Forget the prognostications. It’s anyone’s guess at this point how Donald Trump’s upcoming impeachment will play out, or how it may shape next year’s circus-atmosphere national elections, but one important dynamic has already emerged unmistakably: Trump’s impeachment currently unfolding in Washington is a largely Californian-driven undertaking, which is why it has succeeded so far where other moves to hold “Teflon Don” accountable have fallen short.
In one recent poll, 70% of those surveyed across the country found it “wrong” that the president hijacked U.S. aid to our key ally Ukraine to serve his personal interests. In the same poll, a majority (51%) favored impeachment and removal from office. Polls will bounce around, and the right-wing media machine will spin, but it’s unlikely any of that can stop Trump from being impeached in the House and landing in a Senate impeachment trial, at the very least. As the headline on a recent column by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank put it, “Republicans Have a New Enemy: Truth Itself.”
“These facts are going to stand the test of time,” Eric Swalwell, the East Bay Congressman who sits on both the House Intelligence and House Judiciary Committee, recently told GT. “It’s just a matter of, at this moment, will they stand the test of courage for Republicans? No president has had more damning facts raised about his conduct than Donald Trump. I’m confident. I know who we are as a country. I know we will come out of this dark time that he’s set upon us, and I know that our children and grandchildren will look back on the people who tried to hold him accountable and bring light to our democracy. It’s just a question of: Which part of the effort do you want to be associated with?”
California has played a big role in the impeachment proceedings, and California will also be called upon to lead the way in the post-impeachment era, whatever that ends up looking like.
“Nothing defines this presidency better than Mr. Trump’s war with California,” Clay Risen—deputy editor of the New York Times op-ed page and author of the upcoming book The Crowded Hour, about Theodore Roosevelt—told GT. “California is arguably the most progressive state in America, and it’s also arguably the most powerful, so it was inevitable that the state would clash with such an extremely conservative White House. Even setting aside the unique conflict around impeachment, as well as Mr. Trump’s singular need to personalize his political fights and demonize his political enemies, we’d still be witnessing an epic clash between such a diverse, environmentally forward state and any president with such an extreme deregulatory agenda and racist immigration policy.”
Panetta on Pelosi
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, another Northern Californian, has consistently been underestimated, but she has proven a worthy foil to Trump. She enraged many by resisting an impeachment inquiry, but moved on her own schedule with impeccable timing, according to some fellow Democrats.
“Her political acumen is like no other,” Central Coast Congressman Jimmy Panetta told GT by phone. “I really don’t think there could be another Democrat who could handle the extreme left in our party and also smack down Donald Trump as she’s been doing. She knows Donald Trump, and that’s why she can get under his skin by just being herself. She’s so politically in tune with people. She understands that Donald Trump has a fear of being exposed that he’s in over his head as president of the United States.”
The knife edge of the impeachment effort has been California Congressman Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, whose unflappability in the glare of the impeachment hearings has stood out all the more when juxtaposed with the sulky fury and bizarre pushing of debunked conspiracy theories by bizarro-world opposite, Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, whose Central California district includes Fresno. Nunes went from widespread ridicule—“Devin Nunes Accuses Witnesses of Misleading American People With Facts” was the satirical headline of an Andy Borowitz New Yorker piece—to accusations, just as the hearings were wrapping up, that he’s actually implicated in the Ukraine shakedown scandal himself. As Charlie Pierce wrote at Esquire.com, “Lev Parnas, one of Rudy Giuliani’s Volga Bagmen who now sits under federal indictment, has indicated that he can put Rep. Devin Nunes, the famous White House lawn ornament, in the middle of the effort to concoct the Ukrainian Fantasy about the ratfucking of the 2016 election.”
Nunes, along with Kevin McCarthy the leaders of a shrinking-before-our-eyes, all-in-on-Trumpism California Republican delegation, both led the party strategy of turning the hearings into a sideshow—the weirder and crazier, apparently, the better. (I kept waiting for Nunes to return from one of his frequent restroom breaks and start juggling flaming torches as he played the kazoo.) The strategy may have had short-term benefits, at least when it came to easily led media types eager to demonstrate that they themselves could be manipulated, but dangerous in that it left an opening for Schiff, by contrast, to come across as serious and trustworthy, willing to let the facts speak for themselves.
“I’m very pleased that the investigation into the Ukrainian phone call is under the authority of chairman Schiff,” says Panetta, himself a former prosecutor. “I’ve had a lot of conversations about this with him. He looks at cases like a prosecutor. He makes sure we put all the evidence out there upon which the American people, and Congress, can make a decision.”
Not only is Jimmy Panetta the son of former Defense Secretary and California Congressman Leon Panetta, he’s also married to Carrie McIntyre Panetta, a Monterey County Superior Court Judge.
