Sunday, January 6, 2019

Impeachment Talk

Now that the Democrats have taken the U.S. House of Representatives, discussions about the impeachment of Donald Trump have quickly reached fever pitch - aided in no small part by newly elected Rep. Rashida Tlaib's graphic statement (at a private event) that "we" were going to "impeach the motherf****r". While many American voters agree with both aspects of this expression, it has been seen in the elite media as a political blunder and a "gift to Trump". The usual suspects have gone forth tut-tutting Tlaib's language and recommending that she apologize. Some, including the newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have risen to defend Tlaib, pointing out that the outcry reflects a double standard for men and women, and fails to take into account the much more persistent profanity of Donald Trump himself. Whataboutism and well-placed accusations of misogyny aside, the question is whether such loud talk of impeachment is politically wise or foolish for the Democrats. That question deserves to be looked at through a strategic rather than an emotional lens.

The case for why Donald Trump deserves to be removed from office has now been made so well by Trump's own actions and pronouncements that it really requires no elaboration. But if such elaboration was needed, this piece by David Leonhardt in the New York Times provides it in great detail. And this does not even take into account the possibility that Trump may have conspired with the Russians to get elected, and may still be getting his talking points from Putin. Others, such as John Dean and Tom Steyer, have argued that removing Trump from office is an urgent national imperative simply because of the damage Trump is doing to America's institutions. In contrast, Democratic leadership - especially since retaking the House - has been very cautious, saying that they prefer to wait for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to submit his report before deciding on impeachment.

The truth is that, on the impeachment issue, Democrats are caught between two opposing realities. The first is the explosive urge that has built up within the Democratic base to indeed "impeach the motherf****r: as soon as possible, if not sooner. Now that the Democrats have some actual power, this is no longer just an aspirational idea. The second, and perhaps more important, reality is that the country as a whole - including many voters that the Democrats would like to win over to their side in 2020 - do not yet support impeachment. The Democrats argue - correctly - that just impeaching Trump in the House will not help, since conviction requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate, which is still majority Republican. They also make the case - again correctly - that impeaching and failing to convict will only make Trump stronger, and that any impeachment requires bipartisan support that can only come from a damning Mueller report. The impeachment of a president is a traumatic process for the country, and making it partisan only makes the target more popular - as demonstrated by the impeachment of Bill Clinton. The alternative - suggested, among others, by incoming House Judiciary Committee Chair, Rep. Jerry Nadler - is to put aside impeachment until Mueller reports, but to go full steam ahead now with Congressional investigations of the President, which may also yield rich deposits of offenses. The hope is that this will slake the Democratic base's thirst for going after Trump, and eventually lead to a soft landing on the whole issue. It may well work, but the Democrats need to think more strategically.

People often say that the Republican Party has fallen off the cliff of craziness in the era of Trump, but those paying any attention know that this fall began long, long before Trump's arrival. The Republican Party has been on a journey away from reality for almost forty years, getting further and further away into the wilderness of conspiracies where Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulterm Sean Hannity, and other such specters are their primary voices of "reality". But, until the advent of Trump, there remained something of a convenient fiction that - at least for the elite "thinkers" in the party - this was all part of a cynical ploy to stay in power. Perhaps that was true, and certainly, those who now call themselves Never Trumpers have implicitly validated that claim, but for the rank and file of the Party, the journey to La-La Land was real. Now they are there, have built houses, and are fully invested in their imaginary homeland. It is not getting rid of Trump that is a national imperative; it is getting rid of the current madness possessing one-third of the country, and Trump offers potentially the best opportunity to do so.

For all his talk of being a nationalist, Trump has never sought to serve any interest broader than his own. But, by becoming President, Donald Trump is now performing his first great service to the nation: Exposing the reality of the modern Republican Party, and waking up the 65% of the country that had been  in denial about it. As the record voter turnout in 2018 shows, those 65% are now fully awake. Donald Trump is the first president in decades - probably ever - to have a sustained disapproval rating above 50%, and occasionally as high as 60%. That is a signal achievement, and a great one for the country. There is finally a majority believing strongly that the Limbaugh-Coulter-Hannity-Trump vision of America is utterly unacceptable. Keeping Trump around is necessary to maintain this fervor, which is one big strategic reason why Democrats should not impeach Donald Trump, and give him every opportunity to be the Republican nominee again in 2020. Yes, there will be naysayers pointing out that this argument was made in 2016 and backfired. This is not 2016. Indeed, November 8, 2016 was as big a hinge event politically as September 11, 2001. The U.S. is a new country today, and Donald Trump is toxic to a majority in this new country.

