Why Can’t I Watch This?

I’ve been waiting for Congress to start the process of impeaching Trump. So why is it so hard to watch?

Fundamentally, the whole point of the Weekly Sift is that I dive deeply into the news so that people with busier lives don’t have to. So I read things like the Mueller Report or Supreme Court’s marriage-equality decisions or the transcripts of presidential debates. I check out neo-Nazi websites to see what they’re up to. I review polls, and examine enough of them to warn everybody not to get too excited about some surprising result that no other pollster can replicate. I keep track of books about the death patterns of democracies or the structure of the American news media.

And then once a week I report back. That schedule is a small revolt against the 24-hour news cycle. If an active shooter is still at large somewhere, you should probably get your updates somewhere else. But an awful lot of the news makes more sense if you take it in week-long chunks rather than five-minute blips. And it often turns out that something seems terribly important for an hour or two, but is not really worth your time at all.

So the impeachment hearings should be right up my alley. I’ve been keeping track of the story ever since the whistleblower report came out, so I know the characters, the basic outline of events, the range of arguments available to both sides, and a bunch of the legal and procedural nuances. The length of the hearings (ten hours Wednesday and eight Friday) makes it unreasonable for most of my readers to watch, so I should watch it for them.

More than that, it’s history. In the two-centuries-and-counting history of the United States, this is only the fourth serious attempt to impeach a president. And rather than some tawdry sex story like the last impeachment, this one is about war and intrigue and world leaders trying to bully each other. It’s about the rule of law, the separation of powers, and whether or not we’ll have a fair election in 2020 (or ever again). This impeachment matters in a way that the Clinton impeachment never really did.

So why can’t I watch this?

I try. I tune in for opening statements and maybe a little of the questioning by counsel. Maybe later in the day I try again and watch five or ten minutes. And then maybe again once more. But I’m making myself do it. I want to turn it off.

To be more specific, I can’t watch these Republicans. This is a problem I have never had before. I disagreed with President Reagan and his followers, but I could watch them. I was pretty sure George W. Bush’s people were lying to me a lot of the time, but I mostly understood where they were coming from, and why they thought they were the good guys. Some of them, I’m pretty sure, were trying to do the best they could with a bad situation (though some weren’t). There was something human in there, something I could empathize with.

I’m not seeing that now.

It seems perfectly clear at this point that Trump did what he is accused of: He withheld aid that Congress had appropriated for Ukraine, for the purpose of pressuring President Zelensky to launch a pretty clearly bogus investigation into Joe Biden, which would do nothing at all to help either Ukraine or the United States, but would work to Trump’s personal political benefit. Withholding the aid would have sabotaged Ukraine in its war against Russia, and even hinting at withholding the aid has harmed Ukraine’s negotiating position with Russia. So Trump has done public harm in an attempt to get private benefit.

It almost worked. Zelensky was within days of announcing the investigations in a CNN interview, but the whistleblower report and Congress’ resulting curiosity about what was going on caused Trump to release the aid, after which Zelensky cancelled the interview.

That’s bad enough, but it looks like there’s even shadier stuff going on in the background. With the President’s blessing, Rudy Giuliani has been running some scam of his own in Ukraine, one we don’t even begin to understand yet. But even without that, we’re looking at a corrupt style of governing, the kind that’s typical in kleptocratic regimes. If all this is OK, then the president should be able to skim personal favors off of all of our foreign aid.

Sad as all that is for America, so far it’s just the story of a simple mistake: The Electoral College elevated a scam artist to the presidency (against the will of the voters, I should point out) and he’s scamming us. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, but by itself it doesn’t implicate our society or our system of government. In fact, the Founders anticipated stuff like this would happen from time to time. (That’s the nation-sized version of “Momma told me there would be days like this.”) That’s why they built impeachment into the Constitution.

But then the Republicans involved in the current impeachment hearings start to talk, and it’s crystal clear that they have no interest at all in finding out whether Trump has committed crimes, or how bad they are. They just want to make sure that he gets away with them.

That’s what I can’t stand listening to.

