Why Not Impeach?

By: Andrew Levine | March 22, 2019
Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair
Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

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What sensate, morally decent human being could fail to appreciate newly elected Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s call “to impeach the motherfucker!”  She was referring of course, to Donald Trump.

What her words, taken literally, call for is a formal indictment, rendered by the House of Representatives that would lead to a trial in the United States Senate.  Conviction at trial, not impeachment by itself, would make Trump’s removal from office legally mandatory.

Tlaib surely knows this and so, most likely, do most of the tens of millions of Americans who agree with her and support the stand she took.

Therefore, when they call for impeachment, what they are really calling for is not impeachment per se, but the initiation of a process that, if successful, would cause the Donald to be gone in the way that the Constitution prescribes.

This assumes that Trump, his minions, and his supporters, a third or more of the population, don’t resort to extra-Constitutional means to hold onto power; or that, if they do, that their efforts fail.

Before Trump, the idea that an American president might defy the Constitution by seeking to hold onto power by force was unthinkable.  Most people nowadays still think it is; and they are probably right.  With Trump, however, anything, no matter how perfidious, is possible.

Were Trump gone, a process of de-Trumpification could begin. Not all the harm he has done, and will go on to do as long as he remains president, can be undone, but some of it can; the sooner and more thoroughly the process get underway, the better.

What sensate, morally decent human being wouldn’t want that?

***

On the face of it, it looks like Nancy Pelosi wouldn’t.  She has said that Trump isn’t worth it. Many, maybe most, Democrats are so far siding with her.  These would be the kinds of Democrats who were gung-ho for Hillary, and who thought that Obama, drones and all, was God’s gift to the Indispensable Nation; Democrats who look to Joe Biden, of all people, or someone with similarly “moderate” or “centrist” views, for salvation.

Pelosi is an adept politician who wields a lot of power in the Democratic caucus, and this would not be the first time that she and other corporate Democrats put the kybosh on the impeachment of an Oval Office malefactor.  It happened after the Democratic victories in the 2006 midterms as well.

Back then, Democrats didn’t have the excuse that with Republicans controlling the Senate, the effort would be futile.  Like now, though, they were looking ahead to a presidential election two years off. They didn’t want to rock the boat for the Democratic candidate.

In 2006, the understanding, at first, was that Hillary Clin0ton would be the one they thought they could benefit by not going after George W. Bush.  As it became clear eventually that Barack Obama would be the Democratic standard-bearer, Pelosi’s and her fellow Democrats’ opposition to impeachment, in Tlaib’s sense, remained steadfast.  The woman is impeachment averse, and so are most of her co-thinkers.

This was unfortunate because even had they tried and failed to remove George W. Bush from office before 2008, the lethality of the Bush-Cheney wars in Afghanistan and Iraq might have diminished somewhat.

This is just one of many reasons why it grieves me to agree with Pelosi and her co-thinkers.

Nevertheless, I would venture that impeachment-skeptics like Pelosi are more right than wrong, and therefore that Tlaib and those who think like her are more wrong than right. Their hearts are in the right place, and their fervor is as warranted as can be, but they are mistaken nevertheless.

Pelosi said that impeachment isn’t worth it.  The reason she gave, that Trump isn’t worth it, is true but irrelevant.  A better reason is that his removal from office, even if it could be achieved, which it almost certainly could not – not with Republicans running his trial and making the final call – wouldn’t be worth it.

There is a funny but true side to this unhappy state of affairs.  If Trump is still around, and if the Justice Department sticks to its policy of never indicting sitting presidents, cases, Trump, thinking it and “No Collusion” are equivalent, could run in 2020 on the slogan “Never Indicted.”

If it is true, as many pundits claim, that sticking it to liberals and old school Republicans matters even more to Trump and the marks he has conned into supporting him than sticking it to Muslims and people of color, that slogan should work well enough for the people who, as Trump put it, would like him even more were he to walk out onto Fifth Avenue and shoot a random person.  They like Trump because he revels in breaking norms.

On the one hand,  “Make America Great – in other words, White — Again” is too transparently racist for all but the alt-right fringe in the Trump base, who don’t care because they flaunt their own racism.    This has become a lot clearer than it was two years ago, when Trump’s MAGA slogan seemed mainly to be about economic dislocation.  By now, it is widely understood that what Trump is doing is continuing the Richard Nixon – Pat Buchanan Southern Strategy.

“Never Indicted,” on the other hand, sounds like something a big city machine politician, angling for a bigger place at the trough, might come up with, if he (it would of course be a he) could think of nothing more edifying to say.  For capturing the Trump persona, the part that appeals to those who are susceptible to Trumpian blandishments, this would be squarely on point; and, if what we are told is correct, that is what Trump likes too – foreign autocrats, mob bosses, old fashioned no bullshit machine pols.

The Justice Department’s rationale for its no indictments policy is that presidents are too busy attending to the nation’s business to deal with such mundane matters as defending themselves against charges of colluding with foreign governments and obstructing justice.

In Trump’s case, a trial would cut into too much of the copious “executive time. ”Neither his fragile psyche nor Fox News’ ratings could withstand that.

In a better possible world, only a fool would find that argument persuasive; of course, Trump should stand indicted like the common criminal he surely is.  But this hardly matters.  Fools abound.  That Trump was ever elected, and that the people he conned remain loyal to him demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt, that, as P.T. Barnum is supposed to have said, “there is one born every minute.”

Since the founding of the Republic, only two presidents have been impeached, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.  Neither of them was subsequently removed from office.  Had Richard Nixon not resigned, he would surely have become the first and so far the only American president to be dispatched that way.

