Progressives are ready to see President Trump booted from the Oval Office. His racist, short-sighted policies, apparent personal corruption, and provocative, illiberal rhetoric have given opponents ample reason to wish him gone. But Democrats should tread carefully: A presidential impeachment could have dangerous consequences, especially if the ouster is initiated for the wrong reasons.
If there is a real opportunity to end Trump's presidency before the next election, it seems likely to present itself in the New Year: Democrats are taking control of the House of Representatives, clearing the way for impeachment, just at the moment Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Trump and his associates appears to be reaching a crescendo. It's possible Mueller could turn up empty-handed, but the president's hysterical reaction to the special counsel's maneuvering suggests otherwise. The endgame, it seems, will soon be afoot.
Any successful attempt to remove Trump, though, will require the backing of at least a few Republicans. That's where things get complicated, if for no other reason than pure mathematical improbability. The GOP still controls the Senate, which means for an impeachment effort to actually result in the president's conviction and ouster, Democrats will have to court some Republican votes. In other words, impeachment will need to be at least somewhat a bipartisan effort.
Even if Democrats could oust Trump without the help of Republicans, it wouldn't be a great idea. Undoing a presidential administration on a purely partisan basis would welcome charges of coup-making. Removing Trump from office is supposed to mitigate the threat he poses to democracy, not exacerbate or replace that threat with something even worse.
But a bipartisan movement for impeachment will be hard to muster. So far, even the president's most abhorrent antics haven't been enough to siphon off the GOP's unwavering support. Indeed, while Trump might be unpopular overall, he still has the backing of most rank-and-file Republicans. Republicans like Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) have given the president backing in the Russia investigation, while provocations that would've been unthinkable previously — suggesting there were good people on "both sides" of racial protests in Charlottesville — weren't ultimately enough to dislodge the party's support of the president.
That's not to say Republicans will back him forever. Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria provoked one of the loudest and most overt backlashes from the Republican establishment we've ever seen in Trump's presidency.
"Just a horrible piece of foreign policy," grumbled former Sen. Rick Santorum.
"This is a major mistake," added Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
A "stain on the honor of the United States" concluded Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Then, of course, came the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis.
An adventuristic, militaristic foreign policy has probably defined the 21st-century GOP more than any other feature; Republicans love war, and even Trump's ascendancy hasn't mitigated that tendency.
Trump's panic over falling markets may be another failing in the eyes of conservatives. The president has sought out a scapegoat, contemplating the firings of Commerce Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell — the latter possibility bringing rebukes from Republicans like Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.) and former Senate Banking Chairman Richard Shelby. If Trump's actions are perceived as making a lot of rich people less rich, his support among Republicans could very well waver.
So, perhaps a bipartisan push for impeachment isn't out of reach, after all. But progressives would be wise to remember that Republicans may be joining in their efforts because they are motivated either by the logic of American empire or by the desire to preserve American plutocracy.
Those are very un-progressive reasons, and that matters. Future Republican presidents may look at that precedent and decide they can operate freely — just so long as they don't challenge the party's enthusiasm for foreign adventures, and do everything in their power to preserve the fortunes of stockholders. Those probably aren't ideas Democratic constituencies want to empower.
Maybe Mueller will give Trump a clean bill of legal health. Maybe the voters in 2020 will decide the president's fate instead of special counsels or Congress. If not, though, it's not too early for Democrats to be carefully planning impeachment scenarios — and considering what might go wrong. The danger Trump poses to the democratic governance of this country — his embrace of tyrants and his disdain of norms — is great enough that Democrats and their allies may decide it's worth ousting him now and dealing with the resulting problems later.
They shouldn't fool themselves, though: Removing Trump from office will not be a clean process. It will produce a backlash. And the precedent created by such an effort might ripple through our politics for decades to come.