Tumbling toward impeachment, Richard Nixon recognized the reality of collapsing political support and became the only American president to quit the office. A generation later, when the House voted to impeach Bill Clinton, the president oscillated between apologies for his Oval Office behavior and fervent pleas for Americans to turn away from “the politics of personal destruction.”
As the House voted Wednesday evening to impeach Donald Trump, the president was staging a defiant campaign rally in Michigan.
Facing a historic rebuke by the Democratic-controlled House, Trump has countered with an exaggerated version of his lifelong approach to conflict, aiming to win by dividing. He has slammed his opponents in lurid language. He has urged his supporters to wage battle against those who sneer and scoff at them and their beloved president. And he has expressed zero remorse.
If the other two impeachment processes of the past 45 years were marked by a certain solemnity, by members of Congress struggling publicly with their consciences and, in some cases, crossing party lines to vote against their president, the Trump impeachment is like the Trump presidency — a deliberate disruption of the way things have always been done.
The Trump impeachment has been a hurtling, one-party dash through the constitutional process, taking place in a startlingly accelerated media whirlpool before a starkly divided audience of Americans who are alternately exhausted by the country’s political divisions and energized by their journeys to ideological extremes.
This impeachment looks and feels different from the Nixon and Clinton messes: Even as the two Americas, red and blue, have dug in against each other, they have paid less attention to the possible removal of their chief executive. Even as a presidency faces its ultimate crisis, the political rhetoric remains far more bellicose than inspiring or instructive. And even as investigations and hearings go through the motions of finding out what the president really did, the country seems not an inch closer to any consensus about the facts.
Since the launch of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry in September, public opinion on the merits of removing Trump from office has moved hardly at all, according to myriad polls over the past three months. That stands in sharp contrast with the past two impeachment processes, when Nixon’s popularity plummeted and Clinton’s surged as voters’ minds were changed and emotions shifted.
This time, America is locked in. The battle lines were drawn long ago, in most cases well before Trump even took office. Chris Cannon, a former Republican congressman from Utah who served as a House impeachment manager during the Clinton proceedings, said the country is now divided into two dueling factions — the “I’m going to wear my MAGA hat and punch you in the face if you disagree” group and the “I’m going to punch you in the face because of your MAGA hat” group.
That political and cultural gulf virtually guarantees that this impeachment cannot end with any consensus like the one that emerged after the proceedings against Nixon and Clinton — that the system had worked.
Then, facts emerged through House investigations that led large majorities of the public to accept a single narrative about the president’s actions.
This time, however, a certain hopelessness has pervaded the process.
Lanny Breuer, who was special counsel to Clinton during his impeachment and later served as assistant attorney general during the Obama administration, saw a sadly accurate reflection of that hopelessness on “Saturday Night Live,” which last week aired a sketch depicting pro- and anti-Trump families sitting down to dinner conversations that reflected diametrically opposing views of reality.
“People are always saying that these politicians are going to have a hard time looking their grandchildren in the face. But, really, not one of them will ever have to explain this to their grandkids,” Breuer said. “Everybody will be proud of what they did. That’s how divided we are. And that’s not new: John McCain voted to impeach Clinton, and nobody says that’s a blot on Senator McCain’s memory.”
Impeachment is by design a last-ditch tool for dealing with a presidency gone terribly wrong, so it naturally involves a certain amount of bitterness and sadness. Yet the Nixon and Clinton impeachment efforts had the nation glued to TV sets. The Trump matter has proved to be a much less powerful magnet.
The House vote on Clinton in 1998 was a TV ratings bonanza. CNN recorded its highest numbers since the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building three years earlier, and Fox News, then the laggard among the three cable news outlets, scored its highest ratings since the channel debuted in 1996. On CBS, news anchor Dan Rather interrupted a Buffalo Bills-New York Jets game nine times to update his audience on the progress of the House votes.
The ratings for this fall’s congressional hearings have been healthy but far from record-setting. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll found that 62 percent of Americans said they were closely following this impeachment story, a sharp drop from the 82 percent who said they closely followed Clinton’s impeachment.
At the other end of the spectrum, 18 percent say they are not following Trump’s impeachment too closely and 20 percent say they are not following it at all. In 1998, only 5 percent reported paying no attention.
“Even I don’t watch this stuff,” said retired congressman David E. Bonior, a Democrat from Michigan who was the House minority whip during the Clinton impeachment. “If it bores me, and I’m a political person, it’s going to really bore a lot of other people.”
