It was the beginning — for some — of an existential crisis and it started with Obama. His elevation to the highest office in the land exposed scar tissue that had never been that well hidden from view. The old wounds — it seemed — had never fully healed. The divisions we thought long composted to mulch were brought back into razor-sharp focus. It was rarely spoken out loud of course. But the subtext was writ large across every mean-spirited tweet, each grudge, invective and faux outrage. This country used to be whiter. Let’s impeach that Black guy.
The new American truth that was revealed it in 2016 was two terms of a Black president in the making. They unfurled their pent-up frustration like the rotting standard of a disgraced military corps. They planted it deep in the heart of the collective conscience. In their support for President Donald Trump, we saw a reflection of our own worst instincts. Venal, vain and greedy Trump personified the political instincts of the amateur invested in the Manichean hues of ‘common sense’, wisdom.
Thoughts of impeachment were easily dismissed in those early days of pre-administration. The wishful fever-dreams of panicked progressives merely fed the opposition’s schadenfreude.
‘Sore losers’, they admonished.’ ‘Also-rans’, they scoffed.
Furtive glances towards the electoral college brought only disappointment. Clauses were dusted off, debated and then derided for their lack of immediacy. Armchair philosophers championed 25th amendment mulligans. And beneath it all, ‘Russia’, a ‘nothing-burger’ on slow broil. The sense that something was amiss lingered like a bad smell in an elevator.
Questions turned to doubts, doubts turned into suspicions.
The appointment of Robert Mueller III as Special Counsel in May 2017 was a turning point. The preceding months had been filled with half-truths and evasions coupled with a series of high profile resignations, spur of the moment recusals and off the cuff rebuttals. Trump lawyered up amidst vociferous denials of wrongdoing. Then his lawyers started lawyering up.
So enervated, the fever dream began to look more like a waking nightmare. There was smoke – and plenty of it – but the actual conflagration, was obfuscated. Pulses quickened.
Impeachment is a political process as much as a legal one. The levees the founding fathers built against tyranny were born not from an engagement with Enlightenment principles but from an understanding of how flimsy such ideals are. Left to their own devices, humanity would — as it so often had in the past — trade natural rights for security without a moment’s hesitation. The concept of an electoral college was the first undemocratic barrier against populist demagoguery.
Impeachment was the second.
Would that they had defined the process better. As it so often the case with 18th-century texts, the audience was considered to be of little import. The inflexibility of a written constitution was offset by a deliberate ambiguity. The rules were set in stone but future governors would be given a chisel with which to chip in an addendum as they saw fit.
Senators participating in Clinton’s impeachment hearing were confronted with such an equivocation. They struggled to define the limits of their own power. What exactly are ‘High crimes and misdemeanors’ they asked?
‘Anything you want them to be’, was the ultimate conclusion.
The term ‘impeachable offense’, is after all broadly meaningless. Reagan could have been impeached over Iran Contra but wasn’t. Polk lied to the nation in order to go to war and escaped unscathed. Nixon secretly carpet bombed neutral Cambodia years before he was brought down with Watergate. George W Bush ordered the torture of prisoners and yet finished two terms of the presidency with his reputation mostly intact.
A President does not need to break the law in order to be impeached. He just needs to piss off the wrong people.
The Letters of the Law
The vague wording was no accident. Conscious that there was no way to enumerate every conceivable offense the founding fathers chose to temper ambiguity with the highest of bars. You could impeach a sitting official via a simple a majority in the House. But in the Senate, you had to get 67 colleagues on board.
Impeaching a president because you didn’t much care for him, because you disagreed with his policies, with his attitude, demeanor, choice of quality footwear or any number of miscellanea was out. It was reserved only for the most serious abuses of power. Barring such acts – when faced with the prospect of a person ill-suited to the presidency – the prognosis was simple. Suck it up. Just wait it out.
There are many compelling reasons to do so.
Trump has gone to great lengths to denude Mueller of credibility. In the absence of hard evidence of actual collusion, the prospect of removing Trump on grounds of obstruction or some other technicality is fraught with danger. The creation of a martyr-myth is perhaps the very last thing America needs right now.
The tale of a man who fought for the ‘little people’ and was removed by a deep state elite would grow with the telling. Trump’s more irritating foibles would fade from view as his message — such as it is — would be beamed out across the collective consciousness of generations to come. He would remain undefeated; a half-term president despised for his lack of sophistication and refusal to frolic in the swamp with all the other sophisticates.
