Politics & Policy

Why Impeaching Trump Is a Bad Idea

U.S. President Donald Trump (Reuters: Jonathan Ernst)
Trump’s removal from office would further anger the very voters who elected him — and further degrade our already-weakened political system.

The past two weeks have effectively shattered any hope that the floundering Trump administration would eventually settle into the daily grind of “politics as usual.” First, President Trump fired FBI director James Comey after the bureau requested extra resources from the Justice Department to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections. Then, as everyone was processing the fact that a U.S president had apparently just impeded an ongoing FBI probe for the first time since Watergate, it was revealed that Trump had disclosed highly classified material — “code-word information” — regarding the Islamic State to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador one day after Comey’s firing. Multiple sources subsequently confirmed that it had been Israel that originally supplied the intel to the president, with the understanding that it would not be shared with any other U.S allies, much less Russia. (Trump himself on Monday seemed to confirm that Israel had been the source.) The Wall Street Journal reported that this source was instrumental in warning the intelligence community about Islamic State plans that led the United States to ban carry-on laptop computers and other consumer electronic devices from ten airports across the Middle East. By the time news surfaced last Tuesday evening that Trump had reportedly asked Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn back in February, the epiphany almost seemed anti-climactic.

If all this happened as reported — and, judging by the White House’s tortured evasions, it very well may have — there is now a case for impeachment. That such a case exists does not, of course, guarantee its prosecution. Until now, few Republicans have had the temerity to challenge Trump’s flagrant assault on democratic mores and values — the mistreatment of the press, the haphazard executive orders, the compulsive disregard for the truth. Barring an unlikely departure from this deferential pattern, the GOP will continue to abet the most dysfunctional administration in modern American memory, portraying calls for accountability as liberal hysteria run amok. In the event that Trump does manage to avoid impeachment, last week’s scandals will be just another anchor weighing down a half-drowned presidency. The incompetence will persist, the embarrassments and pseudo-crises will resume, and the republic will remain on the brink of disaster. Whatever safeguards survive the next three years will be the product of partisan gridlock, with Democrats desperately trying to arrest any and all initiatives Trump might cook up. Above all, the political atrophy of our present moment will accelerate toward a graceless, enervating denouement as polarization and social fragmentation continue to undercut our vital center.

This scenario is no doubt frightening. But more frightening still is what could happen if Trump is impeached.

To be sure, a President Mike Pence would restore some semblance of normalcy to American politics. There would be no self-inflicted intelligence leaks, no 3 a.m. Twitter storms. He’d protect classified materials, uphold the Constitution, and staff his administration with responsible career Republicans. Just as important — especially for America’s allies — Pence would close down the circus show that currently occupies the Oval Office, allaying the perception that American politics have gone off the rails.

Impeaching Trump, then, would constitute a re-normalization of public affairs. And that is precisely the problem.

Mike Pence is a Republican’s Republican. He believes in trickle-down economic policies and welfare roll-backs, a hawkish American policy abroad and a liberal immigration regime at home. In short, he represents the GOP establishment that Trump so consistently mocked to the thunderous applause of the “forgotten man.” While conservative elites waited in vain for their base to come around to Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, white working-class voters found in Trump an antidote to the cocktail of pieties that had for so long characterized the Republican establishment. A tired combination of handouts for the rich, bromides for the middle class, and ill-conceived wars abroad had failed to address Trump voters’ true social and economic concerns for decades, softening the 2016 primaries up for a populist insurgency.

Impeaching Trump, then, would constitute a re-normalization of public affairs. And that is precisely the problem.

Just over 100 days into Trump’s troubled tenure, the GOP establishment has already demonstrated its political tenacity. From health care to tax reform to rumors of a renewed surge in Afghanistan, business as usual has largely resumed in Washington for the Paul Ryan wing of the party; Ann Coulter has already fumed about how little progress Trump has made on immigration, his signature issue. Against such a backdrop, it is almost certain that a Pence ascendancy would spell a return to the tried and tested GOP platform of old. An organized White House, with a new “100-day window,” could exert its muscle to ensure that the most cherished policies of Republican elites would see active and early legislation.

But if this did come to fruition, and Trump’s removal from office was interpreted as unreasonably harsh by his base, then all hell would break loose. For starters, too many charlatans in the conservative movement have made their Faustian deals with Trump. His losses are now theirs. From Sean Hannity to Rush Limbaugh, they would whisper into the ears of disaffected Americans everywhere that a media in love with Obama and a “deep state” in love with unwise foreign adventures conspired to dethrone their first standard-bearer in living memory. Trump, the mega-rich man himself, would not go quietly into the night. At a minimum, he could be expected to train his Twitter tirades on the new president with characteristic abandon.

Between Trump’s bloviations and Conservative, Inc.’s race for ratings, Pence would become an avatar for a set of ideas and institutions far removed from the economic and social realities of many Americans. In short, Republican voters would despise him. The sting would be felt all the more acutely as the GOP establishment and the center-left intelligentsia tried to outbid each other in sanctimonious self-righteousness. “Our team is just like the other,” Trump voters would think. “And both teams hate us.” At best, they’d disengage. At worst, their anger and alienation would find new and more vicious outlets.

The Left, meanwhile, would do a victory lap — ding dong, the witch is dead — until it remembered that, unlike Trump, Pence is a true believer, armed with a coherent and decidedly un-progressive philosophy. And when an armada of impeccably credentialed conservative lawyers took up the judicial robes, Pence’s competence would go from comforting band-aid to insidious threat in no time.

These histrionics would do two things. First, they would help the Left forget why it lost in 2016. Second, they would amplify liberals’ perceptions of conservatives as racist bigots, while amplifying conservatives’ perceptions of liberals as smug, privileged elites. The result would be more tension, more volatility — and, in the long run, more Trumps.

But the most striking consequence of all would be an almost universal sense of democratic illegitimacy. Some version of this sentiment was already baked into the 2016 election — many Democrats and Republicans held their noses when voting for their respective candidates. But either way, the winner was sure to enjoy close to half the nation’s support. President Pence would obliterate this equilibrium. To many of the voters who backed Trump, he represents the sclerotic uselessness of 21st-century Reaganism. And to the Democrats, he represents the superannuated pathologies of pre-’60s America. The problem with Pence, then, is not that he would be a bad president; it’s that he would not be anyone’s president.

A successful impeachment would further weaken our already-weak two-party system and portend new social divisions. But more than that, it would crystallize America’s collective disenchantment with the ruling class. Is this a decisive argument against impeachment? Certainly not. Mike Pence is far more qualified to occupy the Oval Office than Donald Trump is, and the less time reality-TV hosts spend with access to America’s nuclear-launch codes, the safer we’ll all be. Any impeachment process would ideally proceed as smoothly and transparently as possible, with hyperbole kept to a minimum. Politicians leading the charge would also go out of their way to draw a sharp line between Trump’s policy preferences and Trump himself, so as to avoid reproducing the snide elitism Trump pilloried on the campaign trail.

Even in this best-case scenario, though, the benefits of impeachment should not blind us to the real and serious costs of undercutting the outcome of a democratic process, especially given the daylight between the president’s and vice president’s respective visions for the country. Letting Trump remain in office is a bad idea. So is impeaching him. But on we go.


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