The authors make a cynical but shrewd observation about post-1992 impeachment talk: It is often stirred not by the president’s opponents, but by the president’s supporters, as a way to sustain political engagement between elections.
Many conservatives were thrilled in March 2006 when Democratic Senator Russell Feingold proposed censuring [George W.] Bush for warrantless domestic surveillance. At that point, the president’s public approval ratings had collapsed. With midterm elections on the horizon, Republicans feared losing control of Congress. What better way to fire up the base than to warn that Democrats would impeach Bush if they prevailed? “This is such a gift,” Rush Limbaugh told listeners. The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed entitled, “The Impeachment Agenda,” which the Republican National Committee shared with 15 million supporters … As reporter David Kirkpatrick observed at the time, “in playing up the impeachment threat, conservatives have forged an alliance of sorts with the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party.”
The script would be reversed in the Obama presidency, and for exactly the same reasons. Despite the extreme abuse hurled his way, Barack Obama was never in danger of being impeached. But his supporters believed he was, and that belief served as an important political resource to Democrats as Republicans gained control of Congress and many state legislatures starting in 2010.
Since the 1990s, we have entered the age of the permanent campaign, with permanent fundraising, permanent partisanship—and, in tandem, permanent impeachment hearings. Americans speak more roughly about their presidents and, precisely because they do, often do not take their own words seriously. How often was Obama called a dictator? And yet people who used that language most effectively acknowledged afterward that they never meant it to be taken seriously.
Perhaps they imagine that concerned language about Trump should be interpreted the same way, as just an over-emphatic expression of ordinary political difference. As Americans talk more about impeachment, they seem to care less. The idea that a president could be a threat to the democratic system as a whole, a threat to be heeded seriously by people of all points of view, has faded—perhaps because, for so many Americans, faith in that system has faded, too. The authors write:
Many Americans who voted for Trump view themselves as belonging to a victimized, disenfranchised class that has finally discovered its champion. For some of them, Trump’s appeal is less what he will accomplish programmatically than whom he will attack personally. Were Trump removed from office by political elites in Washington, DC—even based on clear evidence that he had grossly abused power—some of his supporters would surely view the decision as an illegitimate coup. Indeed, some right-wing leaders have already denounced the campaign to remove Trump as a prelude to civil war. This rhetoric, too, escapes reality and indulges pernicious tendencies toward apocalyptic thinking about the impeachment power.
Tribe and Matz regard Trump as bad news: bad for the political system overall, and bad for their own specific liberal policy preferences. And yet the most remarkable thing about To End a Presidency is the spirit of moderation they bring to their vision of how those harms should be mitigated.