There was never any doubt that an impeachment of Donald Trump would lead to an acquittal in the supine, authoritarian, Republican-controlled Senate. Never.
My very first column on impeachment was published over a year ago: January 7, 2019. Written long before the release of the Mueller Report, “On Calls to Impeach the Motherfucker” made clear that impeachment was a serious option only when viewed as part of a broader strategy of resisting and defeating Trump. A strategy that involves legislative politics, electoral politics, and political mobilization.
In April, after the Mueller Report came out, I presented my first argument for impeachment. It was more a political than a legal argument. I quote three key passages from it below both because they need to be reiterated now, after the fact, and because they can still help us draw proper conclusions moving forward:
The purpose of . . . an impeachment process would be to investigate serious instances of actual or suspected malfeasance. But also to educate the public. It would be a chance for Congressional Democrats to organize a very public process of identifying the very real Constitutional violations of the Trump Administration and the very real consequences of these violations for democratic fairness, and in doing so, to project an alternative, more egalitarian, interpretation of the Constitution and of democracy.
Nancy Pelosi said last month in a Washington Post interview that she did not support pursuing impeachment: “I’m not for impeachment. Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.” But that is precisely the point: to enact a clear division, between those who support the values of democracy and those who oppose them or at least are willing to let them be traduced with abandon.
House Republicans will try to stymie the process. If it moves to an impeachment trial, Senate Republicans will surely obstruct the prosecution of the case and then vote against a conviction. All the while, Trump will lie, and obstruct, and mobilize his base, ever angrier and angrier, against the Democratic Party, against the press, against liberals, and against constitutional democracy. And the rest of the country will see this entire process take place, in plain public view. And if Democratic leaders are wise, the country will also see Democratic politicians acting with integrity and articulating a serious and compelling conception of democracy.
I argued then, and have argued ever since, that this stark contrast, enacted in plain public view, could be an opportunity for Democrats to mobilize their base, expand their electorate, and make manifest the corruption at the heart of the entire Republican party. No doubt this would delight Trump’s mob, but it could also outrage the many more who have not drunk the Kool Aid.
This is now the situation we face, a situation involving real peril but also real opportunity.
The road here has been tortuous. House Democrats stood by while Bill Barr and Trump first misrepresented (“No collusion!”) and then buried the damning findings of the Mueller Report. They continued to delay in the days and weeks following, as Pelosi did everything she could to avoid moving toward impeachment. Finally, when the “Ukraine” scandal broke, House Democrats moved toward a narrow and a rushed impeachment inquiry. And now the end is near. And Trump will claim victory. And yet it will be a hollow claim, because his malfeasance and obstruction have been laid bare. The unfairness necessary to keep him in power has been made equally clear.
It is up to Democrats to relentlessly hammer home this hollowness.
It can be a compelling narrative. As I argued last November, “Trump’s Ukraine scandal is the tip of an iceberg of abuse of power, dereliction of duty, corruption, and contempt for the real material concerns of ordinary American citizens… It is possible to tell a compelling story about the many corruptions that preceded ‘Ukraine,’ that enacted the same disregard for the rule of law as ‘Ukraine,’ and whose accumulation, over three horrendous years, has brought us to this point. …There is a real opportunity to be seized now, by effectively linking the public exposure made possible by legislative hearings; the broader political critique being waged in the primary electoral campaigns; and citizen politics. It needs to be seized.”
How to do this will surely be debated in the coming weeks.
Paul Waldman’s recent “What Democrats must do when impeachment is over” is one good contribution to the discussion. Waldman advocates for “a redoubled effort to investigate Trump and his administration.” Although the impeachments hearings are over, John Bolton should nevertheless testify before the House. And, Waldman argues, efforts to obtain Trump’s tax returns should be intensified, treated as “part of a broad initiative aimed at exposing and highlighting Trump’s personal corruption and self-dealing.”
