During the floor debate Wednesday over the second and possibly final impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump, there were references to him being the worst president in American history.
Could be. It is worth recalling, however, that there are many ways to be a bad president, and at least a few of his predecessors offer intense competition for the title.
At a minimum, Trump seems secure in his bid to be the worst character ever to inhabit the presidency.
He claims this in part by seeming not to have a character at all in the classic sense–an internal compass that operates independently of his garish public performance. Even Richard Nixon had brooding, tormented dimensions to his personality, which suggested a conscience, which in turn led him to try to hide cynical and illegal behavior under a mask of righteous piety. By contrast, news and book revelations about outrageous behavior by Trump in private are not remotely in tension with how Trump presents himself in public. He acts as if self-absorption, self-delusion, bullying, bluster and disdain for rules or precedents or standards of propriety are all good things.
Here is the uncomfortable truth, highlighted by yet another impeachment: These are good things, if the goal is to ensure that supporters and enemies alike are obsessing about you in the final hours of a defeated presidency, and even after that presidency ends, while a successor is wanly trying to command attention for a new one.
And they are good things if the goal is to be the emblematic figure of a generation guided by the ethos that the point of politics is not to illuminate and resolve big arguments — it is instead to continue the arguments endlessly, no matter the circumstances.
If the Senate debate follows the House lead, the impeachment exercise will slump to a snarling, ash-in-mouth end. What should be clear — it is wrong to claim a “stolen” election without evidence, wrong to prod a mob to action with a demagogic speech—will somehow turn muddy in an overwhelmingly partisan vote. Perhaps there is a slight chance the complexion in the Senate will be different.
If so, that would require breaking a very old cycle. Trump’s generation — people born in the 1940s, who came of age in the 1960s, and who dominate public life even now in their seventies — grew up in the wake of what Tom Brokaw memorialized as “The Greatest Generation,” the one that fought WWII as young people and saw the end of the Cold War at the end of their careers. At least in political terms, these Baby Boomers, now late in their own careers, are a contender for the title of Worst Generation. As with worst presidents, there are other candidates. But there aren’t many who argued so much and clarified so little.
Argue about ideological wars, about culture wars, about identity politics, about who is the real victim, about who is divisive, about who is the bigger hypocrite and menace to decency. Trump’s generation — which includes Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush — has been arguing these subjects for more than a half-century. Little surprise that there were raspy versions of the familiar standards in Wednesday’s impeachment debate.
Trump’s is also the generation — one that included Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh — that invented commercialized contempt and a political-media complex that profits on malice, division and indignation. For accounting purposes it does not matter if these are real or feigned.
For most Democrats and ten Republicans who backed impeachment, it seemed plain the disgust and incomprehension on Wednesday were genuine: How is Trump’s post-election behavior not beyond defense?
There were two standard replies. One, with at least a measure of plausibility, came from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who said what Trump did was wrong but that a rushed vote on impeachment for a president who is about to leave is an impractical and divisive remedy. He said he would have backed a resolution of censure, but Democrats weren’t satisfied. With considerable understatement, he said, “I understand for some this call for unity may ring hollow.”
But the main defense of Trump was to practice his own brand of accusation and irrelevant distraction. What about rude things that Robert De Niro, or Madonna, or Kathy Griffin — all called out by Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) — have said about Trump? What about unruly elements of Black Lives Matter? What about the Red Hen restaurant down in Lexington, Va., which did not want to serve Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders?
“Where’s the accountability for the left after encouraging and normalizing violence?” said Rep. Lauren Boebert, also a Colorado Republican. “I call bullcrap when I hear the Democrats demanding unity.”
Boebert is 34 — 40 years younger than Trump — and a reminder that the brand of self-righteous, accusatory politics invented by an older generation is a transferable inheritance.
Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), who is leaving to join Joe Biden’s White House, said Trump’s false claims and erratic behavior during the transition were merely an extension of behavior throughout his presidency. “Simply put, we told you so,” Richmond taunted.
In fairness, an earlier generation of conservatives might also have a claim of told-you-so. This old critique of Baby Boomer culture was that it was too indulgent, too permissive, too willing to blur old lines of right and wrong. Once you start letting standards erode, the line went, you may find that the foundations of a civilized and functional society are more fragile than you knew.
How many Republican leaders, in their private thoughts, might acknowledge that this is fair description of the compromise the GOP made in its embrace of Trump and his brand of disruptive politics?
How many congressional leaders of both parties would acknowledge that letting old standards of institutional respect erode is what often makes life in their branch so unpleasant and unproductive?
In a week, 78-year-old Joe Biden will take office. Among the other most important people in Washington will be 80-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 78-year-old Mitch McConnell, about to go from leading a narrow Senate majority to a narrow Senate minority, and 70-year-old Chuck Schumer, taking over as Senate Majority Leader.
In the closing phase of their careers, perhaps they will decide they wish to take themselves out of the running for the worst generation. The way to do it is by finding something more constructive to do than continuing an argument about Donald Trump.
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