Impeachment will only worsen the GOP's legitimacy crisis
If Republican leaders turn on Trump, will the voters turn on them?
President Trump is about to make history as the first twice-impeached president of the United States. That's double Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, and two more times than Richard Nixon was ever impeached.
That Democrats want to impeach Trump is a classic "Dog Bites Man" story in that it is unremarkable. Many of them favored his impeachment before he even took office and some are now talking about ways to impeach him even after he is gone. The real change is that a growing number of Republicans favor Trump's removal from office, too. And while most of the confirmed GOP supporters are from swing districts where Democratic voters are plentiful, have serious foreign policy differences with Trump, or both, that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is rumored to privately favor the latest impeachment bid is a story of "Man Bites Dog" caliber.
McConnell is said to approve of impeachment as a way to purge Trump from the Republican Party. Axios reported the Kentucky Republican could go so far as to vote to convict, even if he might delay a vote until the final hours of Trump's presidency.
It is hard to fault lawmakers who hid under their desks during the Trump dead-enders' attack on the Capitol for wanting to ring down the curtain on this divisive presidency. Trump was, at a minimum, grossly negligent in his rhetoric ahead of the MAGA siege, seeming indifferent even to the safety of his own vice president, and his efforts to call off the violent rampage while it was in progress were wholly inadequate. And these are charitable descriptions of his conduct.
All that may be a sufficient basis for impeachment, even at this late date. But let us not pretend it is likely to calm the passions roiling the country. If you believe, however erroneously, that the election was stolen from the only political figure you think listens to or represents you, that the courts and other national institutions ignored it or were complicit, and that the system was irrevocably corrupt, would the political class' 11th-hour removal of that figure from office — even on a bipartisan basis — coupled with a ban on his running in the future, really convince you otherwise?
These may all be fanciful, even destructive, things to believe. And this does not describe the views of all 74 million Americans who voted for Trump. But it describes the deeply held views of enough of them, and not only because Trump himself has been filling their heads with claims about the 2020 election that range from the questionable to the nonsensical. The case for Trump's impeachment must rest solely on judging his behavior and setting a standard for future presidents. The idea that it will lead to less "Stop the Steal" agitation rather than more makes about as much sense as a Lin Wood tweet.
Much of the last four years' commentary about how Republicans such as McConnell have dealt with Trump has ignored the fact that he was the choice of GOP voters. "For those Republicans who fear their own constituents: Liz Cheney lives in Wyoming," tweeted Never Trump commentator Tom Nichols. "If she can do this, you weenies can do this too."
But "fear" of one's "own constituents" is also a form of democratic accountability, the same principle rightly invoked in defense of Joe Biden's electoral victory against dubious and in some cases knowingly dishonest claims. Would anyone descend on the nation's capital to protest a contested election involving Liz Cheney or Fred Upton?
This does not mean capitulating to the mob or ignoring the 81 million who voted for Biden. "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays you instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion," said Edmund Burke. George H.W. Bush invoked this quotation from the conservative statesman when he voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1968 against the objections of some in the Texas congressional district.
It does, however, mean that elected representatives have obligations to their constituents. Republican leaders have a legitimacy crisis with their own voters. That is what created the conditions that led to Trump's rise, that made his presidency thinkable in a way that Michele Bachmann's or Tom Tancredo's was not.
For the Republican Party to truly move past the last four years, its leadership class must attempt to determine why so much of their constituency believes Trump offers them more than the party establishment does. If the only answer they can come up with is "because our voters are stupid," their struggles will continue.