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The Empty Suits of the Impeachment Hearing

The Democrats put on a spectacle that may have ended up underscoring the waning power of the meritocracy.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Career diplomats are not known for making fashion statements, but perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the House Intelligence Committee’s first day of impeachment hearings was what the two witnesses wore. George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, was resplendent in a three-piece suit and bright bowtie—a little explosion of color at the neck echoed by a matching pocket handkerchief. William Taylor Jr., America’s former top diplomat in Ukraine, was clad in more traditional attire, a plain dark suit, and yet the crisp lines of his collar and the exquisite knot in his sea-green tie suggested a certain rectitude that was once de rigueur in Washington but has since started to go out of style. Visually, they not only represented the buttoned-up decency and easy sophistication of America’s mandarin class, but also provided a contrast to the president who both lurks in the wings and is at the center of these hearings—the president with his gaudy hair and loud ties and gauche disdain for etiquette. The message, intended or otherwise, was that these two men are, unlike the president, unimpeachable.

I don’t mean to suggest that their clothes were more important than their testimony, which was damning and dramatic. But we knew most of the details before the hearing started. We knew that Trump and his cronies, led by Rudy Giuliani, had effectively created an alternate foreign policy universe in which military aid to Ukraine and a much-desired meeting between Trump and Ukraine’s president were held hostage to Ukraine announcing an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Taylor did reveal, for the first time, the substance of an overheard phone conversation between Trump and another crony, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. Yet in a corruption case that is almost comically open and shut—at least to those who dwell in what used to be called the reality-based community—this revelation amounted to another grain on the growing mountain of evidence that the president used American foreign policy for personal political gain.

The purpose of the hearings, in other words, was not merely to lay out the facts against Trump and to get them in the congressional record, but also to convince viewers at home that these now well-known facts were unassailable, through all the theater that Washington can muster, broadcast live from one of Congress’s cavernous chambers. Taylor and Kent and their fine suits are very much a part of that spectacle, revealing a lot about the kind of argument that the Democrats want to make. These people are humble, self-sacrificing patriots, yes. They hew to the hoary code of bipartisanship, of course, faithfully serving Democratic and Republican administrations alike. They are supremely well-educated and worldly, the cream of American meritocracy. And, unfortunately for the Democrats, they have never been more irrelevant.

Taylor and Kent were not only impeccably dressed, but also impeccably credentialed, impeccably behaved. Taylor graduated near the very top of his class at West Point, a biographical data point drawn out by his Democratic interlocutors. He served in Vietnam and won a lot of medals for his service, including for valor. He deflected the Republicans’ diversionary attacks with a toothy, playful grin, and when he spoke his right hand would grasp the air for emphasis, as if he were seizing the palpable point he wanted to drag out into the open, before sharpening into a jab of his index finger. He has a beautiful baritone to boot, seemingly destined to narrate the audiobook version of these impeachment hearings. Kent was equally impressive: Harvard graduate, expert on Russia and Ukraine, speaks roughly a gazillion languages, including Thai. He knew the exact percentage of Ukrainian territory annexed by the Russians in 2014 (it’s seven); he had memorized the dossier of every shadowy figure on the Ukrainian political-cum-oligarchic scene; he taught the English-speaking world, to its astonishment, that it had been pronouncing “Kiev” incorrectly the whole time (it’s keev not key-ehv, you philistines). Like Taylor, he retained his poise as the Republicans attempted to cloud Trump’s self-evident transgressions with all manner of Fox News agitprop. A crease in his brow, a raised eyebrow—these were the expressive heights of George Kent.

What is most remarkable about these two men is how unremarkable they would have been just a few years ago. We are so used to Trump and his parade of idiotic toadies that we’ve forgotten that American officials might know a thing or two about the world. No one exemplified this change better than the two witnesses’ principal antagonist, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, who has emerged as one of Trump’s most implacable defenders on the cable news circuit. He sat there like the living embodiment of Trollface, his lantern jaw spreading into a smile as he barked out every insane conspiracy theory that the right has conjured up to exonerate Trump and shift the blame to the Bidens. His bouldered shoulders were hunched, his iron-gray hair was thinning, and his eyes peered out over cheap black frames, looking exactly like the aging wrestling coach that, in another timeline, he surely would have been. And true to habit, he was the only man on the committee who showed up in his shirtsleeves, prompting The Washington Post’s fashion critic, Robin Givhan, to declare, “For dignity’s sake, Jim Jordan, put on a jacket.”

But Jordan has no dignity. That is, in fact, the whole point of his political career and the nihilistic movement that he belongs to: to destroy any semblance of dignity that this country’s democratic institutions once possessed. Only a political party with no dignity, no shame whatsoever, can trot out a person accused of turning a blind eye to rampant sexual abuse of student athletes to solemnly tut-tut about how the impeachment hearing of a staggeringly corrupt president is a “sad day for America.”

The spectacle of Taylor and Kent in all their rhetorical and sartorial finery constitutes a bet by the Democrats that dignity and reason and plain common sense still have some sway in our politics. The Republican transformation into the party of Donald Trump and Jim Jordan is a bet to the contrary—that what people really want is to tear down elite propriety and its accoutrements, the measured mid-Atlantic accent and the worsted vest. The braying of Jim Jordan grates on my ears and offends my intelligence, but I know that, in some awful sense, it is the rough sound of democracy that I’m hearing. I look at Bill Taylor and George Kent, meanwhile, exemplars of the men who once ran the world’s most powerful government, and I am skeptical that their smooth oration, their command of the truth, their shining garments, will have any impact at all—that this is still their country to save.