The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The irony in Democrats’ impeachment position

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announces a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

There’s an undeniable irony in the current Democratic position. The base has been crying for impeachment since roughly 10 minutes after President Trump took office, with their elected representatives quivering on the starting line, waiting for some inarguably grave and sufficiently provable offense to serve as the starting pistol. After years of false starts, their most plausible casus belli turns out to be . . . Trump’s (alleged) attempt to use U.S. military aid to pressure Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, presumably in hopes of hamstringing his main political rival.

Unless the Ukrainian story falls apart, then the irony of investigating a political rival for a grubbier and more explicit version of what you yourself are doing will be much-remarked in coming weeks mostly by conservatives frantic to deny the other side a win. It’s fair to chuckle at Democratic expense, but after all, life is full of such ironies. Perverse realities may justify a certain tragic outlook but not utter paralysis in the face of possibly perverted justice.

Conservatives certainly have a right to demand strong evidence, in the form of open congressional testimony rather than anonymous leaks to the media. They’re not entitled to adopt radical skepticism, in which it’s impossible to ever know anything at all for certain, and therefore safe to ignore any messenger who brings unwelcome news. Nasty surprises may await when reality finally pierces the carefully curated fantasy.

However, the bigger danger for conservatives is a different philosophical blunder, known as the sorites paradox. Attributed to Eubulides of Miletus, a contemporary of Aristotle, the paradox involves a heap of sand. And what is a heap? If we put one grain of sand on another, is that a heap? Obviously not. And if we add another grain, is it now a heap?

Adding a single grain of sand shouldn’t by itself turn a non-heap into a heap. But repeat the single-grain procedure enough times, and something suspiciously heap-like will result. At some point we’d be fools to keep insisting, with each addition, nope, still not a heap.

So far, conservatives have been saved from this fate by the #Resistance rushes to judgment. Though Trump scandals inevitably stir Watergate comparisons, so far, they’ve almost exactly inverted the Ur-Scandal. Watergate was a minor burglary that escalated into a presidential resignation precisely because each successive revelation was worse than the last. With Trump, by contrast, the left followed a variation on the strategy of Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” — “Sentence first — verdict afterwards.” And so we began a couple of years ago by hearing that Trump had indubitably committed high treason and finished by establishing that some of his campaign staff had dabbled in campaign finance violations and tax fraud.

The Ukraine story is the first to actually follow the Watergate pattern — thus far. If we end up finding out that the worst is true one tiny revelation at a time, conservatives may be tempted to meet each incremental discovery with “That one fact can’t establish a high crime or misdemeanor” . . . until they have slowly backed into defending what they would never have countenanced at the start.

So this seems a good time for them to ask themselves a question: Where do they draw the line with Trump?

It’s reasonable to remain skeptical now, but at some point it may not be. What then? Unreasonably endorse using taxpayer money to blackmail foreign governments into messing with U.S. elections? If that’s where we end up with Trump (today still very much an “if”), will conservatives risk the cost to their country of legitimizing shameless corruption, the moral and reputational cost of pretzeling their own principles, and the risk of political blowback from an American public that might just be naive enough to care?

Of course, Democrats have their own conundrums to resolve, starting with the fact that Trump may well want to be impeached. More worrisome is their own eagerness for the fray. After so many years of waiting, they’re ready for Impeachment Now! — yesterday, in fact. And thus they risk repeating the very Queen of Hearts strategy that taught conservatives to assume it would always get easier over time to defend the president, rather than harder.

Democratic leadership failed to convince the base that what they really want is not impeachment, but political advantage — or at least a decisive repudiation of the past three years — rather than a failed Senate trial that only reinforces the current political division.

The best way to get there is probably Impeachment Later — a thoughtful pause that would give conservatives time for soul-searching, and the heap of evidence time to grow. But after stalling the base for so long, House Democrats are probably too exhausted to hold out that much longer.

Twitter: @asymmetricinfo

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Read more:

Megan McArdle: When will Trump supporters finally say, ‘Okay, this is not normal’?

Robert Kagan: If we legitimize Trump’s behavior, it’ll be open season on our politics

The Post’s View: Congress, don’t fall into this trap

Mike Murphy: I’m a Republican. Let’s force the question of impeachment with the GOP.

Eugene Robinson: Trump is practically begging for impeachment. Give it to him, already.