Nothing is clear in this moment of grave peril for America, democracy and the world, not even the things that appear obvious. We stumble around in darkness, our vision obscured, awaiting a more perfect understanding, as in the famously evocative phrase of 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
This article first appeared in Salon.
Last week I wrote that we were on the verge of overt conflict between the defenders of democratic institutions and those who wanted to destroy them. A couple of days later, we got the defiant letter to Congress vowing a scorched-earth campaign against impeachment, supposedly from White House counsel Pat Cipollone but pretty clearly dictated by President Trump himself. (As Salon’s Heather Digby Parton observed, no actual attorney with the intention of practicing law in the future would have signed that thing.)
We know that Trump is unhinged and dangerous and something of a natural-born authoritarian, all of which came through clearly in his especially insane rally in Minneapolis this week — framed by entirely too many reporters as if it remained vaguely within the realm of normal political hardball. We know he is now surrounded by a cabal of people who have told him there are no limits to his authority, and that in a showdown with Congress and the courts, he will prevail. We do not yet know whether, as a practical matter, that is true — an entirely different question from whether constitutional law scholars tell us it’s true.
Without getting drawn too deeply into caveats and “on the other hand,” I think we also have to go there a little. Because on the other hand, the congressional Democrats who are now claiming the constitutional high ground have been eager and active participants, for decades, in the process of democratic decay that got us here. They have supported endless, destructive wars and expanded surveillance programs and a set of economic policies that siphoned wealth upward to the already-rich, under the puzzling theory that somehow that would create prosperity for all.
Furthermore, while the pseudo-interlocking conspiracy theories that Rudy Giuliani and Bill Barr and other Trump minions have been chasing around the world are absurd and incoherent, there is a tiny, troubling grain of reality down there at the bottom of it all. The whistleblower whose complaint against Trump has led to an official impeachment inquiry is a CIA agent. Let’s just sit a moment with that, shall we?
First of all, I am absolutely never going to be OK with the upside-down new political reality in which Democrats and “liberals” are suddenly superfans of the CIA and the FBI and, at least by extension, the NSA and all the other stuff we barely know anything about. Come at me all you like with your justifications about patriotism and Russia and how it’s not like the old days and “well, in this case.” Because those are bullshit excuses for an exercise in naked power politics. So can we please be honest about that, at least?
Those revelations from the CIA whistleblower led to a crucial change of heart among the cadre of newly-elected centrist Democrats from previously Republican districts — the “frontliners,” in Nancy Pelosi’s phrase —who were previously opposed to impeachment. At the core of that group are the former military and intelligence officers who call themselves the “badasses” (aka the “CIA Democrats”), who are closely aligned with Pelosi in terms of temperament, ideology and worldview.
Look me in the eye, right now, and tell me you believe that current or former functionaries of the CIA or the Pentagon or other agencies of the national-security state are first and foremost concerned with protecting democracy. I’ll wait.
Now, of course it is ludicrous to describe the Ukraine whistleblower as an agent of the “Deep State,” and then reverse-engineer an elaborate but incompetent anti-Trump plot stretching back to Joseph Mifsud and CrowdStrike and the “black ledger” and whatever else. It’s also completely unnecessary. To describe the whistleblower as “the ballcarrier in the Beltway’s latest partisan power contest,” as Matt Taibbi did recently, strikes me as entirely reasonable.
Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article arguing that we shouldn’t call that person a “whistleblower,” and that the Ukraine scandal has to some degree been stage-managed by the intelligence community, the Democratic Party and the mainstream media, was met with a lot of high-minded outrage. Honestly, I think both Taibbi and his critics make valid points, and both also dodge some of the thornier questions. (Yes, I know that’s exasperating.)