Bonior attributed the shift to the decline of traditional news outlets and the ascendancy of social media. Many Americans are now channeled into information silos, making it far easier for them to view impeachment as either the witch hunt Trump claims it is or the righteous reaction to a rogue president that many Democrats perceive.
This impeachment also seems to lack the gravity of the previous two processes, at least according to some who lived through those times.
“We weren’t as divided back then,” Bonior said. “You could always find people to work with on the other side who were fair. The process was very solemn, in part because there was much more respect for government then.”
The Clinton impeachment debate led some lawmakers to vote against their president — an act that today might get them drummed out of the party, said Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia who was one of the first to seek Clinton’s ouster.
“It wasn’t hugely bipartisan back then,” Barr said, “but given the absolute absence of bipartisanship now, it was something worth noting. Now, you’re a pariah if you simply disagree with your party, whether it’s the Republicans pushing out Justin Amash or the Democrats turning on Jeff Van Drew.” Amash, a House member from Michigan, left the GOP and became an independent after calling for Trump’s impeachment. Van Drew, a Democrat from New Jersey who opposes impeachment, plans to join the Republican Party.
“I don’t remember this constant anger that we see now,” Barr said.
Others warn against waxing too nostalgic about any comity surrounding the Clinton impeachment.
“Let’s not overstate the amount of struggling with conscience from last time. It was pretty damned partisan,” Breuer said. “I don’t remember there being a roadblock every minute, with everyone so angry like now. But we were already heading down this road.”
Cannon also challenged the idea that the debate back then took place on a higher plane.
“When was America civil?” he asked, listing examples of partisan warfare starting with the very first Congress more than two centuries ago. “What we’re seeing now is a petty struggle for power in Washington instead of focusing on governance, and that same thing happened from the very beginnings of our country. It always boils down to ‘I want power.’ ”
In 1998, Cannon argued that Clinton’s lies and misbehavior was a threat to the survival of American democracy: “What we do here will set the standard for what is acceptable for this and future presidents,” he said on the House floor.
A generation later, Cannon says Clinton’s impeachment left a trail of bitterness, even as it built sympathy for a beleaguered president.
“We gave people who already didn’t like Clinton more reason not to like him,” Cannon said, “but it’s pretty clear that we only improved Clinton’s popularity. Being an impeachment manager was miserable. It took years for even my friends to see me as anything but unduly harsh.”
The lack of movement in public opinion today stems in part from the fact that “we are two camps, frozen in place,” Barr said. But he argued that it is also a result of the difference in subject matter in this impeachment.
Nixon’s crimes were literally caught on tape and included the burglary of his opponents’ headquarters and all manner of scheming to cover up his acts. “The issues in the Clinton matter were far more relatable — lying, perjury, sex,” Barr said. “This time, you have issues the average voter can’t relate to. The average voter would have trouble finding Ukraine on a map or knowing what a whistleblower is.”
Americans have become so jaded that misdeeds that once had the power to shock across ideological lines now seem to have little or no impact.
“This time,” Cannon said, “you have a guy who said he’d grab women by the privates, and America looks at that and says that’s locker room trash talk, and they elect him. So nothing can shock the American people about him. So they judge him on the issues, and the issues are pretty good for him. There’s so much coarseness now, it makes you want to cry.”
In 2016, Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania flipped from blue to red, from a 12-point margin for President Barack Obama in 2012 to a 20-point victory for Trump. This week, the county has reflected the country’s divisions, with dueling demonstrations on the streets of Wilkes-Barre, as Trump supporters waved signs saying “Drain the Swamp” and “Four More Years” and the president’s opponents assembled across the street.
“No matter what side you’re on, it’s all people are talking about,” said Ron Ferrance, the former chairman of the county’s Republican Party. “The people who supported Trump last time are even more dug in, and people in the middle are jumping in because they see the Democrats’ motives being so partisan. And my friends across the aisle are just as strong as ever against him.”
Ferrance sighed over the loss of the consensus that once prevailed where he lives but said that the president’s defiant style, though too coarse for his taste, nonetheless mirrors the state of the nation.
“It’d be great if we could go back to when you passed people on the street and everybody said hello, but it’s a little more selfish times now,” he said. “This is our new normal. If this wasn’t what the country is now, he wouldn’t have been elected.”