These measures make sense — if pursued in a measured way — for two reasons. First because there remains a public clamoring for Bolton’s revelations. And, second, because some of the House Managers, especially Adam Schiff, have become “media stars.” It would be a shame for them to recede into the Congressional background now that the impeachment drama is ending. Their voices can play a valuable role in the ongoing critique of Trump’s awful administration both through of their integrity and by being a constant reminder of the “perfidy” (Chuck Schumer) through which the impeachment process was killed by the Republicans. There is no reason to stop talking about “Ukraine,” or “emoluments,” or, for that matter, about “Mueller.”
At the same time, it would be a huge mistake for the narrative carried forward through the impeachment process to remain centered on questions of Congressional oversight or Trump’s personal corruption. For there are more fundamental questions that have been in play from the beginning, questions of what I will deliberately call, following John Rawls, political justice as fairness.
The Trump-McConnell handling of impeachment enacted a Republican contempt for constitutional democracy that has run like a bright red thread through the past three years, a contempt that was foreshadowed by McConnell’s refusal to even consider the Merrick Garland SCOTUS nomination, and before that his public declaration that his goal was to make Obama “a one term president.”
McConnell’s lowball politics meshed perfectly with Trump’s ascendancy to political power as the leader of the “birther” movement, and Trumpism in power has been one long train of abuses of the basic idea that constitutional democracy rests on a minimal sense of fairness. These abuses range from the early efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act — stymied by a last-minute act of resistance on the part of John McCain that led to a vicious slander campaign against him — to the outrageous 2018 tax cuts. They range from the immigrant detentions to the illegal wall. And they range from the outright assault on environmental protection to the constant attacks on voting rights. All throughout, Trumpism has been hostile to legality, to procedural democracy, and to common decency.
Polls are a shallow gauge of effective public opinion. But it is significant that, as of last week, a Quinnipac University poll indicated that “75% of Americans say witnesses should testify at impeachment trial.” That is a very high percentage, much higher than the percentage of respondents willing to support Trump’s removal from office (52%) and even higher than the percentage of respondents (51%) who most recently expressed disapproval of Trump.
While it would be foolish to exaggerate the importance of this roughly 25% gap, it would be equally foolish to ignore its most obvious meaning: that a great majority of Americans have some idea of what a “fair trial” is. Most Americans are, in other words, well aware that a trial without documents or witnesses, one that is rushed to an acquittal along a party-line vote, one that exhibits utter disdain for common sense “due process” is unfair, unjust, and simply wrong.
This is an opening for a broad Democratic campaign strategy capable of running against Trump — and against every Senate or House Republican up for re-election. This would be a campaign against the corruption and manifest unfairness that marks every dimension of Trumpism and in favor of an elemental fairness regarding tax policy, health policy, environmental policy, labor policy, educational policy, foreign policy; and especially regarding voting rights and electoral fairness.
There are real differences of opinion within the Democratic party, and these will play out at every level of the primary process and general election, across every Congressional district, every state, and the nation as a whole. (And, alas, in the Presidential election they will be filtered through the Electoral College.) At the same time, the policy differences are not that great, especially when considered in the short-to-medium term and when compared with the likely results of continued Trumpist control of the White House and the Senate. It should be possible for Democrats to fight out — and then to work out — their real policy differences so as to arrive at some “overlapping consensus” on an agenda of fairness.
This process of fighting and then working out differences is necessarily jarring and agonistic, and it can only succeed politically, in the general election, if the principals have thick skins and avoid nasty and hyperbolic criticisms of each other. Candidates must display a kind of agonistic respect to one another — and promote this among their followers — so that the contest itself exhibits the fairness that the party seeks to bring back to the White House. (It will also require that non-principals with axes to grind, like Hillary Clinton, exercise self-restraint instead of performatively contradicting their appeals to “unity” by reopening old wounds and fomenting distrust and resentment.)
There has never been any doubt that Trump would claim “victory” after an impeachment or that he would use it to foment his angry base. The impeachment was always one valid legal-political element of a broader politics of resistance to a dangerous president. We have poked the bear (actually a big, fat, orange elephant) and he is now angrier than before. Now we must take him down. For if we don’t, he will surely maul and, perhaps, devour us.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.