Adam Serwer correctly observes, in the Atlantic, that the whistleblower’s motives don’t much matter if his allegations are supported by evidence, which is certainly the case here. (Mark Felt, aka “Deep Throat” of the Watergate scandal, was associate director of the FBI and had a personal grudge against Richard Nixon.) Serwer’s critique of the “anti-anti-Trump left” and its situational self-seduction into Trump apology — an issue I have also previously explored — is marvelously nuanced:
Taibbi’s column illustrates the strange occasional convergence between Trump sycophants and the anti-anti-Trump left, whose oft-justified critiques of liberals sentimentalizing power can devolve into the reactionary assumption that everything liberals support is worth opposing. There is more bipartisan continuity in many of the terrible things Trump does, especially on foreign policy, than liberals would often like to admit, but the worst thing about Trump’s tax cuts, detention camps, child torture, Muslim bans, and gutting of civil-rights laws is not that these policies make wine moms in Prospect Heights who watch MSNBC feel sad.
That’s spot-on. But Serwer assumes — you knew there was a “but” coming, right? — that the apparent or proximate issue in the Ukraine scandal is the true, underlying issue. I’m not sure that’s a safe assumption. Was it really Trump’s attempt “to use his authority as president to pressure foreign countries to criminalize his opponents” that pushed the whistleblower forward? Or was it rather the fact that Trump was going rogue on foreign policy, in an area (Russia vs. Ukraine) that is of intense interest to the national-security establishment of both parties but is almost never discussed or debated in public?
All these things can be true, in the realm of “through a glass, darkly.” Donald Trump has committed numerous impeachable offenses, and after the Mueller report fizzled out had clearly gotten cocky about it. He said some truly dumbass things on the phone with the Ukrainian president, no doubt egged on by Giuliani and his moonbat friends, and White House flunkeys made a desperate attempt to cover that up. The CIA whistleblower — I agree with Taibbi’s suggestion that he is best understood as part of a team — seized on an opportunity to weaponize the objectively disastrous Zelensky phone call, in a way that appealed to different factions of the anti-Trump coalition for different reasons.
To be clear (if anything about this is “clear”), I’m not defending Trump’s Ukraine “policy,” which appears to be a mixture of narrow self-interest and whatever he absorbed from his latest conversation with Vladimir Putin. Nothing about that unhappy country is easily understood, and Hunter Biden’s brief career of bush-league corruption there is the least of it. Whether the 2014 “revolution” in Ukraine is best understood as a popular uprising or a U.S.-sponsored coup depends entirely on your point of view, but two things are clear: It overthrew a legitimately elected government (if perhaps a corrupt and reprehensible one) and it dramatically raised the temperature of the proxy war between Russia and the West.
One key argument of the “anti-anti-Trump left,” which Serwer does not address, is that given all these Great Game machinations — and given the long American history of messing with OPD (ahem, Other People’s Democracy) — it’s somewhere between naive and mendacious for liberals to get the vapors over the Russians buying some malicious Facebook ads. The problem with the Russian pro-Trump campaign of 2016 was that it was so blatant that it was exposed fairly rapidly, perhaps by design. The problem with Trump’s attempt to drag the Ukrainians into the 2020 campaign was that it was really blatant and unbelievably clumsy (definitely not by design), and was detected immediately.
Donald Trump is a unique figure in American history, even if you buy the argument that his election was basically a fluke event. (Which I don’t.) His gleeful ignorance and cruelty, his shameless corruption, his open embrace of racism and bigotry, and his undisguised contempt for democracy have distilled and fermented many of the most noxious currents in our political tradition into a single vessel.
But what Bill Barr and Rudy Giuliani and their even less savory underlings are pursuing, in their globetrotting snipe hunt for imaginary enemies, is the shadow of a real question: Is Trump being impeached because he’s a threat to democracy, or because he’s an overly obvious threat to democracy, too stupid or too stubborn to play the game by the rules? Are his attackers defending the remnants of the peculiar republic bequeathed to us by Jefferson and Madison, as they claim, or just posturing amid the ruins for political advantage? We won’t know the answers, I suspect, until all this is over.