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Trump's impeachment trial is being tuned out by America because no one thinks it matters

The stock market isn't freaking out, everyone sees Washington as corrupt, and Congress is too partisan to deliver a surprising outcome.
Image: A television plays impeachment coverage while a man looks at his cell phone in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 22, 2020.
A television plays impeachment coverage while a man looks at his cell phone in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 22.Al Drago / Getty Images file

American soap operas are not popular these days. And yet, the Senate trial to remove President Donald Trump from office is currently garnering fewer viewers than the soaps. The conservative online magazine The Federalist consulted Nielsen ratings and used them to argue: “More people would rather watch the predictable, fake melodrama offered by soap operas than the predictable, fake melodrama currently being peddled by the Democrats.”

Trump’s impeachment trial also suffers from the fact that the central topic is foreign policy rather than, say, sexual indiscretions and lying about them under oath.

Just over 4 million people, in a country of 320 million-plus, tuned in for the opening arguments on the three big networks last week. That’s well less than the 11 million people who regularly watch the soaps on those channels. Fox News viewership was sent “skyrocketing” when Trump’s defense team got going on Saturday, The Washington Examiner reported, but the audience was still in the low millions.

In other words, Americans are collectively yawning at the Senate impeachment trial. Folks who are deeply engaged in the political process are wondering why, but the big-picture answer is fairly simple. Most Americans are motivated not by the propriety of our politics but by its effects on their lives. In the impeachment and attempted removal of Trump, they’ve been given little reason to panic — or even care.

There are many reasons for this that are worth noting. And the main one is probably this: The conclusion seems foreordained. Whatever the merits of impeachment (I argued here previously that one article is a dud and the other a judgment call), the members of the House largely voted along party lines to impeach Trump. There wasn’t much suspense because the Democrats enjoy a majority, so impeachment carried the day as expected. We’ve been given no reason to think things will go much differently in the Senate, where the president’s party holds a majority.

Plenty of ink and pixels have been spilled about the Republicans who might break ranks and support impeachment, but that cuts the other way as well. A few Republicans might defect. But so might a few Democrats. The result will still be that Trump stays in office. And thus far, the main fight has focused on the inside-baseball question of whether there will be witnesses at the trial, a much lesser issue than actual removal, and even that is looking like it will get only a handful of GOP supporters.

The other major force for getting Americans’ attention would be if the process itself seemed like it could rock everyday life. But the most sensitive measure of whether a discrete event is likely to disrupt the well-being of the world — the stock market — is showing no signs of freaking out.

In fact, the stock market has trended upward throughout the impeachment process. Either the market doesn’t expect Trump to be removed or it doesn’t care. One large dip did occur on Monday, when the Dow Jones dropped 1.6 percent, but it was most likely related to something else entirely: China’s latest pandemic mess.

Then there’s the matter of what a post-Trump White House would look like: one still held by a Republican, and a far more predictable one at that. In contrast, when Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Bill Clinton, plenty of people in his own party worried about an Al Gore presidency for reasons ranging from his temperament to his green agenda. Similarly, when Democrats flirted with impeaching President George W. Bush, they ultimately flinched in part because putting Dick Cheney in the Oval Office was unthinkable to them.

Vice President Mike Pence is different. Yes, Pence is a staunch social conservative. He’s also an ineffectual one, who largely retreated on the most high-profile religious freedom legislation of his Indiana governorship after a backlash for its effect on the LGBT community. He likely would have lost his seat had he not joined Trump on the national ticket.

Trump’s impeachment trial also suffers from the fact that the central topic is foreign policy rather than, say, sexual indiscretions and lying about them under oath. Most Americans don't care much about foreign policy; it managed to eke out a distant fourth in a list of priorities in a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, and that’s only if you consider “terrorism” a synonym. The idea that the president is being impeached because of a temporary delay of U.S. aid to the government of Ukraine is literally too distant an issue to rile up many people.

Furthermore, to the extent that Americans are following the details of these foreign dealings and think Trump did something improper here, there’s little to suggest they see it as far outside of normal Washington corruption. The charge is that he tried to game the system to get a foreign government to look into … another American politician’s alleged corrupt gaming of the system in a foreign country.

Perhaps if the living memory many of us carry of the last impeachment were more traumatic, that, too, could shake the country. But it’s not. Those of us who recall Clinton’s impeachment know that we got through that ordeal with minimal damage to the state of the union. Republicans in the House impeached the president. The Senate held a short trial and let him off, and that was that. There was no transfer of power, no constitutional crisis, no sign of economic fallout.

And there may be one last reason why American viewers are yawning now. We’re in January of an election year. The House has had its say. Now the Senate is about to weigh in. But they’re both a sideshow to the main event. The American people will render its own verdict on the president in just a few short months.