The only way Trump could become first is if the Republican Party were to turn on him.  This is extremely unlikely to happen in time for the 2020 election; he has the

Republican Party is in his pocket.  Witness the abject servility of eternal sidekick Lindsay Graham.

Graham and John McCain were soul mates.  Of all the prominent Republicans who had badmouthed Trump before he won the nomination, McCain’s opposition was perhaps the most principled; accordingly, Graham followed suit, as any respectable sidekick would.  Then no sooner did McCain die on him than he decided to become the Donald’s bitch.   How pathetic!  How abject! And how revealing of the Republican soul!

***

There is no shortage of learned jibber jabber on what the standards for impeachment are supposed to be. Inasmuch as Holy Writ is vague on the topic, this is only to be expected. Thus commentary is indispensable.

What the Constitution says explicitly is that treason, bribery, and other “high crimes and misdemeanors” are grounds for removal.  It also strongly suggests that nothing else is.  Arguably, nothing else has to be because “high crimes and misdemeanors” could designate almost anything.

At the same time, we are told that impeachment in Tlaib’s sense is a political, not a legal, process; that it is how the authors of the Constitution determined that we, the people, could break free from unfortunate electoral choices — as circumstances change or as new information about the people we voted for becomes available.

In parliamentary systems, there can be votes of no confidence that would lead to new elections. Nearly all liberal democracies have some way of doing this, some functional equivalent.  The American way is probably the least (small-d) democratic of all. It is also, as I will point out momentarily, the least remedial.

What the connection is between impeachment – using the word now as shorthand for the entire process, not just its initial stage — as a quasi-legal affair, the rules of which are largely indeterminate, and impeachment as a political process is unclear.  Since impeachments of presidents are rare, this has not so far been a problem.  That could change – very soon.

Ironically, though, as was the case with Al Capone and taxes, Trump’s violations of the emoluments clause and his flirtations (or more) with bribery and treason, and his “high crimes and misdemeanors,” are the least of it.

As president, Trump poses a clear and present danger to life on earth “as we know it.”  He could, in a fit of pique, start a nuclear war.  Or, unless he tamps down on the demons he has unleashed, he could precipitate a civil war that would bring out the very worst in at least a third of the vaunted “Trump base.”  And it isn’t just “conspiracy theorists” who see Trump laying the groundwork for race wars ahead.

It is fair to speculate too, as I did, that, facing almost certain prison time once he becomes a civilian again, Trump could see to it that the next transfer of power at the national level will not be a peaceful one. Many of the norms and practices that Trump has undone or put in mortal jeopardy are of dubious value. The idea that power should be transferred peacefully is not among them; it is a norm and practice eminently worth defending.

Were impeachment in Tlaib’s sense not such a plain non-starter in a Republican controlled Senate, then, by all means, the thing to do now would be to go all out trying to impeach the motherfucker.

As it is, though, there is nothing to do but wait him out, hobbling him as much as possible, hoping that our luck does not run out, and that the consequences of mistakes made two years ago will somehow not hit the fan before unimaginable harm happens.

For those who find Pelosian impeachment-aversion unbearable in Trump’s case, it can be helpful to speculate on what would happen if GOP Senators somehow would break free from the Donald’s control.

Pondering that question can be instructive because the issue is more complicated than may at first appear. With votes of no confidence, new elections follow.  That is not what would happen were Trump removed from office.

What would happen is Mike Pence.  That is reason enough not to convict an impeached Trump in a Senate trial, but instead to let the remainder of the Trump-Pence term, hobbled as much as could be, play itself out.

It might make sense for the House to investigate to the hilt as if they wanted to send the matter on to the Senate for trial.  There is a risk in that, a risk of stirring up false hopes, but to get Trump down, but not out, would be a risky business in any case.

If anybody could make Trump look good, Pence is the one.  He does not seem dangerous in the ways that Trump is; he is not deranged. He is able to maintain self-control.

But neither is he just a piece of white bread or a hapless stooge who, in the presence of his Master, sports an adoring smile as seemingly surgically affixed as Nancy Reagan’s.

Pence is a committed theocrat, with all that entails; a true believer in the nonsense Trump, one of the world’s most Fallen men, incongruously spouts.

Trump is worse, of course; he is worse than almost anyone.  But were Trump gone, the relief would be so palpable, at least for a while, that the spirit of resistance that is now in the air, would likely soon fade away into the ether.

In time, of course, a President Pence would come to be properly hated too. It would take time for that hatred to mature, however.

And while that is happening, the Trump administration, minus Trump, would be there still.  It is a full-fledged kakistocracy, a system in which the worst, the most ignorant, the most incompetent, the most vile rule.

Would Pence, do anything to change that?  The question practically answers itself.  Kakistocracy is Pence’s element; in his own bland way, he thrives in it.

Ironically, our salvation is that, in this instance, we don’t have to beware what we wish for, because, barring unforeseeable developments, Trump is going nowhere.

“Impeach the motherfucker talk” is inspiring and aspirational, but all it is, or now can be, is talk.  Thank those damn “founders” of ours for that; they outdid themselves keeping democracy at bay.

Meanwhile, between now and the time when all that talk is able, finally, to underwrite action, not just contemplation, we have plenty to do, figuring out precisely what it is that we want; and, more urgently still, making sure that the Donald doesn’t get what he wants, that he is hobbled at every turn.

Indeed, our job from now until the next Inauguration Day is to do all we can to see to it that Trump’s aspirations, and those of his minions, friends, and allies are at least as frustrated as our own.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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