Ezra Klein has a lengthy piece about impeachment and why he thinks it’s something we ought to be employing a bit more. (“The Case for Normalizing Impeachment,” Vox, 11/30/2017) In it, he describes how the language surrounding the process of impeachment is gray enough that it can be interpreted in many different ways. He also discusses how impeachment has been used so rarely as to have taken on the political firepower of a nuclear bomb and that politicians are frightened, rightly or wrongly, to deploy it. But as Klein makes clear, the situation we are in is dire enough that impeachment really should be a no-brainer:
Sometimes I imagine this era going catastrophically wrong — a nuclear exchange with North Korea, perhaps, or a genuine crisis in American democracy — and historians writing about it in the future. They will go back and read Trump’s tweets and his words and read what we were saying, and they will wonder what the hell was wrong with us. You knew, they’ll say. You knew everything you needed to know to stop this. And what will we say in response?
He also refers to a Ross Douthat column in which Douthat made the case for using the 25th amendment:
Douthat’s preference was to bypass impeachment entirely and invoke the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment, which permits the president’s removal if the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet certify him “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” was ratified in 1967 as a response to President Dwight Eisenhower’s health problems and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It is designed for a president who has fallen comatose or been shot — a president who has become physically incapable of carrying out his duties.
I wrote a response to the column in question, not looking at the grounds on which Douthat made his argument but rather focusing on what the potential fallout of executing the 25th amendment or impeachment would be, particularly among rabid Trump supporters:
[Trump] has an extremely loyal base who will view everyone involved in removing Trump as a traitor to the republic executing a coup. Pence, assuming he doesn’t get caught up in the string of scandals, would have only the support of relatively mild conservatives—people like Ross Douthat, for example.
All of this is my roundabout way of saying that even if Trump winds up meriting being removed from office, we shouldn’t disillusion ourselves to the belief that enough Americans will understand that it was the right thing to do, the best thing for the country, our allies, and the world. I can see armed right-wing militias pulling Bundy-like stunts in pockets across the heartland, and I can see a few of those incidents turning violent.
It must be understood that these people have been trained by right-wing media and politicians for several decades that there is a grand, liberal conspiracy out to get them, that they and their friends and family and country are under siege. And now they believe they have overcome the nefarious forces that have kept them down for so long, and in a blink of an eye those same forces removed the man they legitimately elected.
And Klein says something similar and has a follow-up:
To many of Trump’s supporters — and perhaps many of his opponents — this would look like nothing less than a coup; the swamp swallowing the man who sought to drain it. Imagine the Breitbart headlines, the Fox News chyrons. And would they truly be wrong? Whatever Trump is today, he was that man when he was elected too. The same speech patterns were in evidence; the same distractibility was present. The tweets, the conspiracy theories, the chaos: It was all there. The American people, mediated by the Electoral College, delivered their verdict; mustn’t it now be respected?
Here is the counterargument: Our political system was designed by men who believed the mass public could make mistakes, and so they set up failsafes, emergency processes by which political elites could act. The Electoral College, which was ironically the key to Trump’s victory, was one of those failsafes — a collection of political actors who would be informed by the popular vote, but not bound by it. Today, however, the ideology of democracy has taken fiercer hold, elites are held in low regard, and those failsafes are themselves failing.
The “objection,” if you want to call it that, that I have to a more liberal use of impeachment (or, really, the cynical way I think Republicans will use it in the future) is anticipated by Klein:
An objection to this is that it might lead to more common impeachment proceedings in the future. And indeed it might. Other developed countries operate on roughly that basis, with occasional no-confidence votes and snap elections being used to impose midterm accountability, and they get along just fine.
Impeachment under the American political system requires a majority in the House of Representatives and a two-thirds majority in the Senate; it is not easy to use and, as Republicans learned in the aftermath of their attempt to impeach Clinton, can backfire on those who use attempt it frivolously. It seems unlikely that America is at risk of regular or trivial impeachments even as it seems quite likely that the holders of an office as powerful as the American presidency might be well served to believe that impeachment is a real possibility if they perform their duties unacceptably poorly.
I think Klein is right that, should Trump be impeached, frivolous impeachments in the future would be difficult to accomplish, particularly because of the barrier in the senate. However, I think his other arguments don’t hold up.
As for other developed countries, their ability to recover from unsustainable coalitions, no-confidence votes, and snap elections is in part because they have a history of it. These countries also don’t wield the same kind of financial and military power that the United States does—there is a lot riding on what happens here, and moneyed interests have a lot more at stake, hence why they interfere so much in government, and as a result they are partly why we find ourselves where we are today.
Regarding the Republicans’ attempted impeachment of Bill Clinton that “backfired”—it backfired how, exactly? Sure, Clinton wasn’t removed from office. But how were Republicans in any way punished for this? In the very next election in 2000, they won the presidency, retained a house majority though lost 2 seats, and lost a few seats in the senate but kept it an even 50-50.
But more than that, the environment we are in is far more partisan. The right has a large and growing media apparatus, soon to be aided by the pro-Trump Sinclair Broadcasting infiltrating its way into the local news programs of millions and millions of Americans. The Koch brothers and other billionaire donors continue to pour money into the coffers of elected officials. A Republican senator like Marco Rubio can say that Obama was intentionally trying to destroy America, and he still has a career. I don’t think that Republicans, unless they somehow managed a two-thirds majority in the senate, would be successful in frivolous attempts to impeach a Democratic president for being a Democrat. But I believe they would try. I mean, the Republican-controlled house voted to repeal the AHCA over fifty times. Even though it led to ultimately nothing, Republicans investigated Benghazi for over two years. And let’s not forget that Republicans, even if they never took the first real step, constantly talked about how Obama should be impeached.
Although I firmly stand in the camp that Trump should be removed from office for any number of reasons, I think there is a real reason to fear that impeachment would lead to future Republican forays into attempts at impeachment for merely being a Democratic president. They’ll never say it that way, but they’ll come up with all sorts of bullshit reasons to impeach a sitting Democratic president—they’ll draw any comparison to Trump if they have to, saying “Well, Democrats were upset when Trump did x, and now this Democratic president did x, so impeachment!” Honestly, I believe they’ll do that even if Trump isn’t impeached and finishes out his term—there’s been too much impeachment talk for them to not talk about it constantly the next time a Democrat is elected president.
None of this is to say that these are reasons against impeaching Trump. It’s that we have to realize that doing so means the Republicans will use it as a weapon from here on out, whether they can actually pull it off successfully or not. And we can’t count on the public to be informed enough to know the difference.