On Thursday, the U.S. Senate held just the third ever vote on whether to convict and remove a sitting president on articles of impeachment. Such a moment should carry with it a type of palpable gravitas. After all, in the wide scope of human history, the ability to select one’s leaders is a relatively new idea. The ability, one might even argue the responsibility, to remove one’s leaders through nonviolent procedure if they are injurious to the office is an even more novel concept.
And yet, on Wednesday afternoon, as the Senate twice went through its roll call to acquit Donald John Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors, I sat in the lobby of the Kaufman Management Center watching a potential inflection point in the American experiment on my iPad, and felt nothing. As I looked around me, students milled about sipping coffee or working on group projects, seemingly oblivious. Maybe they were right to be. Considering the sturm und drang of the previous six months, it was pretty anticlimactic for the soap opera to end in a tidy 30 minutes.
Full disclosure: I am a bit of a political junkie. I come from one of those families that lets no holiday meal pass without a heated debate even though we all generally vote for the same candidates. I subscribe to multiple political podcasts and follow too many instant pundits on Twitter. I watch C-SPAN. Sometimes.
I am the first to admit this is not healthy behavior. In this country, news outlets pursue ratings by scandalizing any procedural vote on which Power Ranger gets a post office named after it, and getting sucked into that sarlacc pit is not exactly great for your blood pressure. After all, in most cases, the sun will still rise tomorrow regardless of which Power Ranger it is. Yes, even the yellow one.
Despite cable news’ interest in Washington dramas that will largely be forgotten by November, this particular moment warranted our attention. Regardless of what side of the aisle you fall on, most rational people can recognize the significance of potentially removing the president from office. Much of the drama had evaporated before the trial or indeed before the house even opened impeachment proceedings. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had stated as much on the record multiple times during the fall, and many Democrats also conceded the unlikelihood that 20 Republican senators would flip on a President from their own party. Impeachment, after all, is more a political process than a criminal one.
But the predetermined outcome of the trial should not have deterred us from paying attention. This was one of the rarest and most important functions of the U.S. government in action: the potential safeguarding of the republic from its own leader and the preservation of government of the people, for the people, by the people. Whether or not you believe the Senate fulfilled that responsibility is almost beside the point. Wednesday could have been a day that changed the country forever. In fact, despite Trump’s acquittal, it may have changed the country anyway.
The facts of Trump’s attempted barter with Ukraine of political favors for aid are not generally in dispute. The White House’s own transcripts of the president’s phone conversations and the arguments of his lawyers admit as much. While opinions vary on whether or not this behavior was fine, inappropriate or worthy of removal from office, his acquittal sets the precedent that it is not a great enough sin to end a presidency, and that could have a sweeping impact on executive power.
At the same time, while White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham claimed the vote was a “full vindication and exoneration of President Donald J. Trump,” statements from senators in the president’s own party, like Lamar Alexander, imply that is, at best, a charitable point of view. Trump may have survived the impeachment trial, but it also provided democrats with valuable fodder for attack ads and forced vulnerable GOP senators, like Cory Gardner or Susan Collins, to take unpopular votes. These could become problems as we near election day, and endanger Republicans’ hold on the Senate.
The same could be said for Democrats like Doug Jones, who voted to convict the president while facing reelection in a state where Trump is popular. Mitt Romney, the one Republican who voted for removal, does not face reelection until 2024, but his decision may put him in an untenable position with his colleagues. If blowback from the initial vote to impeach causes trouble for Democratic representatives in swing districts, Nancy Pelosi could lose her speakership or the Democratic majority in the House, potentially giving a reelected Trump a much stronger hand with which to implement his second-term agenda.
The electorate’s response to the impeachment trial in those key contests could fundamentally alter the balance of power in congress, which in turn could change the course of legislation on a host of polarizing issues from healthcare, to immigration, to the minimum wage.
But, of course, we don’t really know which way that pendulum is going to swing just yet, and whatever snap polls news organizations produce this week aren’t likely to indicate how voters will feel nine months from now. For that reason, I don’t really blame the students I saw for not paying attention. Most of my friends have reasonably strong political opinions, and I’m sure the vast majority of them were not watching either. It seems fair to assume most of America didn’t. According to Variety, the final vote was watched by roughly 14 million people, which is better than your typical prime time show, but still below other political events of note. For example, the trial garnered significantly fewer viewers than Christine Blasey Ford’s congressional testimony during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 confirmation hearings. The difference in that scenario is while Kavanaugh’s confirmation seemed likely, the eventual outcome wasn’t certain.
And therein lies the rub. Many people probably didn’t bother to watch because with the result a fait accompli, there was no real reason to do it beyond a civics lesson. The flood of impeachment news in the months leading up to and during the trial was at times paralzying and usually exhausting. For our own sanity, the best choice was probably to simply change the channel, and in doing so we lost an appreciation for the historic nature of the moment. In the end, we had the worst possible outcome for any moment on which the republic could turn.
It felt just like any other day.
Photo credit: Associated Press