I’m old enough to remember the Nixon impeachment, and it wasn’t like this. The iconic Watergate question “What did the President know and when did he know it?” was asked by a Republican, Senator Howard Baker. He wanted to know. By and large, Republicans in Congress wanted to believe the best about Nixon and tried to frame the evidence against him in the best possible light. But they were not accomplices. If the President was guilty, they wanted to know.

These Republicans don’t want to know.

Once you acknowledge the facts of the case, there’s still a debate to be had about how bad this is, and whether it justifies removal from office. There is room to acknowledge that the president did something wrong, something that should never be repeated, without supporting removal. This is the position nearly all Democrats came to in the Clinton impeachment. (The liberal group Move On originated in an online petition saying: “Congress must Immediately Censure President Clinton and Move On to pressing issues facing the country.”) No one argued then that presidents have an absolute right to blow jobs from interns, or that DNA testing is not really a science, or that presidential ejaculations are covered by executive privilege. No one did a Lindsey Graham and just refused to pay attention. (“I’ve written the whole process off. I think this is a bunch of BS.”)

There is a thoughtful way to receive bad news about the leader of your party, and to consider what should be done about it. These Republicans are not doing that.

Instead, they’re ginning up fake controversies to keep their base outraged. They’re asking to call witnesses like Hunter Biden, who has no knowledge of Trump’s Ukraine extortion scheme, and no connection to it at all other than as an intended victim. (The point here is purely to claim some kind of our-scandal/your-scandal equivalence. It’s as if Democrats called Newt Gingrich as a witness in the Clinton impeachment, so that he could be questioned about his own infidelities.) They threaten to violate the laws protecting whistleblowers, and paint Democrats as Stalinists for not allowing them to do so.

In lockstep, these Republicans accept and promote the circular logic of the Trump defense: Testimony from people who didn’t deal with the President directly can’t be taken seriously, but anyone who did deal with the President directly can’t testify. Whether to remove the President for his crimes should be left to the voters, but the voters should not be allowed to learn what those crimes are. Any witnesses who testify against the President (or simply testify to facts the President finds inconvenient) must be opposed to him politically, and so their testimony can be written off as biased.

These Republicans charge that the impeachment process is a sham, but it is they who are making it a sham. By showing no interest in the facts of the case, they are sending a blunt message to the American people: “Nothing the President did matters. We have power and we’re keeping it.”

That’s what I find so hard to watch. I had thought I had prepared myself for this. I had thought I had lost all my illusions about the state of American democracy. But to see so immediately just how far one of America’s two great political parties has fallen, to bear witness to this degradation for hours at a time … it’s sad beyond my ability to process.

So this week, I have failed to adequately sift the news for you. I’ll try again next week, but I don’t know what I can promise.

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  • Jim  On November 18, 2019 at 9:11 am

    I can only appreciate your honesty, and sympathise with the pain of finding that a significant number of people in and out of positions of power no longer believe in the ideals that have made the U.S. a nation that other nations measure themselves against.

  • Roger  On November 18, 2019 at 9:12 am

    I can’t watch it either. I couldn’t even listen to the GOP hack on ABC’s This Week rationalize the Ukraine thing.

  • Mary Paul Kirkpatrick  On November 18, 2019 at 9:25 am

    Don’t feel too bad. Think how usefully damning the Republicans’ words will seem come next election! They may be trying to goad the chair into responding with anger, but he is not taking the bait one bit. A real hero is our Adam, and the three witnesses so far too. Admittedly difficult, but very instructive to watch.

  • Tracy  On November 18, 2019 at 9:28 am

    Thank you for your efforts. I’ve been unable to watch it, either.

  • amyhouts  On November 18, 2019 at 9:59 am

    I can’t wait either. Even the news on PBS is hard to take. We use TiVo and zip through when we see that someone is lying, which is pretty often. We’ve watched the PBS news for years, but it’s only since Trump took office that I have been too upset and/or too disgusted to watch.

    • amyhouts  On November 18, 2019 at 10:00 am

      I meant “watch” not “wait.”

