So, it’s on. Democrats announced this past Tuesday morning that they are moving forward with the impeachment of Donald Trump on two counts: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The House Judiciary Committee approved these articles on Friday, and a final House vote on impeachment seems poised to take place next week. Democrats, including many progressives who I know and love, are giddy with excitement. But they shouldn’t be. Impeachment is a loser, both politically and Constitutionally. In fact, it’s a Constitutional loser precisely because it’s a political loser, but for clarity’s sake, let’s take these one at a time.
The supposition that impeachment could be a political loser is baffling to many liberals. After all, Trump is guilty of everything the Democrats say he is. He certainly pressured the president of Ukraine into investigating Hunter Biden. He certainly, at the very least, intimated a quid-pro-quo kind of arrangement by which Ukraine would receive military aid in exchange for conducting an investigation of Trump’s potential 2020 election rival. It’s a rather open and shut case, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no. It’s open and shut in the same way that Hillary Clinton was clearly the more “qualified” of the two candidates facing off in 2016. It’s true, yes, but still, somehow, not persuasive. The impeachment dilemma, like the 2016 election itself, is one of those unsolvable riddles for the liberal class. Never forget, on Election Day 2016, 17% of Trump’s own supporters thought he was unqualified to be president, but voted for him anyway.
This paradox is because to his voters, Trump is a disruptor. Disruption, of one form or another (be it economic populism, fascistic nativism, or simply “shaking things up” in the halls of power themselves), was the animating principle of his coalition, and it still is. And part of the deal when you elect a disruptor is that he’s probably gonna do some shit that he’s not supposed to do. This is why, to the Democrats’ and their media allies’ amazement, Trump’s approval numbers barely ever move, despite scandal after scandal that would take down any other president.
Hush money to a porn star? If any other president, particularly Trump’s predecessor, had been caught using campaign funds in that way, it’d be game over. But Trump isn’t any other president. In fact, his election was in many ways a rebuke of the norms - behavioral, procedural, and perhaps even Constitutional - established and upheld by the White House’s 44 previous occupants and their administrations.
That’s one dynamic. The other dynamic is that there’s a sense out there that Trump’s transgressions aren’t actually unique to him, but that he’s just big enough, brazen enough, and unpolished enough to do this stuff out in the open for all to see. This is the “they all do it” defense, if you will.
And whether or not it can be proven that “they all do it,” enough people know enough about politics, and have enough rightful contempt for the rot that’s been at the core of our system for enough time now, that they pretty much feel they can bet on it. Bill Maher, ironically, does a tongue-in-cheek segment on his show called ‘I Don’t Know It For A Fact, I Just Know It’s True.’ The premise of the segment is essentially what I’ve outlined above, though it’s not actually a satirical take on Trumpism. Rather, one of the jokes, for example, is:
“I don’t know for a fact that Betsy Devos thinks Ronan Farrow is a Jewish holiday - I just know it’s true.”
Though Maher deploys this concept as a joke, he actually walks, obliviously, right past an important point about our current political climate.
The notion that one can know something without actually having to prove it is precisely what gives Trump the wiggle room he needs to get away with everything he does, because it allows him to paint his opponents as equally corrupt without actually substantiating his claims. For example, we don’t know for a fact that some of Bill Clinton’s mistresses (and/or victims) received envelopes of cash in exchange for their silence, but we can safely assume that some of them probably did. So really, what’s the big deal if Trump paid Stormy Daniels for her silence?
When it comes to the Emoluments Clause violations, which many liberals think are impeachable in their own right, you have the same type of situation. Sure, Trump has steered some money towards his different properties on different occasions throughout his presidency. For example, during a golf trip to one of his clubs, Secret Service agents spent over $28,000 at the Trump-owned resort. This is one of many instances in which Trump has certainly used his position as president for personal profit. So how does he get away with it? Why not impeach him over that? Well, was Dick Cheney’s $30 million severance package from Halliburton before starting a war that made them over $30 billion in contracts really all that different? Sure, technically it was. . .but not really. Or when Barack Obama failed to instruct his Justice Department to pursue indictments of the Wall Street frauds who caused the financial crisis, and then accepted six-figure paychecks for speeches given to some of those same financial institutions after leaving office, was that not an Emoluments violation? Of course, technically, legally speaking, it wasn’t. But, to us average Americans, yeah, it basically was. It’s certainly close in spirit. Because there’s no doubt had he cracked down on the financial services industry as he should have, he’d not have been offered those speaking gigs in his post-presidency. And how did Nancy Pelosi accrue a net worth north of $100 million while in office? Do we believe all of her dealings were on the up-and-up? True, we don’t know for a fact that there was any foul play there, but. . .you get the point. So again, when it comes to Trump, the average American thinks “28 grand at a golf club? Come on. Who cares?”
