Open impeachment hearings about Donald Trump’s alleged withholding of US military aid to Ukraine until its government agreed to open an investigation into Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, will shine a light on how the indefensible is normalised, writes Martyn McLaughlin.
Nearly three years since taking up office, Donald Trump’s use of social media to present an alternative version of reality is intensifying. It is no coincidence that this pattern is forming as the impeachment process against him is gathering pace.
Between 11.58pm on Friday and 7am yesterday (US east coast time), he tweeted or retweeted 135 messages on his platform of choice. The vast majority centred on the impeachment hearings, a process described variously on Mr Trump’s timeline as a “disgusting smokescreen”, a “coordinated, premeditated plot”, a “vendetta”, and – as has become the slur of choice of a uniquely inarticulate and emotionally volatile president – a “witch hunt”.
Yet Mr Trump’s time-honoured strategy of disrupting media narratives is about to face its sternest test. The commencement today of live televised impeachment hearings poses the greatest single risk to his tenure in the White House. Impeachment, after all, is a process which threatens to impact on the metric upon which Mr Trump obsesses above all others – approval ratings.
It also one he depends on. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton had already been re-elected when they faced impeachment, meaning that they did so in the knowledge they would never again have to put their case to the electorate.
Even if the Senate eventually decides against impeaching Mr Trump, the wall-to-wall television coverage of the House hearings will place him squarely in the court of public opinion, just as the stroll towards next November’s elections is becoming a gentle jog.
There is no small irony in the fact Mr Trump will be judged via television. It is the medium that created him. But the spectacle and outrage have, until now, been his cultivations. The drama that will unfold over the coming days and weeks is outwith his control.
Even in an age when media consumption habits are fragmented, the hearings will be unrivalled in their theatre and impact. In February, an average of 15.8 million US television viewers tuned into Michael Cohen’s testimony before Congress; last September, 19.5 million people watched Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.
Given historic Gallup research showed that 71 per cent of Americans watched the Watergate hearings live, expect those numbers to be blown out the water, despite the fact Mr Trump will be an invisible protagonist.
Instead, the attention will focus on the narrative being presented by the Democrats which, in theory, is uncomplicated: did Mr Trump abuse the power of his office to try to coerce a foreign power to smear his political opponents?
History’s assessment of only the third impeachment process in US history will depend largely on how lucidly that case is set out, and how robustly Democrats can prevent it from being disarranged.
Yes, there will be legal jousting, repetitive enquiries, and a preoccupation with seemingly trivial detail, but these are insignificant barriers to capturing the public’s attention compared to the wilfully anarchic premises being propagated by Mr Trump and his supporters.
These run the full gamut of full-blown conspiracy theories, ranging from Mr Trump’s assertion that the transcripts from the closed hearings were doctored, through to the continuing attacks on the whistleblower who triggered the impeachment inquiry. Factor into this the concerted effort by some Republicans to sow the seeds of disinformation by trying to turn the inquiry’s investigatory remit towards Joe and Hunter Biden, despite the fact that there is no evidence of wrongdoing on their part, and it is clear these hearings will be conducted via bar-fight rules.
Defending the indefensible
The prospect of rebuffing those falsehoods is not the gravest challenge facing the House. That accolade is quite simple – it is ensuring that the truths we have long taken as self-evident should be given voice and reaffirmed like never before.
One of the most striking and depressing things I have read about the inquiry to date was the results of a poll carried out by Vox, PerryUndem and Ipsos which sought to answer the point at which a president’s misbehaviour becomes so serious that it is viewed by the public as impeachable.
Two-thirds (67 per cent) of Republicans who responded said the use of the powers of the presidential office for political gain constituted a high crime and misdemeanour.
Remarkably, when asked whether pressuring another country to investigate a political rival fell into the same category, less than a quarter (22 per cent) deemed it impeachable, with 65 per cent agreeing with the statement that it is something “presidents do all the time”.
That such a yawning gulf can separate moral generalities and the actions of Mr Trump, in spite of the fact that multiple witnesses to the impeachment inquiry have repeatedly corroborated the whistleblower’s complaint, is deeply worrying.
It may be one poll, but it is indicative of how the unconscionable has been normalised under the Trump administration, and a warning that the most unjustifiable deeds will be staunchly defended.
Perhaps this will be the greatest test of the impeachment hearings. Mr Trump is not the only one on trial. The American public is too. In the end, they may be the only ones who can decide whether they get the leader – and the kind of politics – that they deserve.