When a president of the United States incites an already agitated crowd to march on the nation’s Capitol, to refuse “to take it any longer” or “allow this group of people to illegally take over our country”—and when a segment of that crowd is led on by individuals enjoying presidential approval and whose violent proclivities and intentions were advertised and known beforehand—and when that mob assaults and vandalizes the Capitol, interrupts congressional certification of a presidential election, and forces elected representatives into hiding—then the demand for impeachment is both logical and understandable.
All the more so when this final outrage crowns months, no, years, of lying and breaking long established civic norms. No wonder so many thoughtful and dedicated political leaders have concluded that impeachment is the only responsible recourse.
They are, however, mistaken.
Impeachment, they say, will remove a dangerous and perhaps unstable man from the Oval Office.
It won’t. Time will not allow it. For removal, impeachment must be followed by conviction by an unlikely two-thirds vote of the Senate—which is not in session anyway—after what would inevitably be an extended trial.
But the very prospect of impeachment, its advocates say, might press Trump, like President Nixon, to resign.
He won’t. Trump is Trump. He knows he can run out the clock—and not be a “loser.”
But impeachment, they finally say, is “the right thing to do.” It is a solemn and unambiguous statement that no president is above the law. It will decisively repudiate the authoritarian turn Trump has legitimated.
It isn’t, and it won’t. An impeachment, unfortunately, will not be solemn or unambiguous. It will be rushed, contested, and partisan. It will be opposed by a large number of Republicans and perhaps a few Democrats. They will be able to frame plausible-sounding objections that don’t require defending the president’s actions. Absent a Senate trial and conviction, an impeachment can be shrugged off as “political,” which of course Trump will do. And, worse, if either a swift or delayed Senate trial falls short of the necessary two-thirds vote, as is likely, Trump will once again claim exoneration.
The problem of course is not just Trump; it is Trumpism. Trumpism cannot be impeached and may very well be abetted by an impeachment. The problem is not just one man, but the one hundred and fifty or so members of Congress who backed the president’s phantasmagoric challenges to the election results. The problem is not just the one hundred and fifty or so members of Congress but the millions of Americans who, according to a Washington Post summary of polls, disapprove of the Capitol invasion but for one reason or another “empathize with the mob.”
Is Trumpism stymied? My good friend and Commonweal contributor E. J. Dionne Jr. thinks so. “During the first week of January 2021,” Dionne wrote in the Washington Post, “Trumpism, a movement that sought to undermine our democracy, was defeated, discredited and permanently shamed.”
“Trump’s defeat alone might not have defused the threat,” he continued. “But the horrors in the halls of Congress—along with the GOP’s decisive setback in Georgia’s Senate runoffs—finally induced a mass conversion experience among Republicans who long shored up a corrupt and dangerous regime. Except in the fever swamps, Trump will come to represent not a noble lost cause but a catastrophic turn from reason.”
If only. The reality, I believe, is quite different.