On Wednesday the President was impeached. On Thursday the Democrats who want to take his place debated. On Friday the country rested, or tried to.
In 27 frenzied and fraught hours of conflict and consequence this week, the United States lunged from one spectacle to another and, like every conversation around the dinner table, dais or debate stage, the topic was Donald J. Trump. So ubiquitous in American life is he that if, in the increasingly unlikely event that he is convicted in a Senate trial and retreats in disgrace to one of his resort enclaves, 330 million people below the 49th parallel would have nothing to talk about.
But those 27 hours assured that the conversation will not cease across America, at least for now. The impeachment debate on the House floor and the Democratic debate across the continent in Los Angeles reflected the continental-size divides in the country – and the debate in each forum had hauntingly similar rhetorical elements:
Quotes from the 18th-century Founding Fathers. Assertions that even presidents are not above the law. Charges of corruption. Questions about whether impeachment was a matter of enduring issues of law or mere elements of contemporary politics. Demands for the testimony of the principals who did not appear before the House intelligence and judiciary committees.
Indeed, it was Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont who achieved the difficult double axle of the politics of the age. “We have a president,’’ he said, “who is a pathological liar [and] is running the most corrupt administration in the modern history of our country.’’
The relationship between the two events – the impeachment and the struggle to select a Democratic standard-bearer for the 2020 election – has been clear since the effort to drive Mr. Trump from office began this autumn.
For two months, for example, allies of Mr. Trump – the only impeached president to run for re-election – have been airing ads in the critical political state of Virginia railing against the impeachment, describing it as a ‘’rigged process’’ and as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “witch hunt.’’ Since the formal impeachment effort began, the Trump team and Republican groups have spent US$17-million attacking the process.
In the House debate Wednesday, Republicans cited the Trump economic boom – and exactly 24 hours after the impeachment vote, the seven Democratic candidates challenged the notion that the economy was a Trump asset. ‘’We have an economy that works great for people who have money,’’ said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, ‘’but doesn’t work for anyone else.’’
But all that happened in those crowded hours likely changed few minds in a nation undergoing vast change, much of it propelled by the social disruptions prompted by the information revolution and by the political changes prompted by the Trump insurgency. From the beginning of the House debate on Capitol Hill to the last verbal conflicts of the debate in California, the views of Americans – exhausted but perhaps energized by the stakes in next November’s election – likely were more affirmed than altered.
Mr. Trump was only the fourth president to face impeachment and, like his predecessors, his struggle for survival comes at a time of enormous change.
Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 as the country struggled with post-Civil War reconstruction. Richard Nixon faced impeachment (and resigned before the House could act) in the year after American conscription ended and legal abortion was affirmed by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. Bill Clinton was impeached as the country changed the way it organized knowledge and communicated and in the year that 224 were killed in twin U.S. embassy terrorist bombings. Mr. Trump’s impeachment itself stands as an event of great disruption.
Participation in Thursday’s debate – punctuated by harsh confrontation between Ms. Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., on whether candidates should seek contributions from the wealthy and by animated conflict between Mr. Sanders and former vice-president Joseph R. Biden Jr. on health care – was determined by poll results and contribution numbers. The result was a panel that included fewer than half the remaining Democratic candidates. The lone surprise and curiosity of the impeachment vote came from presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who voted “present” on both articles but because of the restrictions on participation was not present on the debate stage Thursday.
In that debate, entrepreneur Tom Steyer described Mr. Trump as ‘’a different, unconventional president.’’ Bill Clinton, who was impeached almost exactly 21 years to the day before Mr. Trump faced the same fate, felt shame from his impeachment. In a raucous rally in Michigan, Mr. Trump had a different approach. “Crazy Nancy Pelosi’s House Democrats have branded themselves with an eternal mark of shame.” That was as much a preview of the election to come as the Democrats’ debate a day later.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.