In the Before Times, the prospect of talking politics at Thanksgiving qualified as a major cultural anxiety. This was not really that long ago, but after these last few falling-down years, it feels both quaint and antique that assignment editors across the political spectrum were once so committed to helping readers through the trauma of talking politics with loved ones. (The stories themselves reliably missed the way that such Thanksgiving debates tend to occur, which is mostly between half-buzzed people who (1) only sort of know what they’re arguing about, and (2) are also watching the Detroit Lions’ punter bobble a snap while making their case.)
There’s nothing to be wistful about here, really, except for the now-antique presumption that the people on either sides of the debate would be speaking about things that the other might recognize. On the day before Thanksgiving, former President Barack Obama made a late contribution to the genre, tweeting, “Before arguing with friends or family around the Thanksgiving table, take a look at the science behind arguing better.” He linked to a Vox story headlined “Most People Are Bad at Arguing. These Two Techniques Will Make You Better.” Two hours earlier, current President Donald Trump had tweeted, without comment, a photo of his own scowling, honey-baked head superimposed onto an image of Sylvester Stallone’s gleaming and venous torso from one of the more overtly steroidal Rocky sequels. Even before Trump dialed every idiocy in the culture up, there was some obvious wish-casting built into the idea that compelling evidence-based arguments for the Affordable Care Act might prove effective on loved ones whose biases and media diets had led them to become very worried about whatever was supposed to be happening with Jade Helm.
By now, though, everyone who will ever know better surely does.
The discursive fantasies expressed in one president’s tweet are roughly as preposterous as those in the other, and each quite obviously exists on its own respective plane of reality. But let’s do our best to make this into a binary anyway. Obama suggests deploying some Freakonomics-scented tips and tricks and a leavening dose of Neibuhr-influenced humility to prove a point about Our Common Humanity. Tonally and gesturally, it is both the more traditionally presidential of the two and a perfectly crystalline expression of Democrat Brain, primarily because of how determinedly it ignores the actual state of play. Trump’s tweet is more overtly cringeworthy, in both the basic Uh Oh, Dad’s Doing Memes sense and because it is coming from a man who is literally the president. That said, its strident stupidity and staunchly humorless joke-adjacency make it more accurately aligned with how politics gets discussed in our Trumpy moment.
Later that day, another official Trump-aligned account demanded that the Biased Media, which was literally the Washington Post in this case, produce proof that the shopped Rocky image was not an actual image of the president — who, if you are just joining us, is an elderly man who is objectively shaped like a bowling pin and has the muscle tone of a McRib. Consider, for a moment, the science of arguing against that. Think about what it would mean to pursue an outcome exactly halfway between Let’s Remember Our Shared Humanity, Please and My Peevish Old President Literally Has the Physique of a Heavyweight Champion, Bitch. Think about what it would be like to actually reach that midpoint.
The impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives have proven how impossible that task is in this moment. The Democrats have done what they do when required to wield political power, which is adopt a tone of righteous disappointment and then do the absolute minimum of power-wielding. That they still managed to shape a compelling case that Donald Trump crudely and cravenly leveraged foreign aid for domestic political advantage seems, in the end, to owe mostly to just how crude and craven Trump was about all of that. Because of their constitutional aversion to being seen as using power (because that’s not what governing is about) or doing politics (voters hate politics), and because of the party’s trepidation about being mean to a psychedelically incompetent and historically unpopular president, the Democrats haven’t really figured out what to do with all this. When legal scholars testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, their evident alarm and disgust with Trump’s attempts to stiff-arm the broader process marked a striking departure in tone from the low hum of regret and mild umbrage that had characterized the proceedings to that point.
After some initial feints in the direction of countering the case that the Democrats reluctantly and timorously built, the Republicans weighed their options and opted for a more avant-garde response. Their hand was forced, to a certain extent, because as with every other thing that Donald Trump has done in his life, every bit of unflattering evidence was exactly what it appeared to be. But there was also the problem that Trump himself presents not through his inability to stop doing crimes but through his broader inability to stop watching cable news. Trump’s programming of choice has long covered the allegations against him in a way that is both superheated and scatterbrained, and designed mostly to keep viewers hanging around through the next commercial to find out who else betrayed Mr. Trump.
