Politics and moral courage don’t mix well. They both allow for compromise, but in many instances, their goals are in complete opposition. I won’t argue against representative democracy, but one unfortunate consequence of it is that it does generally require elected officials to be liked by the people who employ them. It too often gives us leaders who do what they must in order to win elections. What ends up happening isn’t merely that they lose their direction. They end up lacking any kind of ethos whatsoever.
It is easy to forget this whenever our side gets the result that we want. When the figure who so often disappoints us is pushed, at last, to stand up for the values that they treasure, they can be quickly lionized. We should beware such dizzying moments, as they are like those moments when we put on a new pair of glasses. Our perception is momentarily thrown off, and we forget what valor in the political arena really looks like.
That is why I’m glad that Greta Thunberg and Nancy Pelosi did what they did in consecutive days this week, at least for comparison’s sake. As evidence mounts that President Trump attempted (and may have succeeded) to have Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to interfere in the 2020 election on his behalf, the House Speaker announced — or acquiesced to — an impeachment inquiry. That this final, desperate Democratic heave towards this moment occurred in the immediate wake of the young Swedish environmental activist’s rhetorical immolation of world leaders at the United Nations shouldn’t go unnoticed.
On Monday, days after leading a worldwide strike to bring attention to the climate crisis, Thunberg gave the speech of her young life. I could quote her at length, but you should stop reading and just watch all five minutes or so of her address now, then come back.
As you’ll notice, her initial warning was met with laughter, the sort of derisive adult instinct one exhibits when viewing cute child behavior. The leaders clapped for her even as she chastised them. Yet she appears unmoved.
Her seeming refusal to care one of the things about Thunberg that astonishes me the most. Whether or not her manner was related in any way to her Asperger’s, I know that we should all take a cue from her. She is doing what she thinks is right and not waiting for anyone to approve, a feat made all the more impressive by the misogynist messages America feeds girls and women about seeking male approval. Thunberg wanted their action, not their applause.
Despite coming from Sweden, the 16-year-old operates with the urgency of a Jim Crow-era civil rights activist in the United States, which is appropriate given the scale of the problem she is confronting. Thunberg didn’t even wait to grow up to become who she needed to become, largely because she is literally trying to save the world.
Pelosi seems, ostensibly, as determined as they come. But at least until Tuesday, she seemed beholden to her more moderate Democratic brethren, stubbornly dead-set against impeaching a president with an obvious penchant for illegality and other unconstitutional behavior while in office. Pelosi was letting him get away with it, and for no other discernible reason than it may hurt the Democrats’ ability to win elections.
Before our dinosaur of a president once again decided to test the fences, withholding U.S. monetary aid from Ukraine before imploring them to investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter for corruption, the mainstream Democratic logic was that it made the most sense to “impeach him at the ballot box,” which isn’t a thing. The problem with that theory, of course, is that it relies upon John Roberts’ America, the fantasy that the Supreme Court Chief Justice has told us repeatedly exists: a United States without voter suppression. Worse, the Democrats were literally willing to let Trump interfere in a second election before they lifted a finger to impeach.
Pelosi’s announcement feels like a cop waiting until a privileged white suspect commits the same crime twice before finally arresting him. Sure, it’s good that he may finally be held accountable, but let’s not pretend that the system suddenly works.
To her credit, if they were waiting for an ironclad case before they moved forward with such a last-resort move, they appear to have it. On Wednesday morning, the White House released their version of the July 25 phone call record between Trump and the Ukrainian president. If they doctored it, they did about as well as Trump did with that Alabama hurricane map. It reveals Trump not merely discussing his personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani visiting Ukraine, but also having Zelensky work with Attorney General Bill Barr on probes into the Bidens and into “the server,” mentioning CrowdStrike — all code for the mythical DNC server that conspiracy theorists on the right have been chasing since 2016.
To that point, it is likely that Ukraine will indeed open that investigation into Hunter Biden, per a Daily Beast report. But I have my doubts that, as the report claims, the probe won’t proceed in “the way Trump intends, and not necessarily to the detriment” of Joe Biden’s candidacy, Yes, Zelensky ran as a corruption-fighting reformer because, literally, he played one on television. But if the White House’s version of the call is to be believed, he all but nodded along to any and every request Trump had, possibly because of the monetary leverage our government had on him. So who is to say what he will do? And what will the American conservative apparatus do with this, no matter what?
Investigations will follow, because that is what impeachment is. It is a process that has just begun, not one that has concluded. But even though it is good that Pelosi got here eventually, it isn’t untoward to note that she should have gotten here when the Trump administration began separating families, locking migrants in cages like rats, or enacting measures to make it more likely that they would die ghastly deaths as they strived for a better life. It isn’t out of place to take note of the presidential profiteering that has gone virtually unchecked by this House Democratic majority, save for the occasional hearing, speech, or cable news bite. The obstruction of justice that Robert Mueller clearly spelled out in his report wasn’t enough. Trump’s abuse of his pardon power, his unmitigated attacks on the First Amendment, his documented violations of campaign finance laws — none of it was enough until the son of the Democratic primary frontrunner, a former vice president, came under attack.
Impact certainly outweighs intent. But when you do the right thing, it does matter why you do it and what it took for you to do it. It shouldn’t take the castigations of a child for politicians to do what needed to be done a long time ago. After all, with Ukraine investigating the Bidens on Trump’s behalf, it may be too late.