Opinion

The Trump drama is about to get a whole lot weirder

Here's what happens after the president survives impeachment

At 8:25 p.m. on Wednesday, President Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives, to the surprise of no one in particular, least of all the 400-odd members who had ostensibly spent the last 11 or so hours debating such a course of action. It remains unclear to me for whose benefit these exercises were conducted. The president could have been impeached before noon and the people spared the unnecessary multiplication of arguments that in more than three months have failed — if public polling is any indication — to alter the opinions of any significant number of Americans. I shall not contribute to their increase, confining myself to the observation that the vast majority of the crimes of which Trump was accused by Democratic members did not appear in the rather vague, editorializing articles of impeachment for which they later voted.

At the time of his impeachment, the president's approval ratings stands slightly higher than those of Barack Obama at a similar point during his first term in office. Other surveys, meaningless in themselves, but of great interest to many journalists when they have given dissimilar results in the past, suggest that if the presidency were to be decided by a national popular vote, Trump would best each of his Democratic rivals. Impeachment itself divides the country; it is markedly unpopular in the South and in the Midwestern states upon which Trump's victory in 2016 had rested.

What does the post-impeachment future hold? Among other things, the likelihood that impeachment, so far from being a poorly understood artifact from the English constitutional past, will become the ordinary partisan response to the problem of divided government. This was made clear over and over again by Republican lawmakers, dozens of whom took the floor on Wednesday afternoon to lament this fact without acknowledging their own foreseeable complicity in such a state of affairs. To my knowledge, only Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) has been forthright about his intention of impeaching the next president to belong to the opposite party.

There is nothing remotely surprising in this progression. It is the natural evolution of the relationship between the Oval Office and Congress under Obama, who, like his successor, was subjected to an endless series of pointless congressional investigations. No cessation of hostilities is imaginable. Lyndon Johnson, who directed federal law enforcement agents to report upon the activities of his opponent in the 1964 election, is likely to remain the last president whose ability to govern was not significantly diminished by scurrilous interference of the legislative branch.

This is a constitutional revolution. We now have a de-facto Westminster system in which heads of government are responsible not only for securing their election but for surviving votes of no confidence from the lower chamber of the legislature. We will enjoy the apparent benefits of such a constitution, however, in the absence of the most important feature that distinguishes our present one from that of the British — namely, the distinction between the persons of the head of state and the head of government. This should concern all Americans regardless of their partisan allegiance. If the chief executive no longer stands at the head of the federal government as the individual from whom all legal authority proceeds and receives its direction, we must look to create a separate office in whom sovereignty can reside, even if only nominally.

These, and other disruptions, await us in the years and decades to come. In the more immediate future, we can expect a carnivalesque trial in the Senate, where Democratic members disagree with their House colleagues about the quality of the evidence against the president. Chuck Schumer and Trump both agree that what this country needs are more witnesses and more hearings over the course of goodness knows how many days or weeks or months. These proceedings, which will yield the inevitable verdict of innocence regardless of how long they last, will require no fewer than five Democratic presidential candidates to take their leave of the campaign trail.

The same cannot be said of Trump. His address to supporters in Battle Creek, Michigan, on Wednesday night afforded a preview of Trump in his re-election mode: unburdened by even formal concern for the day's judicial proceedings, affecting no concern for the norms of office which allies and enemies alike have been happy to see him discard, declaring his impeachment illegitimate, mocking the names, voices, and appearances of his opponents — some of them deceased — and suggesting that he will remain in office for four or eight or 16 more years. This will continue apace for 11 months, during which the opprobrium with which his every word and gesture, however insignificant, are met by foes will be matched only by the exultant approbation of his most enthusiastic devotees.

The country, and the world, will continue under the spell of a man consumed by hatred and possessed of an almost indescribable energy. Impeachment failed to undo the magic. I wonder what will.

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