The Democrats are on the brink of a major turning point in the history of American politics. The impeachment proceedings have so far been conducted behind closed doors, but starting this coming week, the proceedings will be broadcast publicly. It’s one thing to read transcripts of hearings and see news reports of testimonies on CNN after the events of the day are over. But it’s an entirely different thing altogether to witness the process first hand as it unfolds, to ride shotgun with the House, to watch the words that will determine the course of American politics for the next several decades come out of the mouths of the politicians in real-time. The moments that are about to unfold will be talked about for generations.
Ther are two ways this could play out. Either the Democrats will successfully draft articles of impeachment, at which point the Senate will hold a trial to determine whether to pass them. Or, they won’t. The likelihood of the second outcome is vanishingly small, not just because of the fact that every other president that has been taken this far down the impeachment rabbit hole has hit the bottom, but because of the fact that the House already has everything they need to put the articles of impeachment through to the Senate. What we are about to witness is about to happen for the purposes of fulfilling precedents set be previous impeachments and for demonstrating publicly that the information the House has already uncovered is true and the sources are trustworthy. But above all, it is about to happen for the purposes of political theater.
Contrary to popular wisdom, the theatrical side of these public hearings is going to be the most important part of the entire impeachment effort. Theater is the most important weapon in the Democrats’ arsenal now. After all, the key facts are known already. We know that Trump withheld aid to Ukraine and refused to release the aid until the Ukrainian president made a public statement using the words “Biden,” “Clinton,” and “investigation.” The president established what Ambassador Taylor called an “irregular” state department backchannel using Rudy Giuliani, coordinated by Mick Mulvaney and Gordon Sondland. There was a quid pro quo. In other words, the president solicited a thing of value from a foreign government for help in a political campaign. By directly suggesting that President Zelensky use Ukraine’s resources to help his reelection efforts, Trump violated campaign finance law. That is impeachable. Those are the facts. But the facts alone are not going to convince anyone, Trump supporter or otherwise, who has already heard them and decided that impeachment is not the way forward. Only a heavy dose of political theater could possibly convince them.
Why is the performance of politics so important, and why does it supersede even the raw, un-bedazzled truth in its power to create the kinds of change that can topple governments?
For one thing, the facts alone are not all that shocking to anyone who gauges political events with common sense hardball tactics: press your advantages, expose your opponent’s weaknesses, break the rules if you can get away with it. The facts are by themselves bland, dull, and boring. Many Americans fail to see what the big deal is. The presentation of the facts matters just as much as the facts themselves, as AG Barr demonstrated when he preemptively exonerated the president before releasing the Mueller report. Before the Mueller report even came out, Americans had largely made up their minds about its contents, and AG Barr’s mischaracterization of the contents of the report was a theatrical attempt at solidifying public opinion against the notion that the Mueller report itself found anything worthy of impeachment in the president’s conduct. In the case of the Ukraine scandal, the Democrats have been driving the presentation of facts, largely from behind closed doors until now. With the doors wide open, they will be able to do what Barr did to the Mueller report, but this time in excruciating detail and with the eyes of the nation on them, watching each witness testify, day after day, in excruciating detail. The Democrats will be able to do more than “connect the dots.” They will be able to pound each dot into the forehead of the American public until even the most unperturbed common sense hardball tactician will feel the moral outrage that facts alone cannot always convey.
For another, the Trump administration’s approach to politics, in general, is theatrical to the core. Trump lives for the spotlight of the live audience, the cameras, the twitter followers. His control over his supporters flows as much from his performance the character of The Donald as it does from his ability to portray characterize his opponents as minor players on the stage he dominates. In these proceedings, however, Trump himself will be unable to control the stage and the players on it. His only way of participating is by abstaining and by pressuring key administration officials to follow suit by ignoring subpoenas. He can also provide commentary during the hearings to try to shape public opinion via twitter in real-time, but rumor has it that the Democrats plan to counter this tactic with their own social media weaponry. Otherwise, he is wholly reliant on House Republicans and related sympathizers in the room to wage his wars for him. That puts him at a severe disadvantage because, if there’s one thing Trump does not like, it is when he can’t control his own image.
But perhaps the greatest power of the theater we are about to witness is its ability to contrast the persistent clarity of the rule of law and the orderly process by which Democrats tell the story of the Ukraine scandal in contrast to the expected chaos and rancor that the Republicans are likely to introduce into the proceedings. This will be a war of images. If all goes according to plan, on the one side will sit the Republicans, raging at the supposed injustice of the entire impeachment effort, and on the other side will sit the Democrats, clear-eyed and calmly prosecuting the president’s wrong doings. The Democrats’ goal will be to win the favor of not only the nation and especially the centrists in swing states who are as yet undecided about their support for the impeachment effort, but the also to win the trust of administration officials who are looking to jump ship and who have not yet found the moment to do so. The Democrats should aim to provide the relatively soft cushion for these officials to land on should they decide to jump, and they will demonstrate their congeniality by their efforts to protect witnesses who step forward to testify, conduct the proceedings fairly and expediently, and by keeping the process as a transparent and open as possible so that any defectors from the administration can trust that their side of the story will be fully heard. If the Democrats can provoke a steady stream of defections from the administration, Trump’s remaining time in office may shink quickly to zero.
The stakes of the performance historically high. If the Democrats are able to pull this off properly, they should be able to win the support of the nation, especially the electorate in swing states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. At the moment, national polls show support for impeachment at around 48%, while those who do not support impeachment poll at around 44%. If support goes up to 55%-60% range, the Senate may start to turn on the president. If the polls indicate support for impeachment in swing states above 60%, that would almost certainly guarantee that the Senate would flip, which would be a death blow to Trump’s presidency.
These are very achievable numbers, but the Democrats have to make sure to play their cards well. The visual theater of the proceedings must compel new witnesses to step forward. They must prepare the stage for defections by disgruntled GOP party members like Florida Congressman Francis Rooney, who said recently, “there are a lot of Republicans who feel varying levels of disquiet at the idea of using American foreign policy power to gin up domestic political investigations.” Of course, since the 2018 midterms, which purged the House GOP of many representatives who were lukewarm about Trump, the Republicans in the House have gotten a whole lot Trumpier, and judging by the party-line vote on the Impeachment process rules, few GOP representatives will jump ship. But the defectors that the Democrats should focus on attracting also include administration officials and staff members. The more people they can put on the stand in front of the cameras to criticize Trump, the more easily they will be able to build the narrative that the GOP is turning against him. If they can win the story-telling game, they might just be able to turn the Senate against Trump and successfully impeach the president.