But what of the talk of impeachment? Should that be tempered in the interest of the strategic goal of keeping Trump around? And this is where strategy really matters. There has been broad perplexity among the pundit class regarding Trump's decision to follow a "base-only" strategy, i.e., playing so strongly to his base that he keeps the rest of the country alienated. But, as some observers have begun to note, this is actually a strategy born of desperate need. The 35% of the country that supports Donald Trump blindly is, in fact, 80% of the voter base of the Republican Party, which means that most Republican senators and congressmen/women cannot get elected without its support. This is the only reason why the vast majority of these otherwise sentient human beings continue to fawn before Trump and support everything he says. Trump's primary hope for avoiding impeachment is to retain this loyalty, which means retaining the loyalty of his (and their) base - hence the "base only" approach. But while this strategy increases Trump's chances of surviving through this term and getting nominated again in 2020, it diminishes catastrophically his chances of actually getting re-elected. And, in the bargain, it also makes election more difficult for House and Senate Republicans in states with high urban and suburban populations. Well, this is exactly what Democrats want - or at least should want: A toxic Donald Trump hung like an albatross around the neck of the Republican Party going into 2020. So how can they make sure that this happens? Why, by continuing to talk about impeachment as a real possibility without actually doing it, thus pinning Trump and the Republicans to their base strategy. This is why statements such as Tlaib's, while tactically problematic, are strategically useful, and one can be sure that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer understand this.

Two further issues bear discussion here. First, the strategic imperatives described above notwithstanding, it may well become impossible even for Nancy Pelosi to keep a lid on impeachment fervor in the House. The prospect of investigating and removing Donald Trump was a huge driver for Democratic voters in the 2018 midterms, and it may be impossible for Democrats to resist this demand for too long. The hope is that, once election fever picks up, progressive voters will see diminishing value in impeaching Trump and look to an electoral removal. When this shift in balance may occur is an interesting question, but late 2019 looks to be a reasonable guess.

The second important issue is the one raised by those who say that removing Trump as soon as possible is a national imperative to preserve the fabric of the country. In his recent New York Times op-ed, David Leonhardt also makes a very persuasive case that a president must not be seen as escaping punishment for crimes such as self-dealing, obstruction of justice, and campaign finance violations. These arguments are absolutely valid, and the damage Trump is doing to the institutions of the United States will take a long time to recover from. But it is important to remember that, as many have noted, Trump is not the problem, just a symptom. The real problem is the fundamentally undemocratic attitude of the Republican base, which is a much more pervasive problem than one person or a few people at the top. The malignancy afflicting the American body politic cannot be treated simply by removing the visible tumor and stitching things back up. Rather, it requires systemic treatment that removes all traces of the disease throughout the body. This does not mean disenfranchising Republican voters or turning them into pariahs, but it does mean finally demonstrating the futility of their reactionary vision for America and allowing them a graceful way back. To all those who say "I want my country back", events must show that the country will move inexorably towards a more diverse and open future; that it is already too late to turn back. This will have a cost, but there is no other way. Easy fixes like partisan impeachment will only make things worse. Ultimately, a healthy American democracy requires a healthy conservative political party to temper the idealism of liberals and progressives. Democracy is fundamentally a dialectic, and no functioning democracy can long afford for one of the interlocutors to be out of their mind.

Finally, it is fair to ask if the hope the American democracy will survive and thrive is, in fact, justified. Is it really true that the United States cannot turn towards a darker vision? The lesson of history is that this dark vision lurks deep within human minds and human societies. No amount of education and enlightenment can guarantee that the nightmares of yesterday cannot again become the reality of tomorrow. It has happened - is happening - in too many places for those who cherish the delicate dream of liberal democracy to rest easy. As abolitionist Wendell Phillips said more than 150 years ago, eternal vigilance in still the price of liberty.

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