How Nancy Pelosi’s Tactics Affirm the Trumpian Style of Politics
The President of the United States is erratic, illiterate, and doesn’t want to know what he doesn’t know. The President has alienated former allies, befriended or courted murderous dictators, and has repeatedly brought the country to the brink of nuclear confrontation. The President lies constantly, knows that he is lying, and demands that Administration officials lie for him, and often they do. The President has waged war on the institutions of government, overseeing the gutting of the State Department and the destruction of other federal agencies by their own leaders, and effectively shut off media access to the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House. The President has acted to thwart oversight of the Administration by other branches of government. The President has never made a secret of despising the government itself: he has called it a “swamp” and gleefully shut it down for thirty-five days, during a temper tantrum. The President has not only failed to divest himself of his businesses but has installed his children in and near the White House, openly using his office for personal financial gain. The President has debased political culture and language, using his bully pulpit to spew lies, hate, and personal insults, and to serve fast-food burgers.
These are some of the known facts. The Trump Presidency has been a two-and-a-half-year-long high crime against common decency, good sense, human values, the national interest, and the law. The question is: What constitutes good opposition politics in this situation?
The prevailing wisdom in the Democratic Party seems to be that good opposition politics is a very slow walk to impeachment, as performed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She has said that she is opposed to impeachment because it is “divisive,” and because Trump is “just not worth it,” and has reportedly said, behind closed doors, that impeachment is what Trump wants, because he expects to be exonerated by the Senate. Pelosi, the wisdom has it, is building a case for impeachment both in congressional inquiries and in her public feud with Trump: she provokes him in some way—most recently, by saying that he is “engaged in a coverup,” or by hoping aloud that someone close to Trump would stage “an intervention for the good of the country”—and he responds by performing Trump. “In each case,” as Politico put it, “Trump handed Pelosi a huge gift, a priceless moment that helped unify the Democratic Caucus behind her at a crucial time.”
Trump’s performance is repetitive. None of what he has done in his battle of insults with Pelosi is surprising or new: not storming out of a meeting with her and the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, on Wednesday (at least the third such walkout in six months); not the scuttling of an anticipated legislative deal with the Democrats (he does this every time); not his counterfactual assertions that he doesn’t “do coverups” and is a “very stable genius” (he has said this before); not the ugly spectacle of his meltdown; not the vulgar sexism of his insults. All of it is just more Trump.
Still, the premise of the argument that Trump is digging his own grave by doing more Trump is that the amount of Trump we have observed since January, 2017, is not yet enough to take action. Pelosi’s “coverup” comment, which set Trump off on Wednesday, implies that something remaining to be uncovered can make a difference to our understanding of this Presidency—that the known facts are not enough to make Trump’s continued Presidency inconceivable. Similarly, the idea that continued congressional hearings on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings are necessary to build a case for impeachment suggests that a hundred and eighty-two pages documenting the President’s efforts to obstruct the investigation are not enough. The purpose of these congressional hearings is not to systematize the evidence—that can be done in the course of impeachment proceedings—but to give human faces and voices to the Mueller report, and to goad Trump into obstructing oversight in plain view. The pragmatics are creating political momentum that might make it more difficult for Senate Republicans to resist impeachment. But the logic is that the public must be shown how unfit Trump is to be President. As though the public hasn’t seen enough—as though, indeed, what the public has seen so far is a Presidency that we can live with.
Worse, Pelosi’s tactics, apparently designed to expose Trump’s unfitness, affirm the Trumpian style of politics: vulgar, cruel, and value-free. Pelosi has become Trump’s personal troll. She played the part during the State of the Union address, when she applauded Trump the way one might applaud a lying, cheating, attention-hogging teen-ager: arms straight, head cocked, her entire being projecting insincerity. She played the part after she taunted the President following his tantrum, suggesting that he suffered from a “lack of confidence,” and again, on Thursday, with her “intervention” comments. Most of the mainstream media have followed with horse-race-style coverage, calling each step of the feud for Pelosi.
In a world where trolling is politics, Pelosi is winning. Politico praises her for being “so good at infuriating Trump.” CNN delights in Trump “taking Nancy Pelosi’s bait.” The Trumpification of American politics is being perpetrated by bipartisan consensus. Pelosi, and an apparent majority of Democratic Washington, seem to think this is preferable to an attempt at impeachment that is likely to be thwarted by Senate Republicans. Failure, in other words, is unacceptable, but this—the flagrant dysfunction, the trivialization of all that used to be politics, the spectacle of daily national shame—is acceptable. Trump will be gone someday, but the possibilities that Trumpism has created will remain.