The proposed articles of impeachment have been released and they allege that President Trump attempted to use tax-payer dollars to obtain foreign government influence in a U.S. election or to harass a U.S. Citizen – at least as I read them. Because Democrats control the House, they will vote impeach the President. Then the matter will be sent to the Senate for trial – which will be a lengthy public affair, aired on television, that will result in the President remaining or removed from office. It is no small matter to impeach a President.
Unsurprisingly, the Judiciary Committee voted on the articles along party lines. The same will occur during a full vote. No one knows what the future holds, but the whole matter is an unmitigated disaster for America. The Democrats are standing up for the rule of the law; while Republicans are bankrupting America’s soul to support the type of President the founders feared most, and that the Constitution was clearly drafted to avoid.
During and after the Clinton impeachment, the now deceased but highly influential legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin described impeachment as a “constitutional nuclear weapon that should be used only in the gravest emergencies.” This is because impeachment is not subject to review – whatever the outcome is, that outcome is final. It allows Congress to remove the only nationally elected official, and there is nothing to stop a party with the necessary votes and ambition from removing any President regardless of crimes committed.
According to Dworkin, the only check on Congress’ power is a broad understanding – shared across parties and ideologies – that impeachment is a last resort only to be used in an emergency where it would be dangerous to allow a President to remain in office. What is an impeachable offense, he asked? The President must be a constitutional and public danger, and his actions must involve the subversion of public funds or force for personal gain, such as taking bribes of sending soldiers to war for the express purpose of personally profiting of the action.
What is not impeachable is a morally disappointing president who is a bad example for our children. This means actions that can wait for the judgment of history or post-presidency punishment are not impeachable offenses. For example, Clinton’s transgressions were not impeachable offenses; likewise for Andrew Johnson’s conduct. It also means that Nixon’s dirty deeds were impeachable offenses. Dworkin ultimately concluded that the impeachment of Clinton was a grave mistake and a threat to our Constitution because the actions of Republicans were like a coup.
Do President Trump’s actions meet the Dworkin test? The President’s alleged acts must involve the subversion of public funds or force for personal gain, or for illegal use; taking bribes, or sending soldiers to war for personal gain. It is alleged that the President used public money to get a foreign government to investigate a rival and influence a U.S. election. This is the very definition of subverting public funds for personal gain – and is all the more galling given that Conservatives consistently shed crocodile tears in regard to fiscal restraint.
While the Democrats obviously view the President’s actions as an impeachable offense, Republicans vocally disagree, attacking the hearings and draft articles as a flimsy abuse of power. Hence, their tack is to move this away from Nixon, which is certainly is, and towards Clinton, which this is certainly not. In an odd twist of fate, the reverse of Dworkin’s analysis has come up – the President should be removed from office, but a partisan party with the ambition and the votes will prevent the removal. There lies the danger for Democrats – this will fall to public opinion and the voter – the same voter that elected Trump.
Congress removing an elected official is a direct subversion of the will of the voter – albeit constitutional – which means that broad public support for impeachment is required for the process to stand a chance of overcoming partisan battle lines. Neutral polls show that 47.9% of Americans support impeachment, while 43.6% are against it. I don’t know what constitutes broad support exactly, but it certainly is not anything close to a 50/50 split. Unless public support for impeachment shifts dramatically in the coming weeks, do not expect a sudden change of heart from the Senate GOP when it’s time to vote.
For the half of the public that wants the President removed from office, Democrats will have fulfilled their constitutional duties. Naturally, Republicans will see it as the inverse: because the president was not removed by the Senate there must be no veracity to the charges. Not guilty in the Senate means the President did not abuse his power. This Republican nullification of the impeachment clause will save the President, increase partisan support for Trump across the country, and may swing neutral voters to Trump. After all, he wasn’t guilty, right?
Trump is the zenith of fifty-nine years of the Conservative movement. There is a direct line from the racist populist politics of Nixon, the heartlessness of Reaganism, and the America first war mongering and trade policies of Bush II. Trump is the physical embodiment of these ideologies – a sort of Conservative Frankenstein’s Monster – a freakishly out of shape, out of touch, blubbering, stuttering, wobbling, horror of a human being with no shame or conscience. But at least Frankenstein’s monster had the dignity to take revenge on and ultimately destroy his creator. We will have no such luck or dignity with this Conservative-Republican creature.
Because the President will not be removed, he can travel the country in 2020 and waive the bloody shirt of a failed witch hunt. Anyone on the fence against the President will have all the cover they need to vote for Trump again. Do not forget the Obama voters who voted for Trump – this impeachment could sway them one way or another and a failed Senate trial could easily be what pushes them back over the edge.
The real loser out of all this is you and me. Ronald Dworkin’s framework is sound, and under said framework the President should be impeached and removed from office. Instead, Republicans and Conservatives have plumbed the depths of the American Id; they have hit rock bottom and now they can act with a free hand. Their policies created Trump, and when impeachment fails it will signal to them that this and future administrations need not fear lasting political consequences for subversive, illegal, and undemocratic behavior. There will be nothing to stop them.