Adolf Hitler benefitted greatly from such myths.
He promulgated the lie that Germany remained undefeated in battle during WWI. The war was lost – he fantasized – because Germany was ‘stabbed in the back’ by a Jewish conspiracy. The horror and deprivations of a war that cost millions of lives became a new narrative. Of conspiracy; a tale of defeat snatched from victory via the machinations of a pernicious enemy. World War One gave rise to World War Two on the back of such bullshit.
The removal of Trump in no way guarantees an end to Trumpism.
America’s taste for dynastic presidential candidates is real; Donald might not be the last Trump to take a shot at the White House. But regardless of the name on the ticket the risk of a less flawed persona riding on the coattails of his ‘illegitimate’, removal is a frightening prospect. Far better perhaps to consign him to the list of mediocre presidents; those one-term ‘forgettables’ whose defeats are synonymous with a referendum on their performance.
Pence from Heaven
In 1944 the British government officially abandoned attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Operation Foxley — as it was called — had gone through many iterations over the years and had enjoyed the full support of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But by November of that year doubts as to the wisdom of the plan loomed largely. Germany was close to being defeated and Hitler’s interference with military matters was partly to blame. Having blagged his way across the map of Europe wagging his finger at Generals who thought – correctly – that they knew better, his early windfalls evaporated at pace with the inflation of his ego.
By 1944 the British government began to see him as something of an asset, an incompetent autocrat meddling in matters of grave import. Why risk the elevation of someone less volatile to preeminence?
The immediate consequence would be the elevation of Pence. A lightweight homophobic glass of skimmed milk, he might be but like Lyndon B. Johnson, before him, he’s likely to grasp that his chances for survival rest on continuity. A continuation of all things Trump.
Defeating Pence in 2020 might be a difficult prospect. Supported by embittered Trumpettes his mainstream ‘short stack of pancake’ appeal could help claw back undecided voters. And if Trump were removed from office before his two year anniversary the Constitution would allow Pence to run for office again twice.
That would ten years of Mike Pence. President Pence until 2028.
Just let that sink in.
Left for Dead
He’d lose though, right?
The left has always lacked cohesion. They are at best a loose confederation of disparate ideas and radical postures that can – on occasion—put aside their differences in order defeat a common threat. The rot that lies at the heart of such a progressive alliance came out to play during the 2016 election. Vitriolic clashes between supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton may have been encouraged by Russian hackers but there was little novel in their use of divide and conquer tactics. The left loves to fight among themselves.
Still, Trump is so obnoxious, so exhausting that such differences will likely be put to one side in 2020 as progressives face their own existential threat. A ticket with the name Trump at the top of the ballot is one the left can defeat.
Pence is an unknown quantity.
A Mueller investigation concluding in September of 2018 would take potential impeachment proceedings to around Christmas time. That would leave Pence two years to establish himself as a safer pair of hands.
How could he appear otherwise?
Fears that Pence might somehow be the real villain of the story are probably overstated. Sure, he holds views antithetical to most liberal positions but then, what ranking member of the GOP does not? He would represent a return to normality of sorts. Pence would read from the auto queue. Pence would stay on topic. Trump might even make appearances at 2020 rallies positioning himself as a wounded bear, shot down in his prime proclaiming himself to be ‘The greatest impeached president of all time’.
Far better to defeat him in 2020.
Sure, we’d have to endure another two years –plus change — of madness and yes, there is no absolute guarantee of victory over him in the next presidential election. But such anxiety belies the need to play the long game here. A sound defeat puts paid to the populism malaise for a generation at least. Pence would become ‘Quale’, and any ambitions for a 2024 bid would take a serious – in all probability fatal – blow.
Which is not to say that there are no circumstances under which Trump should be impeached.
But it has to be significant, it has to be weighty. It needs — at the very least — to be something that would incense all but the most hardened Fox news viewer.
Mueller needs to do more than find the smoking gun; he needs to track down footage of the person who started the conflagration. If Trump colluded, if he committed something that even smells like ‘treason’, then he perpetrated something that cannot be allowed to stand. But probable cause and technical violations are simply not going to cut it. Even were the House to flip in 2018 – which seems likely – an acquittal in the Senate for all but the most egregious of charges is a near certainty.
Such an acquittal would allow him to limp on; an embattled figure, down but not out. Removing him for the sake of simply removing him would be worse. Much worse.
Because, for the dubious reward of sparing us two years of Trump, we would risk redefining Trumpism. Redefining it as a force majeure without end.
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