Wednesday’s impeachment of Donald Trump was neither a surprise nor a turning point. We’ve known for weeks that the House would vote to impeach. We also know, as surely as we can know anything in politics, that a Republican-controlled Senate won’t convict Trump and remove him from office; it may not even pretend to consider the evidence. So it would be easy to be cynical about the whole thing.
But that’s not how it felt. For me, and no doubt for millions of my fellow citizens, Wednesday was a very emotional day — a day of both despair and hope.
The reasons for despair are obvious. We could so easily lose everything America is supposed to stand for. The birthplace of liberty may very well be just months away from abandoning all its ideals.
But there were also reasons for hope.
The enemies of freedom are, it turns out, as shameless and corrupt here as they are in nations, from Hungary to Turkey, in which democracy has effectively collapsed. But the defenders of American democracy seem more united and determined than their counterparts abroad. The big question is whether that difference — that true American exceptionalism — will be enough to save us.
Let’s back up and ask what we’ve learned about America over the past three years.
There was never any doubt that Trump would abuse his powers; he telegraphed his contempt for rule of law, his eagerness to exploit his office for personal gain, right from the start. For a while, however, it was possible to imagine that at least part of his party would stand up for democratic principles.
But it was not to be. What we saw Wednesday was a parade of sycophants comparing their leader to Jesus Christ while spouting discredited conspiracy theories straight from the Kremlin. And as they were doing so, the object of their adoration was giving an endless, rambling, third-world-dictator-style speech, full of lies, that veered between grandiosity and self-pity, interspersed with complaints about how many times he has to flush his toilet.
Republicans, in other words, are beyond redemption; they’ve become just another authoritarian party devoted to the leader principle. And like similar parties in other countries, the GOP is trying to rig future elections through gerrymandering and voter suppression, creating a permanent lock on power.
But if Trump’s supporters look just like their counterparts in failed democracies abroad, his opponents don’t.
One of the depressing aspects of the rise of authoritarian parties like Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice has been the fecklessness of their opposition — disunited, disorganized, unable to make an effective challenge even to unpopular autocrats as they consolidated their power.
Trumpism, however, faced determined, united, effective opposition from the beginning, which has been reflected both in mass marches and in Democratic electoral victories. In 2017 there were only 15 Democratic governors, compared with 35 Republicans; today the score is 24 to 26. And last year, of course, Democrats won a landslide victory in House elections, which is what made the impeachment hearing and vote possible.
Many of the new Democratic members of Congress are in Republican-leaning districts, and some observers expected a significant number to defect Wednesday. Instead, the party held together almost completely. True, so did its opponents; but while Republicans sounded, well, deranged in their defense of Trump, Democrats came across as sober and serious, determined to do their constitutional duty even if it involved political risks.
Now, none of this necessarily means that democracy will survive. Even as they have been losing elections, Republicans have been consolidating control over the courts and other national institutions. Democratic leaders in Congress have been unexpectedly, even shockingly impressive; the Democratic presidential field less so.
And the unity of purpose we saw Wednesday may not hold next November. If Democrats nominate a progressive like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, will wealthy Democrats decide that defending democracy is less important than keeping their taxes low? If the party nominates a moderate like Joe Biden, will some Sanders supporters express their frustration the same way they did in 2016, by staying home or voting for a third-party candidate? Given the stakes, I’d like to dismiss such concerns, but I can’t.
Add in the extent to which next year’s election will be rigged in Trump’s favor, both by voter suppression and by the skew introduced by the Electoral College — and the even greater skew created by a Senate map that gives small, mostly conservative states as much representation as liberal states with many times their population — and it’s all too possible that Trumpism will still triumph.
What we learned Wednesday, however, was that those who define America by its ideals, not the dominance of a particular ethnic group, won’t give up easily. The bad news is that our bad people are as bad as everyone else’s. The good news is that our good people seem unusually determined to do the right thing.
Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.