Domestic Affairs

The Theatricality of Impeachment

In just the last few weeks, President Trump was acquitted on two articles of impeachment, Mitt Romney broke his party alliance, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi became a meme after tearing up a copy of Trump’s State of the Union address. It was a fitting end to an impeachment trial that started months ago with a bang and then fizzled out among the international conflicts that have since occurred. In the midst of a presidency as scandalous as many multi-season TV shows, even an impeachment and potential conviction feels like one of too many confusing plot lines. Nancy Pelosi formally opened an impeachment inquiry on September 24, which the House affirmed after a full vote on October 31. In the months since then, many have been unable to speak of anything else. One of my professors canceled our Friday lecture not only because he thought we needed time to work on our final projects, but also because he wanted to watch the ongoing impeachment hearings, which happened to take place during our usual 10 A.M. class. My mother called me in September to ask if I was caught up on the news surrounding the whistleblower. Impeachment wove its way into my class discussions. America’s national pastime is not baseball — It’s political drama. 

The Trump impeachment saga may have been the flavor of the month, but this is not the first time such a serious event has become the source of national attention. The Watergate hearings, which would have led to Richard Nixon’s impeachment had he not resigned, were apparently riveting. The major news networks at the time provided extensive coverage of hundreds of hours of hearings, switching back and forth between fictional soap operas and the real soap opera unfolding in the legislature. According to a Gallup poll, over 70 percent of Americans polled watched the live broadcast of the hearings, with over 20 percent sitting through at least ten full hours. 

Today, over 50 years later, we have turned perhaps one of the most shocking events in recent American history into a source of revenue. The Watergate burglary and subsequent hearings have been the subject of many documentaries, books, and popular movies that continue to profit on our obsession with scandal and political corruption. The Watergate Hotel, which is still in operation, fully embraced their identity as the site of the scandal with small slogans referencing the hearings on their keys and coasters. 

But the Watergate scandal was not a light hearted event. The nation watched as members of one political party were accused of espionage, wiretapping, and conspiracy against the Democratic National Committee. It was a serious crime, which was further complicated by the president’s attempt to cover up his involvement. Watergate also set important judicial precedents that remain relevant decades later. Forcing Nixon to submit his personal recorded tapes set limits on a president’s right to privacy of communication during an impeachment inquiry. The House of Representatives drew on this precedent in their attempt to subpoena information related to President Trump’s conversations with the Ukrainian president. It is unnerving that we have seemingly forgotten the gravity of Watergate, the fear and disbelief associated with the proceedings. But perhaps the scandal was too much to process all at once. It’s terrifying that a president charged with safeguarding the nation would go to such lengths to undermine the democratic process. Focusing on the dramatic aspect might have at least helped those watching to endure so much political turmoil. 

The Clinton impeachment hearings demonstrated a similar juxtaposition of entertainment and solemnity. Those who followed the hearings closely can quote key speeches the same way others can quote lines from a favorite poem or TV show. The Clinton impeachment may not have had the same gravity as Watergate since the situations were so different, but it is important to remember that amid the drama, the House of Representatives was charging a sitting president with accusations of misconduct. Clinton was not ultimately convicted, but impeachment is still not something that we should take lightly. Due to the sexual nature of the scandal, the responses from the public were vulgar and derogatory. A president was impeached for only the second time in history, and again the nation was able to find an entertainment aspect. With something as serious as impeachment, sometimes the drama can provide a necessary balance for the grave nature of the actual event. 

The Trump impeachment hearings followed the same style, drawing over 10 million daytime viewers. Though, to be fair, the majority of the Trump presidency has been dramatic and theatrical. Personal attacks rather than policy dominated Trump’s 2016 debates, and his behavior has not improved during his years in office. Laughing at his word choice or his distinct signature on social media may momentarily distract from the chaos, but we have to remember that this is not a TV show, and the very things we ridicule have the power to significantly change national and global political relationships. 

For all of its excitement and drama, these impeachment hearings are precipitated by extremely serious allegations. Speaker Pelosi opened the impeachment inquiry after an anonymous whistleblower came forward with information regarding a phone call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine.  

The difference between the Trump congressional hearings and previous investigations is the lack of shock value. We continue watching because we can’t force ourselves to look away, but the element of surprise is gone. We’ve seen bans on groups of people, childish arguments with foreign leaders, and more lies than we can count. What else is left? The constant theatricality is exhausting, but it’s preferable to the fear and sadness that comes with watching our democracy fall apart. 

Additionally, the drama of impeachment trials with the legislators and reporters acting as the scrappy heroes could inspire a new generation of civil servants. And they are heroic. Fiona Hill and Marie Yovanovitch testified during the hearings, joining Nancy Pelosi and several others in a select group of powerful women strong enough to stand up to President Trump. This is a welcome sight, considering President Trump has launched so many personal attacks against women in the public sphere since taking office. Even amid the drama of these impeachment trials there are still lessons we can learn. Watergate proved that justice can prevail even when corruption invades the Oval Office. The Trump impeachment trials are an additional reminder that women will not surrender to a bully when justice is at stake. 

Perhaps we need to search for the entertainment value in this shaky stage of our history in order to comprehend it. Between the threats of nuclear war and the separation of families at the border, life in America has taken on a darker tint than in past years. Sometimes all we can do is watch the “Saturday Night Live” interpretations of the chaos that characterizes our lives or let breaking news filter through a few late-night comedians and laugh. We watched the impeachment hearings because it’s our duty as American citizens to stay informed, but we have to laugh. It’s all we can do to keep from crying. Trump was acquitted by the Senate. The media cycle will move on. The drama will continue, but there is still hope. With each new chapter in this political saga, new men and women of integrity step forward to confront the raging theatricality and petty arguments. Speaker Pelosi has already become a social media sensation for ripping the State of the Union address because in her we see a powerful force opposing the destruction of our democracy. The antagonist may remain constant in all of these dramas, but the cast of heroes keeps growing.

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