The president was acquitted by the Senate, but the American people are smarter.
The vote to acquit President Trump was a dark day for the Senate. Uninterested in hearing from witnesses (and likely scared by what they would say), uncritical of outrageous legal arguments made by the president’s lawyers and apparently unconcerned about the damage Mr. Trump has done to the integrity of America’s elections, a majority of senators insisted on looking the other way and letting him off the hook for a classic impeachable offense: abuse of public office for private gain.
But while the Senate got it wrong, the American people learned what’s right. This impeachment was about much more than the final vote of 100 senators. It was a process, and that process yielded a public education of extraordinary value. While the Senate may emerge from the process weakened, the American people, on the whole, emerge from it strengthened by a sharpened sense of what’s right and what’s wrong for an American president; of what it means for a political party to show moral courage; of what it looks like when dedicated public servants speak truth no matter the consequences; and of the importance of whistle-blowers for ensuring accountability.
The past few months have shown Americans a president who abused the public trust for his personal benefit. Before this process, we suspect, few Americans had dwelled on the question of when it crosses the line for a president to exploit for private political gain the tools of national power placed in his or her hands.
But impeachment has forced Americans to confront it — a question, it turns out, that was central to the framers’ decision to include impeachment in our Constitution. And Americans overwhelmingly reject what Mr. Trump did, with 75 percent saying in December that his Ukraine extortion scheme was wrong (a view that even some Republican senators have endorsed). That’s huge: For all that divides Americans today, this is a dominant consensus on what it means to abuse public office and distort American democracy.
Americans have also seen that, despite the intense pessimism and even disillusionment that many feel about politics, a political party still can show moral courage — regardless of the political costs. The Democrats were told constantly that impeachment would hurt them in November. Mr. Trump himself has boasted that it will, and what’s more he has relished the chance to claim exoneration and to take a victory lap at the same time as Democratic hopefuls began duking it out in earnest in the primaries. The Democrats knew all this, and what’s more, they knew they faced an uphill battle: That’s what the constitutional requirement of a two-thirds Senate majority to convict imposes from the beginning.
But they still did the right thing. They called out impropriety so glaring that it could not be suffered in silence. And they reminded all of us that a political party can pursue what’s right over what’s expedient — and so can a lone politician, as Senator Mitt Romney showed.
Americans saw on vivid display another form of courage: the incredible bravery of public servants who testified before the House of Representatives, the nation and the world — people like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Dr. Fiona Hill. They did so despite the gag orders issued by Mr. Trump to disobey Congress. They did so knowing they’d face death threats. They did so not knowing whether their testimony would yield the president’s impeachment or removal. And they spoke up because they believed in truth as an end in itself.
That’s a reminder, in our disinformation-fueled times, that candor is a value we must recover. And it’s a lesson for the American people that those who serve our government by working long hours for little pay and even less glory aren’t the “deep state” that Mr. Trump denounces but, instead, patriots.
Americans also received a lesson in the critical importance of whistle-blowers in holding our government to account. The role of whistle-blowers is as old as the government itself, dating back to the Continental Congress. But never has their necessity been put on display as clearly as when a courageous whistle-blower filed the complaint that, ultimately, led to the exposure of Mr. Trump’s Ukraine extortion bid.
In this, Americans can see why the United States has been protecting whistle-blowers by law since 1777: Through proper channels, they can provide internal accountability that other actors — like Congress and the press — often can’t achieve, especially when an administration like the current one so relentlessly tries to hide its misdeeds and resist oversight.
Remember also that the investigation into Mr. Trump’s Ukraine extortion scandal isn’t over. Trump’s own lawyers insisted that key witnesses like John Bolton should testify in the House, rather than in the Senate. And Mr. Trump’s entire defense was that the people should decide in November. So be it. The House has a continuing duty, as part of its oversight and legislative functions, to get to the bottom of what happened so that November will be a fully informed choice. Recall that it was Mr. Trump’s central defense that there weren’t witnesses who testified that they saw, firsthand, his extortion of Ukraine. The House now has an opportunity to do so. And it must, according to Mr. Trump’s own arguments, so that the November election can serve the function that Mr. Trump, in warding off impeachment, claimed it should.
President Trump may remain in office for now, but he now serves an American people that’s stronger for the journey our country has just taken. It’s a country energized by a sense of when a president has abused his office; reminded of how a political party can choose morality over political expediency; enlightened by the display of candor from public servants; and educated about the crucial nature of whistle-blowers and thus of the legal protections afforded them.
Regrettably, one political party has resisted acknowledging, let alone embracing, these lessons. That’s a danger to the Republic. And it’s one that Americans now need to address through their public advocacy, their community engagement — and, ultimately, at the voting booth in November.
Quixote didn’t charge the windmill because he thought he would defeat it, but because he concluded it was the right thing to do.
.. Likewise, if we want to be legitimate actors in the world, Unamuno would say that we must be willing to lose the fight. If we abandon the common-sense belief that deems only winnable fights worth fighting, we can adopt Unamuno’s “moral courage” and become quixotic pessimists: pessimists because we recognize our odds of losing are quite high, and quixotic because we fight anyway. Quixotic pessimism is thus marked by a refusal to let the odds of my success determine the value of my fight.
.. Contemporary windmills might look like a small town getting a Walmart, or like kindergartners getting free iPads. Common sense fails us in two ways: first and most often, it uncritically believes that technology equals progress, and second, even in cases in which people recognize the potential harm to the community, they generally don’t believe that they can resist it.
.. Cultivating moral courage amounts to learning to shift our attention away from those who confuse criticism for action toward our own judgment of what is worthwhile, based on thinking a whole lot about what kind of world we would like to live in and the kinds of people we’d like to be.
It is worth noting that Quixote went mad from reading books, and this is precisely the type of crazy that Unamuno supports. We may not be able to improve the world, but we can at least refuse to cooperate with a corrupt one.
.. We can similarly transform ourselves into quixotic pessimists — the kind who are called dreamers, idealists or lunatics — by reading more, rejecting common sense and reinterpreting what constitutes a waste of time.