For the last two weeks, Republican Texas Congressman Will Hurd sat with his colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee and listened to a stunning story of presidential abuse of power — told by the kind of folks who must have seemed like a mirror image of Hurd’s patriotic past life as a CIA agent.
Like once-obscure, now-star impeachment inquiry witnesses Marie Yovanovitch, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Fiona Hill, Hurd emerged from middle-class origins as a top student who went into government service and developed a strong sense of duty, spending years as a U.S. undercover agent in Pakistan, growing a long beard and speaking the native Urdu. Elected to Congress in 2014, Hurd quickly developed a reputation as one of the most moderate Republicans on Capitol Hill, with a passion for bipartisan issues like cybersecurity. He even joined with mostly Democrats to condemn President Trump after the president called African nations “shithole countries.”
Now, as one of several dozen GOP House members deciding not to seek reelection in 2020, which some see as a rebuke to Trump, Hurd was viewed by Democrats as a leading indicator on whether any Republicans will support impeaching the 45th president, which in turn might predict whether there was even a remote chance of getting the 20 GOP Senate votes needed for removal. But after hearing the testimony, Hurd wasn’t having it.
The ex-CIA man said during Thursday’s session he was dismayed by what he called “bungling” in American foreign policy, but he quickly added he wasn’t seeing withholding congressionally approved security aid or a White House visit to pressure the Ukrainian president for dirt on a 2020 campaign rival as a high crime, let alone a misdemeanor. “An impeachable offense should be compelling, overwhelming, clear and unambiguous,” Hurd said. “And it’s not something to be rushed or taken lightly. I’ve not heard evidence proving the president committed bribery or extortion.”
Hurd’s comments were not a fluke. His fellow GOP moderate on the panel, Rep. Elise Stefanik of upstate New York, is now apparently a former moderate after aggressive pro-Trump questioning. Her extreme makeover led to a sharp rebuke from a home-district paper that had once endorsed her but now ripped her as “becoming more partisan, more disingenuous and irrational.”
On Friday, a Philadelphia-area Republican — Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Bucks County — with a reputation for breaking from Trump on occasion told reporters he saw no reason to vote for impeachment, even for a president who routinely attacks the FBI, where Fitzpatrick once worked. “There’s no reason we can’t refer this to law enforcement,” he insisted.
The average American was seeking clarity from two weeks of high-stakes public hearings — and got more than they bargained for. Yes, it’s now clear that the president directed a quid pro quo scheme in the hopes that Ukraine would investigate Democratic front-runner Joe Biden. But the real clarity was that a Republican Party that once had the curiosity to ask, what did the president know and when did he know it, in 2019 simply doesn’t want to know, period. That includes even GOPers like Fitzpatrick and Hurd, trained to look for crimes or when U.S. interests are at risk.
Impeachment week turned out to be both monumental and weird at the same time. Democrats who’ve said that Trump is singularly unfit to serve as the American president since he first announced in 2015 were practically giddy as witness after witness tied Trump to a transparently unlawful scheme with elements of bribery and extortion. Yet unlike those Watergate hearings in 1973 and 1974, no minds were changed, on Capitol Hill or in the American heartland.
A few weeks ago, as the facts on the Ukraine affair emerged and were confirmed and reconfirmed by witnesses and notes of the president’s own words, I wrote a column with the headline, “About 50 Republicans are going to decide whether America becomes a dictatorship.” In it, I explained that any votes to impeach Trump would probably need about 30 votes from House GOP moderates — people like Hurd, Stefanik, and Fitzpatrick — to have momentum and a kind of legitimacy to persuade the necessary 20 Senate Republicans to convict. The party, I wrote, “is really the one thing left standing between democracy and dictatorship” — between a nation ruled by laws, or by fealty to a bullying autocrat.
It pains me to sound so pessimistic, because there’s been a lot this November to feel good about — the reminders that America has many good and patriotic public servants, that some still have the courage to speak the truth, and that a president’s lack of respect for both the rule of law and common decency has now been exposed. But for the long-term fate of the Republic, the utter state of denial from these Republicans tells a more important, and disturbing, story than the truth-telling of a parade of honest, duty-bound witnesses.
How did we go from Watergate to this mess? The facts of the high crimes and misdemeanors committed by Richard Nixon look shockingly similar to those now ascribed to Donald Trump, but they were released into two different planets with different atmospheres. The posturing and conspiracy theorizing of Rep. Devin Nunes, the committee’s ranking Republican, would have been universally ridiculed back in 1973, when the hearings aired on four networks and were reported in small towns by thriving newspapers.
But from the ashes of Watergate grew a separate right-wing media infrastructure — the fever dream of former Nixon aide and future Fox News founder Roger Ailes and business lobbyist and future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell — that only metastasized with the birth of the internet. As BuzzFeed News’ Ryan Broderick ably noted in a piece last week, the Looney Tunes conspiracy mongering by Nunes or the tough-sounding but empty questioning by Stefanik were repackaged into Facebook posts and segments airing in prime time on Fox News that echoed within a conservative bubble with no oxygen for dissent.
Even the GOP’s handful of former centrists know that if they pop this bubble, they will suffocate politically. Even someone like Hurd, who isn’t running for reelection, still worries that his future — as a lobbyist or TV pundit or whatever — isn’t viable if he challenges Trump.
The extreme ideological sorting of the two parties that occurred during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s means that, for conservatives, any Democrat — even a milquetoast one like Biden — poses a greater threat than a lying, power-abusing Republican like Trump. Weirdly, Trump himself has only been a Republican for less than two decades. But what the former reality-TV star has always been is a narcissistic egomaniac — a dangerous demagogue-in-waiting.
In the 21st century, a growing body of political science research has emerged showing that the Number One factor driving polarization in America, and increasingly the life force of those sorting themselves into the Republican Party, is support for authoritarianism. As Vox noted in early 2016 as the rest of America struggled to grasp the rise of Trump, this trend would lead “many Americans to seek out a strongman leader who would preserve a status quo they feel is under threat and impose order on a world they perceive as increasingly alien.”
In other words, these voters were waiting for a Trump to come along. One could argue that his ascension three years ago was the inevitable climax of a generations-long societal crack-up, But it felt like the real denouement of this story came last week, when formerly sensible politicians like Hurd, Stefanik and Fitzpatrick chose to obey their party’s “final, most essential demand” to ignore the truth, to profess in public that they loved Big Brother.
With last week’s high drama in Washington, there has been much talk of what will happen in January 2020, when an impeachment trial — amid the backdrop of the Democratic presidential primaries, no less — galvanizes the nation’s capital. But any trial held with one party completely in thrall to a dictator is certain to be a sham.
Again, sorry for the darkness, but I’m already thinking — with a great deal of dread — toward February 2020 and beyond. We’ve already seen how one failed attempt to hold Trump accountable — the botched efforts of special counsel Robert Mueller — emboldened the president to pressure a foreign country to interfere in the 2020 race. That’s in addition to rash moves like impulsively pulling troops from Syria without warning our sitting-duck Kurdish allies, or defying the Pentagon to pardon American war criminals.
With Trump’s Roy Cohn-inspired Attorney General William Barr acting as his authoritarian wingman, who can even predict how far a GOP-acquitted Trump will go next spring in retaliating against public servants that he and his angry mob have branded as “the Deep State” or the journalists he calls “the enemies of the people” — or in encouraging Vladimir Putin or other bad actors to meddle in his reelection?
No, the challenge for 2020 seems increasingly less about how to prosecute a president’s bribery and extortion, or even how to defeat such a bad actor in a general election, but whether America can figure out how to deprogram a cult before it’s far too late.