A Disparate Medley of American Voices

Published December 19, 2019

City Journal

Across the meat counter, the woman in the stained white smock held up a wafer of ham to ask if it were sliced thin enough. Her lips moved but I could not hear her voice, and she arched her eyebrows inquiringly, as if wondering, in the politest way, whether I was deaf or simpleminded.

There were other voices in my head. All I could hear through my earphones—at that moment and all through the day, hour after hour—was the disparate medley of American voices from the House floor: Representative Doug Collins’s rapid-fire tumble in a Georgia accent, or the faintly adenoidal drone of New York’s Inspector Jerry Nadler, Javert from the Judiciary Committee; voices of immigrants, the Latino accent of a woman from Texas; an African-American woman quoting the Federalist Papers. I might have been listening to the soundtrack of a Frank Capra movie. The flow of sounds had the effect of an impressionistic flash-and-fade montage from a 1930s movie, a series of images that serve as a narrative device (sudden headlines, shouting voices, angry faces, gesticulations, condensed time) to give the viewer a quick precis of history transpiring. John Dos Passos used the technique in his U.S.A. Trilogy: thumbnail sketches of Big Americans and Big Events.

So it went, the live-streaming, eight-hour day of the pre-Christmas impeachment—American voices keyed up to varying pitches of anger, solemnity, scorn, preacherly eloquence, earnestness, sorrow, homespun indignation. It should have been a grand and significant occasion. And it was, of course, being only the third time in American history that a president had been impeached in the People’s House. But it did not always feel like a grand occasion. It had elements of the surreal—sometimes of bathos or fraud.

I took it in while Christmas shopping, so that the great civic business got mixed in my mind with the visual of a woman waving a slice of ham.

The voices from the well of the House organized themselves into a repetitive binary pattern. One had alternating, rapid-fire glimpses of the two different universes of American partisanship. We were cobra and mongoose—and both of us were quoting Hamilton, whom Americans know mostly now as a Broadway musical, or someone called Madison, about whom Americans have not the faintest idea.

The Democrats on this day were filled with an unaccustomed reverence for the Constitution and the Founders: more in sorrow than in anger, invoking their grandchildren—“What did you do to stop Donald Trump, grandpa, and to bring him to account for his effort to enlist a foreign power in the American electoral process?”—the Democrats’ mood of high civic piety had in it an undercurrent of Roman revenge. They knew that they had their man (at least for now), and that they had the votes with which to flog him. Beneath the entirely unconvincing Democratic air of sorrow (“this is a solemn day . . . I take no pleasure”), there was the glint of triumph. They had come home to Washington with the orange man chained to their chariot wheels.

The day was sharply segmented, and time was sliced as thin as my ham. There were orations of one minute, or one minute and 30 seconds, just long enough for the Democratic speaker’s identity to begin to coalesce; then, abruptly, America would hear from the Republican side—the note of scorn, dismissal, belittlement, incredulity. Yin and yang, either/or. Doug Collins, the Georgia pastor floor-managing the flow of Republican voices, was perfectly cast for the role—speaking in a blur of words about the “clock and the calendar” that he said drove the ignoble Democrat maneuvers to discredit Trump, and hammering the “sham and the shame” of the entire impeachment proceeding.

“All right, we are two nations,” a character says in Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy, published in the 1930s but referring to the Sacco and Vanzetti case in the 1920s when Americans were at one another’s throats and aligned roughly in the same binary ideological categories that were heard so distinctly in the livestreaming of the Trump impeachment.

I don’t think that the world heard anything memorable in all these hours in the House, though I may have missed something. One exception was the Louisiana Republican whose darkling, prophetic, atavistic voice suddenly conjured the Book of Revelation or, in any case, the backwoods hellfire and damnation that would be visited upon the Sodom and Gomorra of progressive degeneracy. That was vivid enough.

In the evening, I was back home and watching on television, switching between MSNBC and Fox. MSNBC had a smirking, vindicated mood, and a stagecraft of all’s-right-with-the-world-at-last—or almost right; the talkers had a perhaps pardonable inclination to forget that the Senate would not be ratifying the House’s verdict, and that the prisoner, after all this drama, would go free, and that it was entirely possible that the impeachment would not only be mostly forgotten by New Year’s Day but also would actually, paradoxically, do much to mobilize Trump’s base and help to reelect him. If that happens, the years from 2021 to 2025 will stretch forth in the progressive gaze like an abyss. What then?

For the moment, the courtiers at MSNBC were unable to conceal the glow of triumph—Chris Matthews in happy swagger; Brian Williams in his three-quarters Edward R. Murrow profile, staring into the camera with his air of archaic, sanpaku seduction; and, of course, Parson Jon Meacham, court chaplain, offering historical unctions. Over on Fox, meantime, one found Tucker Carlson in a mood of flippant dismissal—ho hum, who cares, what’s next? He said it did not really feel as if a president had just been impeached.

What did it feel like? Complicated. Perhaps the experience was therapeutic? Cathartic? Even necessary? It should have felt historic, of course. What it felt like, I’m afraid, was stagecraft—history as performance, as if to say that we live in a fatally politicized, post-historical world in which Alexander Hamilton is not a fount of certain American ideas (part of the American Shinto, one of Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory”) but rather, an entertainment, in somewhat the same way that Ukraine is not so much a reality in voters’ minds as a stage setting, like Verona in a Shakespeare play.

Big history always has a quality of legerdemain, especially when it is unfolding. The twenty-first century seems to intensify the effect.


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