Not so Donald Trump. The day after the Senate vote, he gave a rambling speech in which he insisted that he had done nothing wrong, that the Russia investigation had been “bullshit,” and that his political opponents are “evil and sick.” He waved newspapers that read “Trump Acquitted.” His approval ratings have risen. Meanwhile, his Republican allies in the Senate are pushing forward with an investigation into Hunter Biden—exactly the subject on which Trump demanded dirt from Ukraine. The president did indeed learn a lesson (though not the one Maine Senator Susan Collins suggested)—he learned that he is, for all intents and purposes, immune to oversight and criticism, that he can do whatever he wants and get away with it.
Impeachment was always a Democratic pipe dream, a doomed act of idealism destined to be squelched in the Senate. This was also its power: an assertion of constitutional value in the face of nihilism. This came through clearly in lead House impeachment manager Adam Schiff’s closing argument for the House’s case, which ended with an appeal to justice. “I do not ask you to convict him because truth or right or decency matters nothing to him,” he said, “but because we have proven our case and it matters to you.” The Senate’s response, in acquitting, was clear: Nothing mattered.
The trouble with doomed acts of idealism, of course, is that they’re doomed. If the country has any luck, the impeachment of Donald Trump will be seen in the long term as the right thing to have done. In the meantime, though, we all have to live in the short term.
The temptation at this point is to give up and accept the president’s belief that he will be able to get away with anything. And indeed, much of the press coverage of the acquittal and Trump’s promises of vengeance amounted to a shrug: Well, what can you do, really? “Until the voters render their verdict, in November,” Susan Glasser wrote in The New Yorker, “Trump will be the President he has always wanted to be: inescapable, all-powerful, and completely unaccountable.” The New York Times described how “the self-described counterpuncher appears eager to prosecute his case against his prosecutors … Conciliation and acknowledging mistakes are not in his nature.” Perhaps a Washington Post headline best captured the sense of deflation: “Yeah, Trump didn’t learn any new lessons from impeachment.”
An exhausted shrug is a fair response to the bleakness of everything that has taken place over the three years of the Trump presidency, and especially to a week like this one. There is always a feeling of loss in the wake of a failure. The compelling way forward is to accept the inevitability that there will be other failures and keep pushing anyway.
Grappling with how to be in the world in this moment, I turned to the German sociologist Max Weber’s classic 1919 lecture “Politics as a Vocation,” which describes political life as torn between the voice of conscience and the practicalities of getting things done in an “ethically irrational” world. At a certain point, Weber wrote, a moment of crisis arrives: The irrationality becomes too much. The politician “reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’”