Impeachment is a political act, and the endgame of the Robert Mueller investigation may not deliver the stark evidence that would remove Donald Trump from office. But last week’s activity on the Mueller beat — the guilty plea from Michael Cohen, the pardon-angling from Paul Manafort, the ongoing Austin Powers antics of Jerome Corsi and Roger Stone — is further confirmation that Trump is one of the most impeachable presidents we’ve ever had.
It isn’t just that he’s already implicated in actions (for instance, paying off a porn-star mistress in possible violation of campaign-finance laws) that a hostile Congress might reasonably cite as a reason for impeachment. It’s that the whole Trump operation, now lying exposed on Mueller’s table — the shady business empire, the constant practice of deceit, the dim-bulb hangers-on — screams corruption in a way that few politicians’ circles do. With Trump there is no pretense of respectability or rectitude. There is only the open, shrugging grift.
This shrug makes it hard for his critics to fathom how the Trump campaign ever persuaded anyone that its candidate would actually “drain the swamp.” Some of the liberal fixation with fake news reflects an attempt to explain Trump’s anti-corruption pitch as just a fraud that voters swallowed (or were force-fed by the Russians). And indeed, a portion of Trump’s supporters choose to live the fantasy worlds of Pizzagate and QAnon, where the most impeachable of presidents is as a white knight taking on a fictive ring of pedophiles.
But the more common reason a certain kind of Trump supporter accepted his anti-corruption pitch was less conspiratorial and more cynical. He’s bad, but they’re all like that; the whole elite class is rotten, so why not send a grifter to catch a bunch of grifters?
That hasn’t worked out; it turns out that when you send a businessman-grifter into the world of political grifters he hires some of the worst of them to help him with the fleecing.
But there is one odd way in which Trump’s supporters have gotten what they wanted. Trump isn’t draining the swamp himself, but the shock of his ascent has created swamp-draining conditions — in which other corruptions have suddenly been exposed, and there have been many deserved falls from grace.
This exposure has vindicated some of the public cynicism that made Trump’s rise possible — because in many cases the newly-exposed scandals were open secrets, known to those in the know, and in some cases they were as baroquely grotesque as any Reddit fantasy. (Like, what if Harvey Weinstein’s whole movie empire was just a procurement agency, and what if he hired ex-Mossad agents to stalk one of the stars of “Charmed” …?)
Some of these scandals might have come out under any president. But Trump has clearly been a catalyst: The sense of moral crisis created by his ascent, the sense of moral outrage felt by women, especially, and the finger-pointing within a divided, freaked-out establishment has made it easier to acknowledge rot in meritocracy, and to purge the grossest examples from our entitled class.
In fact our elite is rotten and deserves judgment, yet Trump’s mix of kleptocracy and kakistocracy is worse. So the question of how you replace a bad elite with a better one, not just with something more corrupt, is what both left and right should be pondering while this particular purgation runs its course.