As the walls slowly close in on Donald Trump, his apologists are getting more creative.
Some of the most outlandish among them are trying to out the whistleblower, question the loyalty of a decorated military hero, and compare the impeachment process to a “coup” or a “Soviet-style show trial.”
Those lines of attack may play well in the fever swamps, but they are otherwise laughably easy to swat down.
What troubles me are the more insidious arguments.
Here’s one that caught my eye this week: Appearing on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Fox News’ senior political analyst Brit Hume suggested that Donald Trump’s extortion of Ukraine was just the result of his “bluster” and inexperience.
“It’s so like this president to kind of lay about himself, and demanding this and demanding that, and saying people are treasonous, and saying they ought to be fired and they ought to go to jail, and the rest of it. And a lot of it is just bluster,” Hume explained. “It’s just bluster on his part.”
In this paradigm, Trump is just a big kid who means well and can be forgiven for not really knowing what he’s playing with. Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations! But it didn’t stop there.
“He’s inexperienced in foreign affairs,” Hume reasoned, “so he’s on the phone with some leader and he has this rambling kind of disconnected conversation in which he says you need to do me a favor, and then he mentions some things, and then later on he says, you know, we need to investigate and see about the Bidens. Well, maybe he meant that as a quid pro quo, maybe he didn’t.”
Where to begin?
Donald Trump has been president for almost three years. To suggest that he is still “inexperienced in foreign affairs” is, itself, an assertion arguably more disqualifying than corruption.
Infantilizing the President of the United States of America is hardly a defense, but it has worked before. During the Mueller probe, Jared Kushner argued that the Trump campaign was too incompetent to collude. The new mantra seems to be that the president is too inexperienced to extort (which is bad news for us, because he is also Too Legit to Quit). It’s not clear how Trump (who watches a lot of TV) even feels about Hume’s defense.
As Asawin Suebsaeng reported in The Daily Beast, Trump was angry when The Wall Street Journal editorial board suggested he “was too inept to execute” a quid pro quo, adding: “Impeachment for incompetence would disqualify most of the government, and most presidents at some point or another in office.”
But my real concern isn’t about the proliferation of the “too stupid to impeach,” narrative, but about what else Hume’s cavalier attitude suggests—that the real adults are the ones grading on a curve, while those who expect a president to not be corrupt are being unreasonable, or, at least, naive.
This is not limited to Fox News. The other day, I had lunch with a Republican friend who is not what you would call a Trump fan. Still, when the topic of impeachment came up, he dismissed it with a yawn. Sure, he conceded, Trump is guilty, but “so what?” All politicians are corrupt, and besides, it’s not like we were expecting Trump to be a paragon of ethics.
It’s one thing for someone to believe that there was no quid pro quo. Evidence to the contrary could conceivably change that opinion. But what do you do with someone who simply doesn’t think it’s a big deal for the president to extort a foreign government and invite them to meddle in our elections?
The consequences of this are serious. If Trump survives, he will be emboldened to continue. What is more, what kind of precedent and incentives will we establish for his successor?
Our postmodern cynicism is such that even people who tacitly concede that Trump lacks the temperament and experience to be president are still left basically saying: “That’s just Trump being Trump. What’re ya gonna do?”
This is why survey results where 61 percent of Americans say Trump “has little or no respect for the country’s democratic institutions and traditions” aren’t really predictive. This may not be a deal-breaker for a society who doesn’t expect much of her leaders.
You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that reads, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” But what happens to a civilization whose citizens are paying attention, but find themselves comfortably numb?
When acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney stood on stage, conceded a quid pro quo, and shouted, “get over it,” I took that to be an unwise admission of guilt.
It turns out, however, it wasn’t an admission at all. It was an order. And one that all too many people seem willing to follow.