of history. But as we enter into an impeachment inquiry and then immediately a high-stakes presidential election involving Donald J. Trump, it’s important that we acknowledge the Nixon and Clinton fights provide limited guidance to the total war just ahead. Paul Waldman talks a bit about this in a column warning us all that the fight now underway is “not going to be pretty:”
It’s been asked before whether Richard Nixon would have survived if Fox News had been on the air in 1974, pressuring Republican lawmakers to stay loyal to the president rather than to the country. Given that Nixon only resigned after it became clear that he had lost the support of enough Republicans in Congress to make impeachment and conviction likely, he well might have.
We can take another lesson from the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton. At the time, Fox had only existed for two years, so conservative talk radio, particularly Rush Limbaugh, played a much larger role, relentlessly pressuring Republicans to keep pushing no matter what the facts and public opinion said. With that message pounded home day after day, they did just that, to their eventual detriment.
The media environment in 1998 was laughably tame compared to today’s, however, and the subject of the impeachment fight, after all, was tawdry but humanly understandable lies about illicit sex, not a presidency that began careening out of control before it properly began, with a master of chaos at its helm. Yes, the Nixon impeachment stemmed from ever-broader patterns of presidential hubris abetted by unscrupulous hirelings (many of whom wound up in the hoosegow). But Nixon was a piker at overreach compared to our current POTUS. Think about it: Trump may soon be impeached for personal acts of illegal election tampering; it’s as though Nixon had burglarized the Watergate himself. And yet the shock and horror the 45th president inspires in his opponents is quite possibly matched by the adoration of his fans, many of whom seem to love him precisely because of his cruel and crude and reckless behavior.
And all this passion will be amplified to an incredible degree by media, and especially the rage-filled conservative media that the president patronizes, as Waldman notes:
The material they pump out, whether it’s questionable “scoops” or opinion, will serve to whip up anger among the Republican base. Those voters will in turn pressure their representatives to take as maximal a position as possible, to never even consider the possibility that the president might have done anything wrong and defend him with all the vigor they can muster.
Trump himself will be watching those media closely for hours every day. They will feed him more conspiracy theories (unsurprisingly, on Fox they’re already tracing everything back to George Soros), remind him again and again that Democrats must be despised and destroyed, and encourage all his worst instincts.
And we’re not just talking about cable news shows, either. On both sides of the barricades social media forces that didn’t exist during the Clinton impeachment fight will be tirelessly active. Characters will be assassinated hourly; reputations will be shattered daily; virtual casualties will mount and inspire revenge. An unforgiving atmosphere redolent of the take-no-prisoners Spanish Civil War will likely prevail thoughout, and as in that war, the reactionaries who know time and empirical reality are not their friends will be the most aggressive, self-righteous and unscrupulous. And again, it’s not just an impeachment fight and a presidential election that represents a huge national fork in the road, but both, one feeding the other and vice versa.
Yes, of course, we will hear periodic calls for civility, or at least for a truce in partisan and ideological warfare, but the real-life consequences of a continuation in power of Donald Trump and the cult of personality which one of our two major parties has joined will make it hard to distinguish necessary from excessive passion.
So make no mistake: we are entering uncharted territory inhabited by wild beasts making terrifying sounds, under bloody skies that remind us of the climate change catastrophe and possibly the wars that are in store for us if this thing goes the wrong way. Less than 14 months from now we’ll get some clarity, and maybe some peace. But for now it’s time to gird up our loins for a heavy trip.