House Democrats avoided a political pitfall Tuesday, limiting themselves to two articles of impeachment rather than a kitchen-sink approach that included Russia, Putin, the Trump hotel, caustic tweets and whatever else they could conjure up.
But the brief appearance by Nancy Pelosi, Jerry Nadler and Adam Schiff, for all their efforts at solemnity, seemed like a predictable step on a predictable path toward impeachment in the House and acquittal in the Senate.
And that leaves us, as always, with roughly half the country believing that President Trump did commit high crimes and misdemeanors, and half who think Pelosi’s party is doing this solely to overturn the 2016 election.
So the question becomes who do you believe: the Democrats or the GOP? The media or the president? Inspector General Michael Horowitz or Attorney General Bill Barr?
For so many people, the answer is one side or the other, or…no one at all.
This goes beyond impeachment, beyond Ukraine and Russia, beyond the Carter Page FISA warrant. The Washington Post is running a series based on confidential documents, comparable to the Pentagon papers, showing how the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations lied about the war in Afghanistan by claiming progress as things kept getting worse.
And many years before Trump popularized the phrase fake news, confidence in the media began to slide, fueled by blunders and bias.
Ben Domenech, founder of the Federalist, told the New York Times there has been a steady decline in trust in the gatekeepers of American life:
“Everything from politics to faith to sports has been revealed as corrupted or corruptible. And every mismanaged war, failed hurricane response, botched investigation and doping scandal furthers this view.” That, he said, “allows individuals to retreat to their own story lines, fantasies and tales in which their tribe is always good or under attack, and the other always craven and duplicitous.”
A very concise snapshot of where we are.
Christopher Wray is either doing his job or, as Trump tweeted about the man he appointed, “with that kind of attitude, he will never be able to fix the FBI.”
Despite the IG’s findings of no political bias, Barr continues to insist that the Trump campaign was “clearly spied upon,” telling NBC’s Pete Williams that the nation has been upended by a “bogus narrative” that’s been “hyped by an irresponsible media.” And they all work for the same administration.
Twitter is the modern embodiment of this tribal culture. Angry people on both sides will wave away this question and go on the attack, saying that Trump is innocent or guilty, that the deep state is insidious or fictitious.
What’s more, they will denounce the motives of reporters, analysts, columnists and anchors and declare them to be either Trump-haters or in the tank for Trump–or for just being horrible human beings. There is plenty of unfair journalism and commentary out there, to be sure, but also the demonizing of decent people trying to do their jobs.
And we have plenty of company.
As the Times piece by Peter Baker puts it: “Much of the public may not trust Mr. Trump, according to surveys, but it likewise does not trust his opponents all that much either — or the news media that he complains is out to get him. Americans have been down on banks, big business, the criminal justice system and the health care system for years, and fewer have confidence in churches or organized religion now than at any point since Gallup started asking in 1973.”
Public distrust in government, at least in the modern era, has its roots in Vietnam, and in Watergate (which led to the Nixon impeachment). Distrust in “the system” is nothing new: remember the racially divided furor over the O.J. verdict? And media malfeasance has a long history: Seven years after the Washington Post won a Pulitzer for its Watergate reporting, the paper had to return a Pulitzer for the phony Janet Cooke story about an 8-year-old heroin addict.
Even a party-line impeachment is familiar ground: Just 21 years ago, House Republicans brought articles against Bill Clinton in a sex-and-lies scandal that was followed by acquittal in the Senate.
If the Trump impeachment feels different, it’s because the battle is part of a culture war that transcends politics and plays out in an oversaturated media environment. It’s because this president uses his vast platform, and digital bully pulpit, to wage war on political rivals, critics and the media. It’s because some Democrats really have been trying to get him out of office since he was inaugurated. It’s because some in the press really do think he’s an illegitimate president and have a visceral animosity toward him.
There is a larger cost that will outlast the Trump presidency, a further erosion of trust and a deepening division that have come to define America.