As legendary showman P.T. Barnum wrote in The Humbugs of the World, “Advertising is to a genuine article what manure is to land – it largely increases the product.” It seems that the impending impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump is doomed to be an exercise in showmanship, spin, and advertising. But why would a legal process, no matter how historic, require such razzle-dazzle? To much fanfare, the single article of impeachment has been delivered to the Senate and the show is about to begin.
For all great magicians, keeping the trick a secret is part of the trade; if the audience understands how the illusion works, it loses its glamor. It appears that those responsible for putting on the show in Congress have far less skill and foresight than Merlin.
Selling the Sizzle
The impeachment trial of Trump after he has left office is political in nature. There is political capital to be gained from holding the trial, and possibly even a tangible benefit in preventing him from running for office in the future. Regardless of how necessary congressional Democrats see the proceedings, it is not taking place in a vacuum – the American public deserves and demands transparency. So why doesn’t the Democrat Party leadership err on the side of caution in presenting this as a fair trial?
Instead of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts presiding over the trial, as would be the case in impeachment for a sitting president, it has been reported by The Hill that Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will be at the helm. As Senate president pro tempore, Leahy is not unjustified in presiding over the events, but how does this look to the public?
There are significant differences between a congressional process and a criminal trial, but to millions of Americans, Leahy will be acting as the judge. Even Republican lawmakers are voicing concerns, arguing that because Leahy voted to convict Trump during the impeachment trial last year, he would hardly act in an impartial manner now. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) said, “There’s only one constitutional process for impeachment, and it is of the president, not a president … It requires the chief justice to preside.”
Honesty Is the Best Policy
One troubling aspect of the impeachment in terms of public perception is the purpose. When the House rushed through the initial vote to impeach, one representative after another insisted that time could not be wasted in removing Trump from office. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) even spoke with military leaders to try to remove access to the nuclear codes from what she described as an “unhinged” president.
Time has proved that these fears were either unfounded or mere hyperbole. Yet the president is now out of office, so why would Democrats continue with the process?
The reality appears to be twofold. First, Dems want to punish Trump for not losing the 2016 election. Second, and more importantly, they don’t want him to be able to run again in 2024. According to an NBC News poll, Trump is hugely popular among Republicans – 87% – and is in a good position to win against any other GOP primary candidate. If Democrats can’t have him banned from public office, they may have to fight the same battle all over again. Yet this is not the message being sold to the American people.
Without being honest about the purpose of the trial, it comes across as petty and vindictive. If the Dem leadership were to present a case to the public that they believed Trump to be too dangerous to be near the levers of power once again, it could perhaps salvage some respectability. As it is, the party just appears bitter.
All About Presentation
Having a partisan senator preside over the trial, squeezing angry Never-Trumpers for every cent they can spare in political fundraising, and refusing to engage honestly with the voting public about its intent paints a dim portrait for the leading party.
Despite the lack of enthusiasm among most Republican lawmakers for impeachment, Democrats are keen to push ahead. But could that be a poisoned chalice? Even if they successfully convict Trump and ban him from holding office in the future, it is highly likely that a large swath of the American people will see it as a con, a conjuring trick. The voters will see that they had a “Democrat judge” who acted “out of spite.” It may be true, it may not be, but with magic, everything is perception – and if the audience isn’t fooled?
As Christopher Priest writes in The Prestige, “The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret … but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.”
But woe betide those who fail to provide even the most basic illusion to cover their trick. No conjurer can survive that.
Read more from Mark Angelides.