The right analogy on impeachment
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has finally struck the right chord in the impeachment inquiry with the term bribery. It might have been more precise to call it extortion, but this is not a court of law. Most people do not know what extortion really is, so to choose a word straight from the Constitution was brilliant. Long live bribery. Farewell quid pro quo.
Democrats may have started to move the needle on public opinion, with the gravitas of Ambassador William Taylor and then the pathos of career diplomat Marie Yovanovitch. Republicans countered with their scathing charges of “hearsay.” Their attack was of course disingenuous, since they and President Trump were the ones obstructing the House Intelligence Committee efforts to obtain firsthand accounts, and they will have to concoct some other line of defense when they hear some this week.
However, that was not the way the story played out on Fox News, which remains the most watched cable news network. With the media coaching that conservatives systematically receive, which Democrats do not, House Republicans fully understood the importance of tone of voice to public opinion, as they fought evidence with faux moral superiority. Democrats pounced when Trump threw gasoline on the fire by attacking Yovanovich in real time, displaying his incapacity for empathy or decency and with it, legal judgment, which this impeachment inquiry is ultimately about.
The reality is that Trump seems simply unable to understand that anything he does is wrong. I am writing now with my other hat, as a psychiatric diagnostician. He does not code his words and deeds into true and false, or right and wrong, because he appears to lack the normal capacities for moral emotions such as guilt, remorse, or empathy. To him, as to other malignant narcissists, “good” and “bad” mean “good and bad for me.”
The question now is whether that is true of the Senate Republicans who will judge him. Like their House counterparts, they have made clear that the only “evidence” they are considering is from the polls back home. Personally, I suspect that few of them are that psychologically defective, and most know what Trump is. But this inquiry will be dead on arrival in the Senate if Democrats do not test the capacity of their colleagues for moral emotions, most importantly shame and guilt, and do it publicly with the intonation, inflection, and body language of people who have them.
This is not 1974, when senators were capable of putting country over party. They upheld oaths to the Constitution instead of the president, examined the evidence, and told Richard Nixon that he should resign. The only Republican senator showing any latent indication of statesmanship today is Mitt Romney, but he has thus far failed to fill the void left by John McCain. For Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, it is political calculation. How many votes will they win or lose if they vote for the right thing?
The right analogy is 1954, when the reign of terror of Joseph McCarthy, the last man who posed such a grave danger to our democracy with his similar conspiracy theories about the illicit machinations of a deep state, came to an end. He went a step too far when he launched accusations against the United States Army, which hired Joseph Welch to represent it in televised Senate hearings against McCarthy. While Welch was civilly questioning Roy Cohn, counsel for the senator, McCarthy interrupted to smear a young lawyer of impeccable credentials in the firm that Welch worked for, demanding that his accusations be entered in the record.
Welch, whose voice was filled with the moral incredulity of a person with a conscience who cannot understand a person without one, responded, “You will not need anything in the record when I finish telling you this. Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” After detailing the credentials of the young lawyer, Welch admonished, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator.” When McCarthy tried to break in yet again, Welch stopped him. “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” The spell was broken. The McCarthy era was over.
It is time for Democrats to put their Republican colleagues, particularly those in the Senate, on the record. It is one thing to engage in a normal human failing in politics, or motivated reasoning to what we want to see and rationalizing away the rest, for which colleagues and I established the neural mechanisms years ago and have studied extensively since then. Our brains are remarkably adept at twirling the cognitive kaleidoscope until it produces an image we find appealing. But it is another altogether to choose not to admit realities for personal gain, whether as president or senator. That is a moral failing and, in this case, a very treacherous one.
Drew Westen is a psychology professor at Emory University and author of “Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.”
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.