I know it’s not easy to sort out the alleged conspiracies and counter-conspiracies involved in the House impeachment inquiry, but hang in there.
Most important in my humble view is this: When House Democrats voted in near-unanimity to adopt rules for public impeachment hearings, they effectively locked their party into an argument for the 2020 campaign that President Donald Trump is unfit to hold his office.
Trump’s Republican allies have begun to counter with a position that, ironically, worked for former President Bill Clinton in his Senate impeachment trial, which failed to convict him: Even if the president is guilty of misbehavior, which Republicans have not quite conceded about Trump, it doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment.
To make their case, House Democrats are focusing on Trump’s now-notorious July 25 telephone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. During that chat, Trump infamously asked for “a favor.” He wanted investigations of supposed ties between Democrats and Ukraine during the 2016 campaign, and of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who held a well-paying board seat at Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, despite his notable lack of any experience with the industry.
One of the easier questions, it seems to me, is, was there a “quid pro quo” in the phone call?
“No quid pro quo!” is a new base-rallying Trump mantra. But the phrase translates to “a favor for a favor,” which clearly describes what Trump was after, as he discussed the release of military aid to Ukraine, already approved by Congress but delayed by Trump.
Does turning foreign policy into a probe for possible dirt on a likely presidential opponent, which Biden was at the time, constitute an abuse of power? Extortion? A high crime or misdemeanor?
No, says Trump, who prefers to call it simply “perfect,” whatever that is supposed to mean.
Beyond the flood of denials and populist propaganda — some fact-based, some not so much — pumped out by Trump’s machine, I’m intrigued by something else at play here from Trump’s playbook: his paranoid style of politics.
That’s a reference to Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 essay and book, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Written in the era of Sens. Barry Goldwater and Joseph McCarthy, for whom Trump’s mentor, the red-baiting attorney Roy Cohn, worked, it describes a lot of the old Cold War-era politics based on fear, anger, resentment and suspicions that Trump in the internet age has truly raised to a high art.
Many of the more than 13,000 false or misleading claims tallied by The Washington Post’s running count involved his various conspiracy theories, from his early bogus challenge to Barack Obama’s birth certificate to the Post’s recently added category: “Ukraine probe,” which already has topped 250 entries.
But as Trump, under pressure of possible impeachment, appears to have ramped up the pace of his disinformation, I have begun to wonder: Could he actually believe his own bull jive?
For example, Trump pushes for yet another probe of Hillary Clinton’s email server and CrowdStrike. That’s the cybersecurity company that conducted a forensic examination of the DNC’s servers after the 2016 hacking that U.S. intelligence agencies and the Mueller report say was conducted by Russians, a conclusion Trump prefers not to reach.
“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine,” Trump told Zelenskiy, “they say CrowdStrike.”
He appeared to be referencing a debunked conspiracy theory that CrowdStrike was owned by a Ukrainian, which it was not, and that the company was hiding a server holding missing Clinton emails, a claim that also has been debunked.
It’s no surprise that the debunking doesn’t stop Trump from spreading unsupported dirt on his opponents. He’s done that before. But does he believe it too?
And how about his top appointees, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr? Do their actions in pursuing Trump’s leads — or misleads — indicate, they, too, have embraced the paranoid plot theories?
Perhaps the impeachment hearings will tell us. Trump describes the long-honored ambassadors, intelligence community and other officials who have come forward to testify as “deep state” liberals, “never Trumper” conservatives and that old standby, “human scum.” Charming.
I call them heroes. The danger of paranoid politics doesn’t come from “men with profoundly disturbed minds,” Hofstadter warned. Rather, it is “the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.” When we make irrational fears seem normal, at least half of the battle for good governance is lost.