  • Marvin Fretwell  On November 18, 2019 at 10:08 am

    We can only hope that enough people see how destructive the Republican Party has become and vote accordingly. With the 24-7 spin being spouted by the conservative media, there is no guarantee that enough people will see through the smoke screen, however. We are in truly dangerous times.

  • Donna Victor  On November 18, 2019 at 10:20 am

    I sat thru every single minute and found the Republican’s questions, even from their council simply impotent. Flaccid and flat. I was rewarded with a woman’s articulate answers and felt empowered that even though our State department has been hollowed there are still so many Patriotic Americans serving our country that I do have hope. We will get thru this and overcome.

  • William Brewer  On November 18, 2019 at 10:36 am

    I agree; it is sickening to watch the Republicans debase themselves in lies and innuendoes. Until the party nominated this scam artist I had been a life long Republican…I am now ashamed to admit that I was ever a Republican.

  • Guest  On November 18, 2019 at 10:46 am

    Thanks for a lovely apology, Doug, but please don’t beat yourself up. Matt Oswalt’s take on the hearings being “like watching Wheel of Fortune where the puzzle is completely solved but contestants keep guessing the letters” underlines the absurdity of trying to cover it. Not voicing your reasonable frustration and disappointment, complete with historical context, would have been the much greater sifting sin, so you get full credits here. Cheers

  • D. Michael Wells  On November 18, 2019 at 10:54 am

    This comes from someone who bought his first color TV in order to see Nixon get impeached in color. I can tell you exactly where I was when I read the headline that he had resigned. I thought at the time that Nixon was an aberration. I was wrong. Nixon was a racist and anti-semite. He was enabled by those who were the same. Please remember that during Watergate, Nixon had high approval ratings until near the very end and had significant support among congressional Republicans. Listen to Reagan talking to Nixon and complaining about Africans. Watch Reagan give his first campaign speech at the Neshoba County fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi near where three civil rights workers were tortured and killed. We have never had a full accounting of the crimes committed by G.W. Bush but see the faces of the war criminals like John Yoo, spouting their nonsense defending Trump. I am now too old to waste time watching Republicans reprise their perfidy.

  • Louisa Beal  On November 18, 2019 at 11:54 am

    Thank you so much for the Weekly Sift. This post reminded me of why I like your posts so much.  I find much of the news hard to read and watch.  I appreciate your measured take on what is going on.

    I am Executive Director of RadioTacoma, a low power FM community radio station.  I would like your permission to read your posts and put them on air.  If you wold like more information about us, this is our website: http://radiotacoma.org/

    I look forward to your response, be it yes or no.

    Louisa Beal

    Executive Director

    KTAH-LP 101.9 FM

    • weeklysift  On November 18, 2019 at 4:29 pm

      Louisa, I would love knowing that my posts were being read on Radio Tacoma. You have my permission.

  • mspacjmueller  On November 18, 2019 at 12:04 pm

    I completely agree. I can’t even listen to NPR summaries. It’s disgusting what the Republicans have come to. I’m not sure a Dick Armey or Newt Gingrich were really that much better; it’s just that Bushes 1 and even 2 had the interests of the country at heart, although deeply misguidedly in some ways. But this! They have no true allegiance to country; just power.

  • Robyn Kratzer  On November 18, 2019 at 12:07 pm

    I feel your pain. I have to hit mute when Nunes opens his mouth to spew his poisonous conspiracy theories and petty insults. It’s one thing to know that the Republican party has sold its soul to Trump; it’s another to have to see and hear it for hours in real time. Disturbing on so many levels… it hurts my soul.

  • Dennis Maher  On November 18, 2019 at 12:28 pm

    I identify with your inability to watch, and I wondered myself why that was so. The only thing that kept me going Friday was to watch my former representative, Elise Stefanik, make a fool of herself. (Tonko is now my congressman.)

