The most incisive moment of the impeachment inquiry’s public hearings came at the very end, on Thursday afternoon, courtesy of Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, the former federal prosecutor who had spent two weeks methodically constructing case that Donald Trump had wantonly abused his office only to watch his Republican colleagues bury their heads in the sand.

“What we’ve seen here is far more serious than a third-rate burglary of the Democratic headquarters,” Schiff said, referencing Watergate. “… [This] is beyond anything Nixon did. The difference between then and now is not the difference between Nixon and Trump. It’s the difference between that Congress and this one.”

Richard Nixon, of course, resigned in 1974 after top Republicans told him that the evidence of his crimes was too great to ignore. Forty-five years later, congressional Republicans are against faced with equally unassailable evidence of their president’s crimes; this time, they’ve closed ranks and chosen willful ignorance and conspiratorial fantasies.

Schiff is correct: The impeachment of Donald Trump is no longer about Donald Trump. This is instead a trial of the Republican Party—and of the ability of our democratic institutions to serve as a check on a thoroughly corrupt would-be strongman.

And both are going to fail the test.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, there’s no ambiguity about what happened. As Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union—who literally purchased his post with a $1 million donation to Trump’s inaugural committee—had admitted, there absolutely was a quid pro quo, and everyone knew it. Trump had conditioned an Oval Office meeting with Ukraine’s new president on the announcement of investigations into Joe Biden and a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukrainians framed Russia for interfering in the 2016 election.

To ratchet up the pressure, Trump then blocked nearly $400 million in military aid Ukraine needed for its war against Russia. As if that wasn’t clear enough, in a July 25 phone call, Trump explicitly linked the Ukrainian president’s request for weaponry to the “favor” of opening the investigations.

Again, there’s no real dispute over the facts, and the facts show that the president solicited foreign interference in American elections and attempted to extort that foreign interference by withholding aid to an ally who needed it. 

If those aren’t impeachable offenses, nothing is.

And yet, when all is said and done, every Republican representative and senator is likely to vote against impeaching or removing Donald Trump. In so doing, they’ll both sanction his actions and delegitimize the inquiry as—to borrow Trump’s favorite phrase—a partisan witch-hunt. 

To be sure, this impeachment is partisan, but viewing it through a red-versus-blue lens obscures the more dangerous reality: America’s dominant political party is fundamentally broken, an authoritarian cult of personality locked in its own propaganda feedback loop.

As George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum explains in The Atlantic: “Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, and the others have fenced off conservative Americans from the rest of American society. Within that safe space, insiders hear only what is familiar and comforting.”

Within this safe space—which, as Frum notes, has its own language, a hallucinogenic hodgepodge of names and catch-phrases—the hearings didn’t produce a straightforward narrative of corruption but evidence of a Deep State cover-up. There is a “fake whistleblower” and a “Russia hoax” and a “Black Ledger” and collusion between a DNC operative and the Ukrainian embassy and—from Glenn Beck—a rehash of the (((George Soros)))-as-puppet-master trope.

In this alternate universe, the real story isn’t the president abusing his office to further his reelection campaign but of the sinister forces conspiring against him.

Representative Devin Nunes and other Republicans on the Intelligence Committee used the hearings to put this alternate universe on full display—and then became indignant when witnesses said they had no idea what the hell they were talking about.

As Frum puts it: “To those not immersed in the fantasy franchise, people like Devin Nunes sound like crazy people. Which in turn, of course, only drives them crazier.”

This would be amusing if the consequences weren’t so dire, if this were just some Bircher fringe and not the party’s driving force, from the president to Congress to the propaganda machines from which tens of millions of Americans get their information. Put simply, being an elected Republican in 2019 means chugging the Kool-Aid—or at least pretending you have.

And that’s why Republicans are going to give Trump the pass their predecessors didn’t give Nixon.

The Republican Party is broken. And the longer it stays in power, the more likely it is to break our democracy, too.

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at 

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