Imagine that the laws of gravity suddenly went haywire here on Earth, such that everyone experienced gravity differently, and at random times and places. One day, you’d try to get out of bed, and the effort to stand up would utterly exhaust you. The next day, leaping out of bed, you’d bang your head on the ceiling. There would be no way to predict how gravity affected you or others from one day to the next. With everyone trapped in their own, and very unpredictable, gravitational reality, everyday cooperation and collaboration would become difficult, if not impossible. Any movement or gesture you made toward others in public might result in bodily harm or a comic lack of timing. The common and shared world of human interaction would soon disappear; everyone would retreat to their own private spaces to avoid embarrassment, injury, or conflict.
The corollaries to the laws of gravity in the political world are justice and accountability. Remove the expectation that malice will be punished and lies refuted, and the shared human world of public interaction breaks down quickly. That’s been the case here in the United States since November 9, 2016. The rapidity with which fundamental expectations and assumptions have been demolished and the rule of law eroded is alarming. The election of Donald Trump has put so much into question: the resilience of our political institutions, the integrity of our mass media, the transparency of our electoral processes, and the checks and balances between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. All are now in tatters. We’ve learned that crime pays, lies easily obliterate truths, and the worst among us inevitably triumph and prosper.
Public incredulity is palpable. How can the president lie daily (if not hourly) without facing any consequences? Can thousands of children really be languishing in filthy detention facilities because their parents tried to reach the United States in search of a better life? Can the State Department be so broken that a respected ambassador to the Ukraine was fired for doing her job, and perhaps targeted for a mafia hit by the president and his cronies? Can a majority of members of the U.S. Senate actually believe the twisted and self-serving logic of a sociopathic president? Can a significant portion of the U.S. electorate believe in a “deep-state” conspiracy against the president and support the ravings of his white supremacist supporters? Can the president simply decide to assassinate someone in Iraq and risk sparking World War Three without any breaks on the machinery of military force?
The answer to all of these questions is “yes,” sadly. There is no longer any political or public “Archimedean point” from which to make sense of events or to orient oneself so as to rectify this rapidly deteriorating situation. To take a stand implies that one knows where and how to stand up, but in the current fog of conflicting realities, it’s quite hard to get one’s footing. Nothing is self-evident any longer; the very definition of reality is up for grabs. Few if any commonly agreed upon and easily recognizable landmarks remain on the political horizon. Any common narrative is fragmented by Twitter, Facebook, Fox News, and the president himself. Recent revelations of the incalculable damage done by Cambridge Analytica in swaying the U.S. electorate towards Trump and the UK public towards Brexit alert us to the importance of transparency and integrity in the media, including the social media. The role of the press is even more critical now as the United States gears up for another presidential election in November, while Facebook states that it will not be fact checking or pulling dishonest campaign advertisements. Most of us get our daily news from social media, either Facebook, Twitter, Buzzfeed, Reddit, or some combination of these, which means that most Americans, right across the political spectrum, pick and choose their preferred news sources, and thus shape their own sense of reality.
While the multiplication of news sources over the last two decades has its advantages, most notably bringing new voices into public debates, the fragmentation of the press has also had serious drawbacks. Rarely are Americans all “on the same page,” metaphorically speaking, when consuming the news. It’s only when something momentous is afoot that all television, print, social media, and radio outlets focus on the same story, such as coverage of the Mueller Investigation report last March, or the U.S. House of Representatives’ impeachment procedures against Donald Trump last month. But even then, the news is often anti-climactic. The workings of our venerable institutions in both of these cases provided no resolution whatsoever to the disaster that befell the country in November 2016. Listening to the “debate” between Republican and Democratic members of the House during the impeachment hearings last month was particularly exasperating. It was not a debate so much as a recitation of two radically different views of reality, with no referee or authority to guide us to a conclusion. It went on for hours, in the words of Shakespeare, “sound and fury, signifying nothing…a tale told by an idiot,” for whom facts do not exist.
When I was a child, the impeachment of disgraced President Richard M. Nixon was a serious and solemn matter. All adults were glued to the television set or avidly reading the two different newspapers that were delivered to our home each day. There was no doubt that something very serious was happening, and that it was going to change American history forever. After the House impeached Trump a month ago, the earth did not tremble, the streets neither erupted in protest nor closed up in nervous silence. It meant nothing, we knew, because the Republican-dominated Senate would protect Trump from any meaningful consequences. What was the point of continuing this futile effort in the Senate?
But the trial in the Senate, led admirably by impeachment managers from the House of Representatives, is turning out to be far from futile. Admittedly, the Republican senators can ignore or dismiss the facts being presented in such careful detail and fine-grained context—and most probably will. Many of them are napping through the testimony or leaving the chamber for extended periods of time, contravening the rules with impunity. But the true audience for this trial is not the 100 Senators confined to their chamber, devoid of mobile phones and permitted only milk or water to drink. The more important audience is the nation as a whole—we, the people—who are collectively consuming news in an old-fashioned, long-form, no-spin format without commercial interruption. The trial unfolding on the floor of the Senate is like a combination of civics lesson, dramatic reading, investigative journalism, and ethics seminar all rolled into one. The presentation has been put together meticulously by people who understand the power of narrative, eloquently tying together events, testimony, legal precedents, and historic speeches for hours on end. In two days, this trial has succeeded in showing, rather than telling, us how deep we have sunk into Trump’s sewer.
The Democrats have presented an unassailable case against the president and his henchmen, and have managed to make their narrative as engrossing as it is digestible. There’s something almost ceremonial or theatrical about their presentation of evidence. Facts are regaining a sacrality, solidity, and gravity that they’ve lost of late. Presentation after presentation grows to a point, one that lands squarely on Trump’s guilt and inadequacy to serve as president. While it’s possible that one or two Republican senators could break rank and vote with their Democratic colleagues to remove Trump from office, this trial won’t end Trump’s administration. It will, however, make it harder for him to win the 2020 election without cheating in even more devious ways than he already has—and we’ll all be watching him more closely this time—and it could well end the political careers of corrupt and complicit Republican senators come November.