The Constitution is what Camus would call a “closed universe”—a space of “coherence and unity” in an incoherent world, in which words carry weight and actions have consequences. Trump’s disrespect for the law is a reminder of how fragile that structure of meaning can be. For that reason, there is a real service in using impeachment proceedings to push back against the notion that, in the parlance of the internet, “lol nothing matters.”
Susan Hennessey and I have argued that the House of Representatives has a duty to begin an impeachment inquiry insofar as representatives swear an oath to “support and defend the Constitution” and to “well and faithfully” execute the duties of their office. Another way of saying this is that an impeachment inquiry depends on an insistence that this oath really means something—and that the president’s oath means something as well. Keith Whittington, likewise, has written that impeachment is partially a matter of “norm creation and norm reinforcement.” And Yoni Appelbaum argued that the impeachment of Andrew Johnson “drew the United States closer to living up to its ideals.”
Gerald Ford, as a member of the House of Representatives, argued in 1970 that an impeachable offense is “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” He was not wrong that impeachment is a political process; it is, after all, entrusted to Congress. To treat the subject as an entirely political calculation, though—as Ford did and as Pelosi appears to be doing now—is to slouch toward nihilism. Treating the words high crimes and misdemeanors as if they hold real significance, however, is a way of protesting that the world should not be as it inevitably is.
This is perhaps overly earnest. But there is a real humanity and purity of purpose in asserting earnestness against the void.
The House should take up the task of examining the president’s conduct as detailed in the Mueller report and evaluating whether it is fitting of the person who holds the nation’s highest office. It should investigate the many other instances of potentially impeachable conduct by the president, from tweets to pardons. It should debate how to understand what constitutes a “high crime and misdemeanor,” and whether relatively minor offenses can accumulate over time into something worthy of impeachment. The House should fulfill its constitutional duties and the process of constitutional interpretation, which by its nature is a declaration that the Constitution holds some significance.
Lincoln’s warning of the “approach of danger,” in context, was less about the political fracturing that would lead to the Civil War and more about the creeping acceptance of what should have been unacceptable. He decried “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts; and the worse than savage mobs for the executive ministers of justice.” It was this, in his mind, that pointed toward the death of the nation. The antidote he offered was “the support of the Constitution and laws.” In the absence of that, the cynical country would become vulnerable to the approach of a dictator: “Distinction will be his paramount object … and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.”