There Are Only Two Ways that this EndsRoundup
tags: impeachment, Trump
Andrew Meyer is a professor of history at Brooklyn College. He blogs at Madman of Chu.
Watching or reading the breathless coverage of the impeachment inquiry playing out in the House of Representatives, one would be forgiven for imagining that it is a drama pulsating with suspense. Will the House impeach? Will the Senate convict? Tune in tomorrow for our next exciting chapter. While both questions obviously spring to mind spontaneously, their answers are almost as spontaneously obvious: Yes, and No.
With regard to the first "Yes," Donald Trump has confessed to impeachable offenses on live television. Even if the president had not tried to coerce his Ukrainian counterpart (which he clearly did- the famous "quid pro quo" implicit in the phrase "do us a favor"), the use of his Article II powers as chief diplomat to seek help from a foreign government against a domestic political opponent is a textbook abuse of power. Add to this his transgression of Congressional authority, his resort to bribery, and a myriad other offenses, and anyone who has the least understanding of our constitutional order knows that the House must and will pass a Bill of Impeachment. A failure to impeach would be a gross dereliction of duty at this juncture, and arguments to the contrary by figures such as Louis Gohmert or Devin Nunes are rooted in grotesque fantasies.
But to expect this impeachment to result in Trump's removal from office would be to indulge in a fantasy just as absurd. The president still enjoys upwards of 80% approval among Republican voters in most polls. He has the power to "primary out" any Republican lawmaker that breaks ranks with him on any question, much less that of his own impeachment. Trump proved this in the case of Mark Sanford, ex-governor of South Carolina, who lost his House seat merely for suggesting that the president should be more polite. Under those conditions, expecting the 20 Republican senators that would have to vote with the Democrats in order for Trump to be removed from office to do so is wishful thinking of a delusional degree.
So if Trump must be impeached by the House but he will not be removed by the Senate, then how does this end? To arrive at the correct range of possible answers, one must first understand that the impeachment of Donald Trump will not end in the Senate. The impeachment is not a criminal trial, it is a deliberation over Trump's fitness for office. The arguments will be laid out for and against, and they (unfortunately, given the realities of the situation) will be voted on twice: the first time by the Senate, the second time by the electorate at large, in November of 2020. The final outcome of Donald J. Trump's impeachment hinges upon this second vote.
If the electorate deems the president fit to serve despite all of his abuses of power, then we will enter a new phase of our history as a nation. The president is already willing to use his office in the unrestrained pursuit of his own personal political (and financial) interests, even though he knows he is subject to the sanction of the voters in 2020. If he passes that threshold unscathed, he will feel even more liberated and immune to the consequences of official corruption. By the middle of his second term he will be so far on the wrong side of the law that, were the courts and Congress working according to anything that resembles our regular constitutional order, he would be subject to prosecution as soon as he left office. He will thus have to either find some way to remain president for life or undermine the normal operation of our institutions to protect himself and his family. What that would look like or how it would function could take on a number of forms (for example, disenfranchising voters of color by various means so as to guarantee that his successor would be a cat's paw), but one could be sure that it would entail the end of the Republic as we know it.
Alternatively, the impeachment of Donald Trump could result in his removal from office, only belatedly. If voters send Trump home in 2020, along with several of the Republican senators that voted for his acquittal, the constitutional order will have (eventually) operated as it was originally designed. Whether the administration that replaces Trump's will enjoy more success in managing policy, foreign and domestic, is an open question. But at least such a transition would guarantee the Republic in the abstract a new lease on life.
We have lived through periods like this before: when large groups of Americans gave their support to movements like the KKK or McCarthyism. The voters who are supporting Trump are expressing a similar willingness to trade away constitutional safeguards in pursuit of what they perceive to be urgent political ends (curtailing immigration, banning abortion, cutting taxes, etc.). The previous movements that presaged Trumpism failed, and the constitutional order persisted. But none of those earlier movements had managed to capture the White House.
The stakes of Trump's impeachment are thus very high. If Trump is not ultimately removed from office his subversion of the constitution will be made permanent, and the American experiment in democracy will effectively end. But that outcome does not hinge on what happens in the Senate. It will be decided, once and for all, at the ballot box in November of 2020.
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