The impeachment panacea
Calls for the impeachment of President Trump have resumed, and they're louder than ever.
They began from the start of the Trump presidency. (My first column about whether a drive to impeach Trump would succeed ran on February 3, 2017, exactly two weeks after his inauguration.) They reached an early peak around the time the president fired FBI Director James Comey. They went into abeyance during much of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, as people waited for the outcome. They crested again during the weeks following the release of the Mueller Report but then faded again, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has made it abundantly clear she will not go forward with beginning the process of impeachment so long as the Republican-held Senate shows no signs of a willingness to convict and remove the president.
But now the demand for impeachment is back, fired by news that Trump apparently tried (no fewer than eight times, according to The Wall Street Journal) to get President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to initiate an investigation of Hunter Biden, the son of the current Democratic presidential frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden. The accusation has triggered widespread outrage and disgust, and passionate pleas for a vote on articles of impeachment, from the far left of the Democratic Party to the Never Trump center-right.
Some pundits have even gone so far as to suggest that a failure to move forward with an effort to remove Trump from office will demonstrate that "as a constitutional remedy," impeachment is a "dead letter" and in effect "doesn't exist." As one long-time Trump critic has put it, if the effort of the American president to get a foreign government to interfere on his behalf in an upcoming presidential election "is not impeachable, then the concept has no meaning."
The furious reaction to Trump's latest full-frontal assault on norms of presidential decorum and restraint is understandable. But it's a mistake to treat impeachment as if it's some kind of automatic process that gets initiated as soon as a certain line of propriety or even legality has been crossed, with the failure of that process to get underway a sign that the system itself is a catastrophic failure.
The decision about whether or not to impeach and remove a president is always an emphatically political one. There is no neutral and impartial mechanism — no extra-partisan, constitutional defense force — ready and waiting to swoop into action at the first (or 20th) sign of presidential corruption. Political actors need to assess and respond to the current state of public opinion, or be willing to take a risk on defying and attempting to change it, before they decide what to do.
The endless debate about whether this or that example of Trumpian bad behavior is "impeachable" therefore completely misses the point. The fact is that anything can be impeachable, provided there is sufficient public support. Likewise, impeachment (let alone conviction and removal by the Senate, which requires a super-majority of 67 votes in the upper chamber) will never happen if there isn't sufficient consensus in favor — or if those in a position of power lack confidence in their ability to change minds and build such a consensus through persuasion once the process has gotten underway.
Pelosi obviously has no such confidence. Is her fatalism warranted?
At the level of brute electoral calculation, it may well be. A number of her party's gains in 2018 were won in conservative-leaning districts that she fears could flip back to the GOP if the House majority goes too far in challenging the president. The same dynamic could make it harder for the Democrats to hold and pick up seats in the Senate in 2020. (This is also why Pelosi has worked so hard to rein in New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other outspoken left-leaning freshman members of the House.) Pelosi would rather look sober, responsible, restrained, and cautious — and try to beat the Republicans at the ballot box on every level by the widest possible margin next November. She also thinks this could be rendered more difficult if an impeachment vote galvanizes Trump's strongest supporters and his party as a whole to rally around him as he fights for his political life.
But even beyond these narrow electoral concerns, Pelosi may grasp something dark but deeply true about the character of politics in this moment — something that more passionate partisans on her own side can't seem to acknowledge or accept.
These partisans see Trump as so self-evidently awful that every time he commits some new outrage, they imagine that this time it will be different, this time people will finally turn against him. It never seems to happen, but that doesn't change the dynamic. The impulse to "écrasez l'infâme" (crush the loathsome thing) is so powerful that the expectation returns over and over again.
The reason nothing fundamental ever changes is that each side in our politics is so deeply entrenched in its own construal of reality. If the anti-Trump side thinks the president is undeniably revolting — a toxin that will sink the whole system of American democracy if we don't act to stop him — the right is divided. Some (Trump's strongest supporters) think he can do no wrong. But many others are well aware that he's corrupt. They just see the corruption as a slightly more egregious form of the debasement that pervades Washington and elite culture more broadly. From Congress and the executive branch to the mainstream media, the universities, Wall Street, and Hollywood, those who run the country rig the system to benefit themselves and try to conceal it beneath a cloak of high-minded BS. Trump might be a self-obsessed crook, but at least he doesn't pretend to be anything better than a self-obsessed crook.
As my colleague Bonnie Kristian recently put it in an insightful column, other presidential aspirants hire expensive and highly skilled teams of hard-nosed opposition researchers to dig up dirt on their opponents. Trump just calls the president of Ukraine and twists his arm to get him to do the work for him. The two approaches are different, yes. But precisely how different? Are they really different in kind? Or is Trump merely more up front and brazen about doing the same types of things as everyone else, only without the veneer of unearned moral superiority? If the brazenness is effective — if it helps him to win — why should he stop? And why should Trump's own side, which wins with him, not cheer it on, too?
My point isn't to endorse the truth of this maximally cynical outlook on American politics and culture, but simply to note how wide and deep the gulf is that separates the two sides. Pelosi appears to believe that the gulf cannot be bridged — that voting to impeach Trump, no matter how deeply Democrats (and a few Republican writers) feel he deserves it, is bound to fail in the Senate, and that the effort will have the counter-productive effect of strengthening him politically. The reason she believes the gulf cannot be bridged and that the effort to remove Trump from office through impeachment will fail is simple: because she thinks persuasion in our politics has become impossible.
I don't know if she's right about that. But I do know that if she is, we have much bigger problems than a failure to rid ourselves of Donald Trump through the panacea of impeachment.
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