  • Lan Mosher  On November 18, 2019 at 1:05 pm

    I doubt this will end peacefully. I think a case can be made that the Republicans have been Co-opted and infiltrated by antidemocratic forces for years and now it is impossible to hide. But, by whom? Citizens United legalized covert bribery and we are toast until that changes. If Trump escapes removal, our system has failed,

    • Anonymous  On November 18, 2019 at 8:25 pm

      A couple of organizations working against the bribery:

  • scotusjd  On November 18, 2019 at 2:26 pm

    Remember how painful it was for Charlie Brown to overhear Lucy mis-explaining the world to her little brother, Linus? Nowadays, I feel that I am constantly banging my head against the tree along with good ol’ Charlie Brown, and it’s not funny when the world hangs in the balance.

  • Kathryn B Campbell  On November 18, 2019 at 3:45 pm

    Let’s turn this upside down. I have watched every minute of the televised hearings and will continue to do so in order to appreciate and applaud the courage of the witnesses and the dogged pursuit of the truth by our Democratic representatives. I have actually found them inspiring. Nothing the GOP congresspersons do now can deepen my disgust, so I have concentrated supporting the witnesses, learning from them, and marshaling my arguments for impeachment.

  • bfplteen  On November 18, 2019 at 7:45 pm

    Yes. This.

  • ccyager  On November 18, 2019 at 8:28 pm

    I’ve tried to watch at work, but it’s been hard. I saw more of the first day than the second. It’s been shocking to me to see the GOP Congress people not asking intelligent and cogent questions to get at the truth. I remember the Watergate inquiry vividly and reveled in how the committee’s efforts were bipartisan and focused on the good of the country, not the good of the party or keeping power. I’ve thought the GOP went downhill when Reagan became president. It turned me away. No party should want a “permanent majority” as some in the GOP have said they want. Sad but true, I’m beginning to think the GOP is just as dangerous for the country as 45 is.

  • Meg LeSchack  On November 18, 2019 at 9:36 pm

    Me too—I did listen to the hearings, but I muted the sound when most Republicans spoke. I especially couldn’t bear the thought of hearing viper-mouthed Nunes savage Marie. (Swiss cheese memory has kidnapped her last name at the moment.) Meg LeSchack

    Sent from my iPhone


  • madelonw1011  On November 19, 2019 at 7:56 am

    I compromised. I watched most of the hours of testimony, but I muted the sound when particular Republicans were obfuscating. I just can’t listen to Nunes or Jordon. Neither brings anything to the table but their own trump bias.

  • susanchambless  On November 19, 2019 at 10:53 am

    I’m going to have to take up reading this blog. I’ve been thinking lately that I have a pre-radio mind. There is too much news. I remember thinking decades ago that one could dip into the news cycle every so often and not miss anything really important.

  • Meg LeSchack  On November 19, 2019 at 1:27 pm

    Correction to the message I sent yesterday: It’s not Nunes whose tongue is so sharp—it’s Ohio Rep Jim Jordan who sneers, insinuates, demeans with a tone of absolute self-righteousness. I think you will get a sufficient flavor of the tone and text if you just look at news clips. God —however you may understand the word— save the Republic. May there be enough energy and force to help preserve it. Meg

    Sent from my iPhone


  • Jed Taylor  On November 20, 2019 at 9:30 am

    These are Vichy Republicans who should be made to wear large scarlet “T”s the rest of their lives.

  • Anonymous  On November 21, 2019 at 12:39 am

    Your soft is my favorite thing ever. I’ve been reading for a few years. I am only responding because I agree up until the Ambassador Sondland accounts, which I am sure you will have watched. This is priceless. I’m sure I will see something about this on Monday. Thank you for rocking on. Your process is wonderful and in all of political commentary, yours is who I both trust and agree with. Thank you x1million


  • By Principled Actions | The Weekly Sift on November 18, 2019 at 1:18 pm

    […] week’s featured post is “Why Can’t I Watch This?“, where I meditate on my inability to make myself watch more than short snatches of the […]

  • […] was the hatchetman behind the Benghazi hearings, and continues his slash and burn. It’s why I couldn’t watch the impeachment hearings. Also, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the […]

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