“It’s easy to be a good prosecutor when you have the evidence,” says Jimmy Panetta. “That combined with Schiff’s amazing knowledge of the law and a very cool demeanor is a very good combination. It reminds me of my wife, who is a judge; she understands the law and she understands people. Schiff did a great job running that hearing, pushing back on the Republican theatrics, and making sure the evidence is getting out there from the witnesses, not from the Republican members. Let’s help the American people rely on what the witnesses said, not the screaming and yelling of the Republicans on the committee.”
Californians like to cut through the fog to form a clear view of the future. This state has led the way often enough that it’s a responsibility and a duty of Californians to continue to look for ways forward, some of which will succeed, and some will fail. But we can confront the future not with fear or anger, but with optimism and hope and belief in the power of bringing diverse people together to forge a stronger whole.
We in California have played an outsized role in counterbalancing Trumpism, and we will also play an outsized role in helping lead the way toward a new post-Trump world. Let’s be very clear: This will be hard, very hard. Trumpism played off of–and magnified–weaknesses of human character, the ease with which some are seduced by power, and the the terrifying ease with which hate and recrimination can take over any conversation. The healing and rebuilding need to start even before Trump and the presidency are, somehow, disentangled.
“People need to understand that yes, our democracy is based on our values, but it’s left up to people to implement those values,” says Panetta. “It’s left up to moral people, people who have the morality to push these values forward. As we go forward, as we act and work with each other, in Congress but also in our society, we have to realize that … this is a democracy that’s about relationships and about trust, and we have to work on that.”
Swalwell believes Panetta will be a big part of that. “My respect for Jimmy is rooted in his service to the community as a trusted prosecutor, to the country as a solider, and now to the Congress as an advocate for bipartisan collaboration,” says Swalwell. “I’ve known him as he’s worked in all three roles, and think very highly of him.”
Like the resistance thus far, the post-Trump recovery will have to start at a grassroots, interpersonal level, Panetta says. “Yes, it can be difficult with technology where people can sit at their desks and send out a social-media post and not see that reaction from another person that yes, you’re being offensive,” he says. “It takes actually getting out and looking people eye to eye and talking to them. I think there needs to be a little more humility in how we conduct ourselves, not just in Congress, but in our society. There has to be a continuing curiosity about people … Ideally you want people to get out from their computers, get out from their Twitter and Facebook accounts, and make sure they actually get in front of people: Have the fortitude to look someone in the eye and actually say something, whether it be positive or negative.”
The challenge is always to keep people interested and engaged between elections, not just every four years. Looking ahead to 2020, Swalwell sees a political earthquake.
“There is going to be a reckoning at the ballot box regardless of what happens on impeachment, and I think it will cascade after that,” Swalwell said. “As a Californian, I know personally what Prop. 187 did to the Republican Party in California. They have not climbed out of that hole, for the way they treated immigrants, particularly of Hispanic descent, and look at the delegation they now have in Congress. In the upcoming national elections, those that sought to be Donald Trump’s public defenders are not going to be along much longer in public life.”
It was telling during the recent televised impeachment hearings how often Republican defenders resorted to yelling, interrupting and various other antics. A political science professor at Berkeley taught me years ago that you could learn a lot about a presidential debate by turning off the sound. Who looks calm and collected? Who makes good eye contact? Who comes off as sweaty and nervous? Who seems intent on distraction? Who has worked himself up into such a state of actual or fake anger that he barely listens to a word anyone says to him?
A great fight lies ahead to mobilize and bring about the electoral defeat of Trumpism, whether the orange one himself is actually a candidate next year, or Nikki Haley or someone of her ilk runs as a Trumpist candidate, but it’s a fight we now know we can win–the first step toward undoing the damage of these years, and looking for new ways to bring people together.
We also need to point the way forward—as California has been doing, but especially needs to do now, above all by tackling its own problems, which are epic, and making the most of its best qualities, like diversity and a flair for innovation. As I wrote in a June 2018 New York Times piece: “In the Trump era, the state is reinventing itself as the moral and cultural center of a new America.”
It now falls to us to challenge ourselves to do better in that role of leadership, both in terms of solving our own problems so we can serve as role models and in being vocal and active, without falling back on easy answers or old pieties. We no longer have the luxury of the smugness this state has developed a reputation for, and I say this as a fifth-generation Californian, the descendent of 49ers and Spanish colonialists.
We don’t have to meet anger with anger, or insult with insult. We just have stick up for California values – from innovation to respect for diversity to commitment to fighting climate change, even with bold steps like mandating all new homes be solar-equipped. As I wrote in the Times, “California doesn’t just oppose Mr. Trump; it offers a better alternative to the America he promises.”