The Trump administration continues to refuse all Congressional oversight and make a mockery of the rule of law, while Trump himself continues to denounce the Mueller team and his political opponents as “traitors” and to rally his mobs against “enemies of the people.”
Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi continues to temporize, almost to the point of absurdity, resisting House Democrats clamoring for impeachment, and meeting for a second time with Trump and Chuck Schumer to discuss infrastructure. But the pressure on her appears to be building, with most Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee now moving towards support for an impeachment inquiry, a position articulated with stunning clarity by Rep. Jamie Raskin in a recent Washington Post interview.
At the same time, much of the public discussion of impeachment in the media continues to obscure the fact that impeachment is not so much a legal move as it is a necessary, constitutionally-prescribed political response to a dangerous president, which can only be justified as part of a political effort to weaken and then defeat this president.
It is important for responsible journalists and public officials to abandon certain misleading ideas about impeachment:
(1) “ Impeachment cannot succeed because Senate Republicans will never support it .”
It is true that neither Senate Republicans nor House Republicans will ever support impeachment, and that given Republican control of the Senate, it is impossible to remove Trump from office via impeachment.
But in a formal sense, impeachment is the bringing of charges against the president by the House, and not the trial of the president on these charges in the Senate. And the conduct of a House impeachment inquiry, and even an eventual House vote on articles of impeachment, is a very important process of focused public inquiry and deliberation. The standard of “success” here is not necessarily removal of office by the Senate, but the exposure and weakening of the president and of his Republican enablers in Congress by a House impeachment process.
Impeachment has always been an extraordinary measure intended by the framers of the Constitution to defend the republic from dangerous malfeasance. This president is an extreme danger to the republic. And it is entirely legitimate for House Democrats to use the constitutionally prescribed process of impeachment to expose and politically weaken this president, so that he will be rendered more electorally vulnerable in 2020.
Impeachment is part of a strategy for defeating Trump at the polls in November, 2020, and ought to be considered only in this way.
(2) “ Impeachment requires a broad level of public support, and the public is not yet there .”
But the entire reason to commence an impeachment inquiry is to bring what Raskin has called “constitutional clarity” to the various controversies and investigations, precisely in order to educate the public and build support for the impeachment process and for the defeat of Trump in 2020. In a constitutional democracy, “public opinion” does not simply exist; it unfolds, and changes, over time, and is shaped by a variety of forces. One of them is the public discourse and public action of elected leaders. It is the job of House Democrats to have the courage of their convictions, and to do the work of informing the public about the ways that Trump endangers constitutional democracy, thus persuading voters to punish Trump and the Republican party at the ballot box in 2020.
House Democrats who wait for “the public” to demand impeachment will wait forever. And in so doing, they will demonstrate their own political cowardice, and unfitness for office.
(3) “ Most people don’t care about impeachment or the Constitution. They care about ‘real’ issues like health care and jobs .”
Health care and jobs are surely “real” issues. But so are the rule of law and constitutional democracy. It is the job of real political leaders to defend core values, and to do so by linking them together, and helping citizens and voters to understand how and why “the dots are connected.”
Trump’s hostility to constitutional democracy is inextricably linked to his hostility to voting rights and civil rights and “social rights” such as universal health care, and a living wage, and the right of workers to form and join unions, and the right of women to enjoy reproductive freedom, and the right of all citizens to have clean water and air, and safe and respectful workplaces, and an environmentally sustainable future.
These things are connected. It is the job of real Democratic leaders to draw the connections.
To say “people care about real issues, not about democracy,” is both idiotic and insane. Democracy is necessary if the (other) “real” issues are to be addressed. Any Democrat who fails to see this has no business claiming to be a “leader.”
(4) “ Impeachment is divisive, and this is bad. Trump is divisive, and Democrats need to bring the country together.”
It is true that impeachment is divisive, in a partisan sense and in a broader public sense. It will be opposed by Republican leaders and by Trump’s hardcore base. But there is no way to “collaborate” with these forces now. Trump continually incites his base against Democrats, against the press, and against all who question him, and he will continue to do this, regardless of what Democrats do — one sign of his very danger to democracy. Trumpism is a politics of division. And this politics must be fought, and defeated.
There is “division” and there is “division.”
Impeachment will draw a line in the political sand, and force a real choice: are you with the rule of law or against it, are you with constitutional democracy or against it?
This is divisive. But it is a division based on principle, and not on ethnicity or race or even partisan allegiance — which is why there are a great many “Never Trump” Republicans who are calling for such a move right now.
Such divisiveness will anger Trump’s base. So what? They are already angry. It will also mobilize the Democratic base, something necessary to defeat Trump in 2020. But most important, if done right, it will educate and persuade all of those who belong to neither base that Trumpism is a danger, and that it is necessary to defeat it in 2020.
This kind of division is politically clarifying and it ought to be embraced and not feared, because it can invigorate democracy at a moment of real peril.
The reason to commence a formal impeachment inquiry against Trump now is straightforward: to enact the values of constitutional democracy, and to make crystal clear to the American public that Democrats are determined to defend these values, by standing up to Trump via constitutional means now, and by defeating Trump at the polls in 2020.
As I have argued recently, it is very possible to envision a sustained and well-orchestrated impeachment process that takes center stage for many months; uses testimony from a variety of witnesses, including many respected “experts” (such as the hundreds of former prosecutors who have agreed that Trump has obstructed justice), to develop a very clear case of the many ways that Trump endangers the republic, drawn from but hardly limited to the two key issues addressed by the Mueller Report; and eventually brings articles of impeachment to a House vote, and then a (Republic-controlled) Senate trial that can be very publicly clarifying and also politically empowering for Democrats.
Of course there are no guarantees of political success for such an effort. There are never guarantees of political success.
But these are not normal times, and conventional norms of Congressional decorum clearly have long ago been abandoned by Republicans. Extraordinary dangers call for extraordinary responses.
A successful impeachment process will be divisive and contentious and very public and very enlightening.
It will not result in the removal of Trump from office via impeachment.
But it will result in the political exposure and weakening of Trump and his Republican enablers, so that they can better be defeated at the polls in 2020.
This is all that can be expected from impeachment, and it is enough.
House Democrats must commence an impeachment inquiry now to confront the clear and present danger to constitutional democracy that Trumpism represents; to demonstrate the courage of their convictions; and to exercise the kind of power that alone can fuel, and justify, real gains in 2020.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, now available from Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can talk to him about this essay on Facebook.