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The 431 members of the U.S. House of Representatives who are about to cast a vote on impeachment are doing more than handing down a verdict on President Donald Trump. They are setting the conversation for the 2020 election, they are giving new form to the American political system and they are shaping the country’s history.

With the insertion of a digital vote card in an electronic reader, these lawmakers will determine Mr. Trump’s fate and fix the place of the 45th president in public memory for a generation.

Some of them are capital power brokers, some of them are strictly local figures, some of them rodeo announcers or welders or funeral home directors, each of them representing populations smaller than that of Mississauga. Eighty-seven of them are in only their 11th month in office, while four have been in office for more than a third of a century. More than a hundred of them are women, seven-eighths of them Christians.

These momentarily powerful figures will determine how future presidents and future Congresses deal with each other, though not one of them can foresee the eventualities that will prompt those two great branches of democratic government to clash in the years to come.

And, as the one lawmaker who has been in office since the 1974 drive to impeach Richard Nixon and the 71 who’ve been around since the actual 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton can soberly attest, these House members will determine their own futures before their constituents and before history.

They will decide whether Mr. Trump is remembered in the same shameful sentence as the reviled Andrew Johnson, impeached by revanchist Radical Republicans who thought Abraham Lincoln’s successor did not believe sufficiently in Reconstruction and was merely a racist in an office he inherited, or in the same breath as Mr. Clinton, impeached by a Republican-controlled House over charges stemming from a tawdry tryst in America’s most sacred office suite.

Only one effect of the hurtle to impeachment is sure: it will set in motion forces that will move through the American system in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways.

The 19th-century impeachment of Mr. Johnson, who survived Senate conviction by a single vote, permitted Reconstruction to continue but not with the forward momentum and the liberation and reconciliation its authors devoutly desired. The drive to impeach Mr. Nixon set in motion strong waves of campaign-finance overhaul, but money is a bigger factor in 21st-century American politics than it ever was in the 20th century, and the decade-old Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court assured that would continue to be the case. The impeachment of Mr. Clinton brought issues of the family dining room – loyalty, marital fidelity, the imperative of telling the truth – to the House floor, but decades from now it might be seen as the first breath of the #MeToo movement.

Each impeachment is different, reflecting its era, its leaders’ personalities and impulses and its media’s technology. There was, for example, only one narrative in the Johnson case (Southerners who might have been his supporters didn’t have a voice because they were essentially in a conquered land without congressional representation), in the Nixon case (most media outlets went with the same reporting norms and the same assumptions about evidence) and even in the Clinton case (no one defended the President’s actions with Monica Lewinsky).

None of that is true in the Trump case. The impeachment issue has created new flashpoints, such as when the President sent out a withering tweet about a witness even as she testified in the House Intelligence Committee’s preliminary sessions and when the House Judiciary Committee summarized the case against Mr. Trump in fewer than 1,500 words – an apt exposition in an era of sound bites and short attention spans.

The votes in the Trump case have not been cast and the voices have not been stilled, but there is almost no set of circumstances that will change an outcome that has been known from the very start of these proceedings.

Though these lawmakers will file into the Capitol to make a choice that likely will be the most consequential of their careers, virtually all the Democrats – outraged at the President’s conduct, sure that he is unfit for office – will vote to impeach, while almost every Republican – arguing at least in public that the whole process is a sham designed to overturn the election of a chief executive his rivals fear and hold in contempt – will vote against the measure.

That is a huge departure in only two decades. Though most of the impeachment votes in the Clinton case were along party lines, 81 Republicans voted against one impeachment article, which was eventually put aside. And though it was Democrats who prosecuted the case against Mr. Nixon in the Senate Watergate committee and later in the House Judiciary Committee that drew up the articles of impeachment against a GOP president, six of the 17 Republicans on the House committee voted in favour of those writs. Furthermore, it was a delegation of Republican grandees, including Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania (the Senate Republican leader) and Barry Goldwater of Arizona (the party’s presidential nominee before Mr. Nixon), who in August, 1974, persuaded the President to resign.

And yet for an event stripped of any mystery, the imminent impeachment vote is freighted with drama and fresh questions.

Some of these questions are short-term. Have the Democrats erred by focusing on July 25, 2019 (the date Mr. Trump called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky), when the real contest for power might be Nov. 3, 2020 (Election Day)? And will their zeal to impeach only empower Mr. Trump to win another four-year term in November? Conversely, did the Republicans’ lock-step support of a president many of them privately distrust and disdain tar them as sycophants and lead them to defeat at the polls?

Broader questions loom. Will the third drive in less than six decades to impeach a president normalize a procedure long regarded as a forbidding last resort? Or will it frighten future lawmakers from entering its uncertain gates again? Will this impeachment be the end of the national dispute over what constitutes the truth or the beginning of a long national colloquy on this vital question?

Only a decade ago that was a settled matter, understood by conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats alike. Indeed it was Daniel Patrick Moynihan – the very personification of bipartisanship, a Harvard scholar employed in the Nixon White House but later elected to the Senate from New York as a Democrat – who offered the most important aphorism of the age: everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

Quoted repeatedly by U.S. political figures of all stripes and both parties for years, its meaning is clear: take any stand you like, but don’t forget that facts stand on their own.

That aphorism has been repealed by both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government – and by many members of the press, especially on cable television and online.

But as the two sides prepare to collide on the House floor in twin displays of outrage that will produce few defectors, another aphorism comes to mind, this one from Polish poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec: no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.

By acting together, the members of the House may be snowflakes in an avalanche. But they will be held responsible – some for prosecuting an innocent president, some for tolerating a guilty president – by a jury of voters and then by a jury of historians. This week’s impeachment vote may hold no drama, but it is incontrovertible that it will set new dramas in motion. The U.S. politics of tomorrow may not be visible this week, but they are gathering force.

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