Profiles in Courage vs. Safety in Numbers

At last we can proclaim a sentence so many Americans have been waiting for: the majority of registered voters—not just registered Democratic voters but all registered voters—now believe that Donald Trump should be impeached.

This majority doesn’t yet poll as feeling he should be removed from office, but that number itself is approaching almost half, at 47 percent—and that’s even before formal public hearings have begun. Furthermore, it’s heartening that Americans now seem to grasp what schools no longer teach: the difference between impeachment and removal.

Safety in numbers, the saying goes. That’s certainly been demonstrable throughout history, by humans and at least some other animals. Lemmings, for instance, are notorious for quickly huddling together when frightened and then running as a mass in the same direction although it leads them off the edge of a cliff—even if they can clearly see in advance that it will lead them off the edge of a cliff. That’s what can happen if you have an automaton sense of community and you’ve surrendered your agency.

On the other hand, the #MeToo “overnight success” took almost 30 years to gather a following, from Anita Hill (1991) and then Tarana Burke (2006) and later Ashley Judd and the Hollywood glitterati (2017). That’s what happens when you’ve been robbed of your sense of community and kept powerless, without agency.

But in either type of situation, swiftly or slowly, safety in any form arrives only after one person has decided that the situation, no matter how perilous, is too intolerable to remain silent and inactive.

Which brings us, as you may have intuited, to the Whistleblower—and now a few more whistleblowers in more government departments coming forward with still more damning information demonstrating Trump’s obsession to force Ukraine to re-re-reinvestigate the Bidens in order to smear his chief political rival. Correction: it wasn’t just Ukraine Trump pressured: he also tried to shake down China to interfere in our elections in a similar way, and god knows who else he asked (Saudi Arabia? North Korea?) because the texts just keep on coming and his tweets keep on twitting—and these aren’t even the documents still stored on that super-secret server! Everyone knows his playbook by now. As usual, he denies, deflects, reverses the accusations, and finally when he feels himself cornered, admits he did do it and was right to do it because he has “absolute power” to have done what he did. Take that, Adams and Jefferson!

What my brain keeps circling, though, is why at this late stage there still are any holdouts left defending Trump (outside of his fanatic loyalists, of course). Oh, I can understand the small hard core who actually believe him and believe in him. That is, I understand them the way I understand squid: with an amorphous albeit minimal recognition of another life form devoid of any real comprehension, no matter how diligently I study its habits and habitat.

But all those senators who privately roll their eyes and express disgust, then publicly go mute—they’re the ones who mystify me. I’m not naïve, but really. Do a few more months in power make that much difference to them? Do they think that they can squeeze through enough gerrymandering and bank forgiveness and Torquemada judicial appointments to make it worthwhile? Surely they must know they’re going down next year—which is why so many in both houses are quietly resigning or announcing they won’t run again. They’re home in their districts at present, getting an earful from their constituents, and that might stiffen a few spines, but so far, they remain blank-eyed galley slaves rowing the Trump-NRA galleon across the River Styx. This, despite how objectively rewarding the temptation to rebel must be.

After all, each of them must know that the first one to step forward and break the silence earns a place in history as a profile in courage (and the respect of her or his children). That’s not tempting? Surely each of them must know that a second rebel voice will then follow, and a third—just as with the whistleblowers. Then the trickle strengthens to a steady flow, and then all at once it’s a flood. By that time, the flood changes metaphor and gets renamed: rats deserting the sinking ship. Wouldn’t you rather be a profile in courage than a drowning rodent? It’s not as if these people are in desperate need of their jobs; most Republicans in the Senate were millionaires before they ever ran for office. If infatuation with power keeps them clinging there, they should know by now that their power is illusory—fading fast, and even back when strongest, in service to Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump, both of whom are on a downward trajectory.

Or you could put it another way. Donald and Mitch are the twin Leader Lemmings heading for the cliff.

The Whistleblowers, however, like Anita Hill and all who followed her, embody a different sentiment entirely, one beautifully phrased in a proverb of the Inuit people of Northwest Canada and Alaska:

It is the first swimmer on the ice who gets the most cut. The second finds the ice broken, and the third finds it gone.