A few years ago, my brother went for an afternoon pick-me-up at the Protein Bar near City Hall. As he was ordering, Rahm Emanuel came in and stood behind him. My brother finished his order and stepped aside. The mayor asked for the exact same protein drink. A moment passed, Rahm talking on the phone glued to the side of his head. The clerk handed Rahm a beverage.
”Hey,” my brother objected as Rahm vanished. “That was my drink. I was here first.”
The clerk shrugged,
”He’s the mayor,” he said.
That is power in a nutshell. You could study every Protein Bar employee manual and not find one word suggesting a policy to nudge bullyboy local officials to the front of the line. They don’t have to spell it out. It’s understood.
I offer this story because it meshes with the impeachment hearings going on now in Washington. They could seem a bewildering spectacle unless you understand them as a tug-of-war between two utterly opposite views of our society.
Do we live by rules-based egalitarianism? A nation of laws, customs and procedures? “Hey, I was here first.”
Or by the exercise of raw power by those who hold it, aided by their eager enablers? “He’s the mayor.”
The answer: both, in conflict. Ideally in balance, though power always has the advantage, because it’s usually in your immediate self-interest to bow. Those who play along get a bigger slice of pie. The resisters often get nothing. So if you need to drop the values you’ve clung to your entire life in order to jam your hands in the goodie bag some bigwig is shaking in your direction, well, so be it. Goodbye values!
Let’s look at the impeachment charges laid out in detail by a string of reliable witnesses:
In July, President Donald Trump held up $392 million in military aid to Ukraine trying to blackmail its president into announcing publicly that he is investigating Joe Biden and his son. This contradicted the strategic interests of the United States but was in Trump’s personal interest: to win re-election in 2020.
The facts are not in question. Trump admitted as much on live TV. (And that the word of a notorious, shameless, continual, proven liar can be imagined to convey a dew drop of factual significance is testimony to the depth of our unfortunate tendency to baselessly believe).
Nor is this a departure for Trump. This is the same guy who, earlier this month, was ordered to pay a $2 million fine by a New York court, not for stealing that amount from veterans charities, as some claim (truth is important even when it doesn’t cut your way) but for turning the donation of funds he raised into a campaign circus. Because that’s what Trump does: turn everything to his benefit. Trump wasn’t trying to keep $392 million from Ukraine. What does he care? It’s not his money. He was trying to use its delivery as grease for his re-election.
“But he’s the president,” his supporters insist. He can do whatever he likes. He can’t commit a crime. He goes to the front of the line, everywhere, every time. President first, country second.
Maybe you like that. I and others disagree. And remind you: freedom isn’t free, as the vets say. Not just because somebody fought for it. But because you have to think for yourself to be free. If you are echoing whatever pretzel logic Fox News drilled into your head last night, you’re a slave, an ideological slave, pulling off your cap and sprawling face down in the mire as Trump’s gilded carriage rolls past. Rising, caked in mud, squeegeeing off a shoulder, beginning your defense, “What about Hillary? And the child sex ring she ran out of the basement of that pizza parlor ....”
Compelling. To you. I’m sure.
There is a choice. Keep genuflecting to the greatest fraud, bully, liar, criminal and traitor to sit in the Oval Office. Or get off your knees and shuffle slowly over to the millions of Americans who stayed standing the whole time, jaws dropped, fingers extended. “Oh ... my ... God! The emperor ... is ... naked!” We welcome you.
Terrifying? Sure. The whole world is lurching toward a nationalist nightmare. We have no idea if we’re at the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning. And I’m not pretending that realization is not painful. There is no aluminum suitcase stuffed with $20 million in cash. No helpful Army corporal who wants to share it with you, provided you cover the bank transaction fees. Your goodwill payment is gone.
But at least you can stop paying. You can begin to suspect that something is afoot. That’s enough of a start. The impeachment hearings are evidence the system works, or might work. We could end up living in a rules-based system despite ourselves. Or, more accurately, despite you.