A presidential election in the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, is a kind of national crisis, one in which “the entire nation falls into a feverish state.” Once a winner is declared, “this ardor is dissipated, everything becomes calm, and the river, one moment overflowed, returns peacefully to its bed.”
Not this time. After the 2016 election, the fever didn’t break. A few months into the Trump administration, the conversation in Washington, D.C., is dominated by words such as “impeachment” and “coup.” Matt Drudge is speaking of Trump advisers who are “deliberately sabotaging” his presidency by leaking to reporters. The president’s fans and foes alike are succumbing to magical thinking.
Start with the hard-core fans. They see a president who is trying to do for them what he said he would: build a border wall, replace Obamacare with something better, confirm conservative judges. They also see unprecedented resistance. The press is covering him with nearly uniform negativity, the permanent bureaucracy is very nearly in open revolt, and prominent Republicans don’t have his back. They see an opposition that is spinning conspiracy theories about collusion with Russia out of next to no evidence, conjuring constitutional crises out of Trump’s exercise of the rightful powers of the president (such as firing an FBI director).
To their minds, the hysterical opposition to Trump has many sources: simple Democratic partisanship, compounded by the shock of an unimagined defeat; the bitter enmity of a bipartisan establishment that he has already humiliated and now threatens; snobbery against the president’s working-class supporters. This opposition, having done everything it can to keep President Trump from being able to govern, is doing its best to label him a failure at the starting gate.
Now Trump’s enemies are talking about removing him from office by using either impeachment or the 25th Amendment, which allows the cabinet and Congress to deprive a president of his powers if he is “unable to discharge” them. These proposals fit neatly into the Trump supporters’ understanding of the opposition to the president: The elites, having been brought low by the people, are mounting a coup to reverse their losses. To overthrow Trump they would overthrow democracy.
To see that there is some truth to these supporters’ views should not require being one of them. Some of Trump’s opponents, in both parties, disdain the man’s voting base as well as the man, and have from the start. News coverage of the White House is unusually negative. Republican officials speak out in his defense less than their predecessors did for George W. Bush. Discussion of Trump as a Russian patsy or even a “traitor” has gone far beyond any evidence, and nutty anti-Trump theories have gained wide currency. (No, the Supreme Court is not taking steps to oust him.) And so on.
While Trump’s opponents often caricature his supporters, the stereotyping is mutual. The supporters rarely acknowledge that Trump’s critics include conservatives who agree with many of Trump’s stated positions but have genuine concerns about a president who blurts out sensitive intelligence to Russian officials. Trump’s negative press has often been earned: When a national-security adviser lasts less than a month, it’s going to draw coverage. When White House aides speak contemptuously about the president, reporters are going to quote them. Reporters would have done it during the Bush years too. Such aides were a lot scarcer then.
The story of an elite plot to get rid of the people’s tribune is mostly false. Trump has a lot of support from powerful people, notably Republican congressmen. The most prominent advocate of his removal via the 25th Amendment is Ross Douthat. Douthat is a well-regarded conservative columnist for the New York Times: a columnist, not a senator.
Acting on Douthat’s suggestion would probably be an abuse of the Constitution, since the amendment speaks of an inability to discharge the powers of the presidency rather than an inability to discharge them well. It seems, that is, to be contemplating a radical incapacity such as that of Woodrow Wilson after his stroke.
If Congress were to impeach and convict Trump with only fig-leaf allegations that he had committed high crimes and misdemeanors, that too would be an abuse.
The election would not exactly have been overturned even then, since Hillary Clinton would not become president. Some of the people who voted for him might even be relieved to have Mike Pence rather than Trump or Clinton as president. Some of Trump’s left-wing opponents, on the other hand, might consider the succession a change for the worse.
However people would feel about it, we would have had a kind of coup against the Constitution. We would also have had a coup against the public, in the sense that the Constitution expresses its permanent will. But only in that sense, because practically speaking the removal of the president would require a very high degree of public consensus. Impeachment and conviction requires the support of a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate. It would take two-thirds of the House, two-thirds of the Senate, the vice president, and a majority of the cabinet to remove the president for incapacity.
It takes a much stronger consensus, that is, to remove a president between elections than it does to elect him in the first place. (That’s why impeachment has ended a presidency only once, when Richard Nixon resigned rather than be removed.) It follows that the consensus would have to include many people who had supported the president’s election.
If there were strong grounds for considering the president incapacitated, or guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, the fact that he was legitimately elected would matter even less. In that case there would be no ground for considering his removal a violation of the popular will. He attained his office through a constitutional process even while winning fewer votes than his opponent; he would in these scenarios lose it through another constitutional process. And the loss would, again, practically have required a higher level of public support than the gain.
President Trump is unpopular and always has been. But the country does not have anywhere near the level of public consensus that Trump should be removed from office to make his removal possible.
The pollsters at CBS News recently provided an illuminating snapshot of public opinion about Trump. As of mid May, what those pollsters call “the believers,” his strongest supporters, make up 19 percent of adults. “Conditional” supporters form another 22 percent: Their optimism about Trump’s ability to achieve their goals is dropping, and they want congressional Republicans to push back against him. Another 19 percent, the “curious,” have been open to supporting Trump but have deepening reservations. They worry that he is too “impulsive.” The “resisters” are the other 40 percent of the population. They are hostile to Trump, they are mostly Democrats, and their numbers are growing.
For the removal of the president to become politically viable, a necessary but not sufficient condition is that all of those numbers get significantly worse for him. Millions of core supporters would have to become mild ones; millions of the curious, hardened opponents. The remaining believers would have to become a smaller, more demoralized minority. Other pollsters have shown that roughly 80 percent of Republicans approve of the job Trump is doing; that number, too, would have to decline. If this shift happens, it will take some time — time, and a lot more evidence that Trump is incompetent, malfeasant, or both.
People who call now for removing the president may think that they are speeding the formation of a consensus for their preferred course of action, but they may be undermining their own goals. Loose talk about constitutional earthquakes may make supporters, even soft ones, more firmly convinced that Trump is being treated unfairly. It may also direct their thoughts to narrow questions on which Trump has a relatively strong case (such as whether he has committed high crimes) rather than to broader questions on which his case is weaker (such as how well he is performing as a president).
Trump’s critics might be better off exerting pressure on congressional Republicans to provide real oversight of the administration, holding hearings and issuing subpoenas when appropriate. Such oversight could win the support of people who do not want, or do not yet want, to see the president removed. It could yield the evidence to justify removing Trump. But it might not. Trump’s enemies would have to accept that as flawed as he is and as much as they hate it, we will all have to muddle through with him as president for the time being — and that time could last another three and a half, or even seven and a half, years.
Both resisters and believers ought to accept, as well, that neither group amounts to a majority of the public (although the first group is closer to being one). Both sides should stop fantasizing about an imminent removal of the president, whether they think of it as a deliverance or as a coup. The chief obstacle to Trump’s success as a president remains his own haphazard decision-making and his verbal flights. Drudge may be right that the White House is not serving Trump well, but Trump is the saboteur in chief.