Because Trump is both the main character and primary audience for everything that happens in national politics at this moment, sympathetic members of Congress rushed to mimic that approach, and the results landed somewhere between jarring and hallucinatory. Questioning skipped from station to station, mentioning names and nicknames — the FBI Lovebirds, Hunter, the Whistle-blower, “Bootsy,” the infamous Andy, “the Funky Bunch” — that are highly familiar to denizens of the Fox News Cinematic Universe but not immediately useful to the building of any sort of positive or negative case. More often than not, the proceedings devolved into expressionistic bluster about notional violations of fairness or politesse. The messaging from the Trumpy side at the end of each day was generally about how confusing and boring it all was, and how they were winning.
On Wednesday, the Republicans’ designated legal expert, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, appeared to refute the very idea that a president could ever be impeached. Colorado Rep. Ken Buck asked him about Benghazi. The gambit of the day was a multi-front attempt to turn a passing remark by Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan — she elucidated the difference between kings and presidents by noting that while Trump was free to name his son Barron, he could not appoint him to be a baron — into an intolerable offense. “When you invoke the president’s son’s name here, when you try to make a little joke out of referencing Barron Trump,” Rep. Matt Gaetz fumed, “that does not lend credibility to your argument. It makes you look mean.” If we might return to the Thanksgiving table for a moment, it was as if some of the guests, worried that the family dog might feel left out, just decided to conduct every conversation in the singsong who’s-a-good-boy voice that people use when speaking to terriers.
It is easy, and not entirely incorrect, to pin all this on a deficit of seriousness between the two sides. Certainly that is how the Democrats, in their ongoing dedication to performing thoughtful disappointment, seem to see it. Republicans could, eventually, return to civilized discussion around the Thanksgiving table rather than continue trying to impress the dog.
But it seems more accurate, if also notably bleaker, to say that the disjunction primarily amounts to creative differences. The House of Representatives will vote for the articles of impeachment against Donald Trump because they understand that he is wildly unqualified for and incapable of his job, and venal and cruel in ways that make him uniquely dangerous; they have successfully demonstrated how that played out in this case, even if they somehow don’t seem capable of getting worked up about any of that. The members of Congress who will not vote to impeach Trump, on the other hand, have made a point of not understanding anything of the sort, and have instead opted into a strange and dreamlike counter-narrative.
Their confusing story of backchannel derring-do and investigative intrigue is made twistier by the fact that Trump can’t quite figure out the story he’s trying to tell about himself, and complicated further by the fact that no one in his party dares contradict or improve the wobbly tale he spins. That story is a farce on its face, a chaos of antique outrages and cable news non sequiturs filtered imperfectly through Trump’s gravy-drenched loaf of a brain. It depends for its motivation upon the secret honor of some of the most luridly dishonorable men in recent political history; the blackest possible satire of an alibi would scan the same way, and unfold along the same beats. The bickering over etiquette and scheduling — Turley bemoaned that impeachment was happening too fast, but on Thursday Trump demanded, in a very not-mad-actually-laughing tone, that Democrats “do it now, fast” — is in large part because there is really nothing else to argue about. More to the point, though, the carping, whinging befuddlement that defines Trump’s public performances has now largely replaced everything formerly understood as politics.
Only Trump would even dare to tell a story this shoddy. The man himself is a boorish fabulist and a fantasist; he has never wanted anything more than to be the main character on every single television channel, and damned if he hasn’t pulled it off. That disastrous casting is an issue that an election can fix, but the passivity with which all sides of the political culture fell into their roles as Trump’s supporting cast — the eagerness with which these two parties, each increasingly unrecognizable to the other, put a doddering authoritarian clown at the center of their two divergent arguments — seems incalculably worse. It would be nice to think that there was some way to talk about it.