When you view the impeachment matter through this same lens, it’s obvious why this will be a political loser for Democrats. It’s not just that they, as Democrats, lack the moral authority to prosecute the case against Trump, it’s that to so many Americans, the Constitutional norms themselves lack the credibility to be worth defending against Trump’s infringements. Just as we don’t really care that much about payoffs to inconvenient women, or about politicians using their positions as public servants for personal enrichment, we also don’t really care about foreign interference in our elections. After all, the Democrats themselves just three years ago not only nominated, but anointed, a woman whose family charity organization raised hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign donations, all under the guise of philanthropy, only to have those donations dry up as soon as it became clear she wouldn’t be president.
For these reasons, whether you agree with them or not, I think impeachment will ultimately hurt the Democrats politically. Lament it all you like - call it false equivalency, call it muddying the waters, call it “whataboutism” (a word liberals simply made up to gaslight anyone who calls them out on their hypocrisy) - it’s the political reality.
Now, there’s a fairly large segment of the population who seem to think that impeachment is worth pursuing regardlessof political consequence, because we simply have a Constitutional obligation to hold Donald Trump accountable. And while this sounds good, and noble, and brave, it really doesn’t make any rational sense.
For one, if you think Donald Trump is a Putin puppet whose mission is to destroy our system of government from within, then surely you understand the urgency of defeating him in 2020. Should the House vote to impeach, as they no doubt will, an acquittal in the Senate is a virtual certainty. That means the 2020 election carries the only actual hope of removing Trump from office. Under this rationale, what helps Trump hurts the Constitution, period. Pretty simple.
But impeachment can do long-term damage to the very Constitutional systems and norms it intends to protect in another way, too. It’s a bit more complicated, but actually much scarier, because unlike the former, it’s not based on the ludicrous paranoid premise that Trump is a double agent for the Kremlin. It goes like this:
If Trump wins a second term, he will appoint at least one, probably two, maybe even three, Supreme Court justices before he leaves office. The probability of a 6-3, or even 7-2, conservative majority on the Court is very high in that scenario, and if such a majority were installed, the Right would essentially be able to strike down any and all progressive legislation for decades, if not generations, to come. We’re not just talking social issues like abortion and gay marriage, which would be bad enough. We’re talking issues of labor, healthcare, the environment, finance, etc.. Progressive priorities would be stuck in neutral for the foreseeable future - unlessan eventual Democratic president were to take drastic and unprecedented steps to either undo or render meaningless the conservatives’ stranglehold on the judiciary. This could involve things like court-packing, term limits, or major reforms to the confirmation process. Necessary as they’d be, the conservatives would certainly decry them as “attacks on our Constitutional system,” and they’d have a point.
So you see, if impeachment backfires politically and helps Trump win a second term, then we on the Left must either live under conservative hegemony for the rest of our lives, or we must fundamentally alter the role of the judicial branch of government. We’re simply not going to settle for the former, and so the latter would become inevitable. In that scenario, we progressives would spend the next several decades upending the very Constitutional system we now task ourselves with upholding.
Therefore, there is no real distinction between the political case for (or against) impeachment and the Constitutional one. The two are inextricable, because if it’s bad politics and it helps Trump win re-election, then we’ll have to not only defend what’s left of the Constitution from Trump himself in the short term, but in the long-term, we ourselves, as progressives, will have to redesign the entire system of checks and balances, lest we resign ourselves to live in perpetuity under right wing rule.
I’m not entirely sure where my readers stand on impeachment. I imagine it’s a mixed bag; but I know that just about all of you want Trump out of office as soon as possible. But when it comes to getting Trump out of there, I’m afraid, as the saying goes, ’the only way out is through.’ He’s gonna be there til at least January 19, 2021, and if impeachment backfires and extends his stay another four years, as I very much fear it could, the Constitution will be worse off for it.