The trial of President Donald J. Trump in the Senate is many things, especially a classic case of hypocrisy endangering democracy. A further danger is so politicizing impeachment that future presidents will be more vulnerable to partisan bile. And acquittal, for those who believe Trump is guilty, could empower the president to continue his misbehavior without any congressional check or balance.
But hypocrisy reigns. Compare the 1999 Bill Clinton impeachment trial with Trump's. Then-Rep. Lindsey Graham sounded like Sen. Chuck Schumer today in demanding witnesses to press the case for removing Clinton. Schumer then sounded like Graham today calling for a speedy end to the proceedings.
In American politics, hypocrisy is essential for survival. Onetime presidential candidate Graham, having called Trump unfit for office, has converted to becoming one of the president's closest allies and apologists. A bevy of Republican senators said that after the unrelenting presentation of evidence by the Democratic impeachment managers, they have learned nothing or heard "nothing new." That either means they were not listening or are violating the oath of impartiality. But if a Democrat were in the dock, be certain that Republicans would be acting identically as Democrats are today.
The danger is that hypocrisy can destroy democracy, especially when this seemingly irreparable partisan divide hastens the systemic elimination of truth and fact in political discourse. Alternate facts and "fake news" now dominate debate. The conspiracy over alleged Ukrainian interference in U.S. elections, along with a secret server supposedly hidden in Kiev has been absolutely repudiated and discredited. Yet, some Senate Republicans, amplified by fellow travelers in the media, refuse to accept these facts and persist in sustaining this myth.
Both parties too often rely on half-truths and half-facts in presenting arguments. Democrats have made a persuasive case that the president purposely withheld military aid to Ukraine of about $400 million as leverage to coerce, persuade or cajole President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce publicly and pursue investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden for corruption. Now former national security adviser John Bolton's new book seems to confirm this allegation.
Republicans have disputed this and other allegations on the grounds that presidents, namely Barack Obama, routinely withheld aid for coercive purposes. What was not explained was that Obama's suspension of money was for foreign aid to Egypt and Pakistan; that the reasons were well explained to Congress as part of U.S. policy; and not for personal gain.
The president's attorneys accused House Democrats of disregarding the rules regarding the impeachment hearings when in fact the hearings were held in accordance with rules set by Republicans. Similarly, Democrats have hyped and used excessive rhetoric in making their case, as well as taking too long to deliver it.
Politics have always been infected by distortions, misstatements, untruths and outright lies. But rarely has the scale of ignoring, dismissing or bypassing truth and fact ever been so great. The Washington Post fact checkers have cited over 16,000 instances when Trump has departed from truth and fact in his comments and statements.
Consequences do not end at the water's edge. Allies, friends and adversaries are taking note. NATO allies are not convinced of Trump's complete support for the alliance and whether Article 5 would apply if an "attack on one" (still) "is an attack on all." The threat of punitive tariffs for reasons that are grounded on arbitrary and not factual or arguable bases likewise erodes confidence in America's steadfastness. And in Asia, it is clear that most states are viewing China as an alternative partner, given that economic ties are greater with Beijing than Washington.
The White House's use of alternative facts or what rightly should be called deceptions or, better, untruths and lies adds to these corrosive consequences. And note, hypocrisy can be fatal. The Soviet Union imploded over the hypocrisy and falsehoods on which the system was based. Eventually, lies and secret police could no longer cover up incompetent rule.
The United States is not in the same universe or condition as the Soviet Union was. But the combination of what appears as irreconcilable political and ideological differences and unresolvable clashes over presidential conduct of office and the diminished role of truth and fact must bode ill for a democracy based on laws and the Constitution. In sum, who can the public trust: Republicans, Democrats or neither?
There is an absence of public trust in too many institutions, especially the federal government. Soviet hypocrisy destroyed the legitimacy of its government. Unless we Americans recognize and act on the premise that hypocrisy and democracy are incompatible, this nation and its government remain at risk.
Harlan Ullman is a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.