Calling Impeachment a ‘Coup’ Hurts America

The Constitution matters. So does the English language.

The U.S. Capitol at night
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Impeachment is the mechanism that the Framers provided in the Constitution to address “the abuse or violation of some public trust,” as Alexander Hamilton put it in “Federalist No. 65.” Other countries might suffer unfit leaders without recourse, or oust them using extralegal violence, but not the United States. The coequal branch of Congress would check the presidency. The House would be lawfully empowered to impeach, and the Senate to conduct a trial. If two-thirds of senators voted to convict, the president would be removed.

That lawful and inherently political process is one of the reasons the United States has an unbroken record of peaceful transitions of power between presidents.

But that civic inheritance is being undermined by allies of President Donald Trump who are making constitutionally illiterate and otherwise wrongheaded arguments in an effort to cast plainly lawful impeachment proceedings as illegitimate.

Victor Davis Hanson of National Review is a prominent example. His new article, “Ten Reasons Impeachment Is Illegitimate,” does not merely argue that the House should vote against impeachment or the Senate against conviction. It asserts, “We are witnessing constitutional government dissipating before our very eyes,” declaring that “there are at least ten reasons why the Democratic impeachment ‘inquiry’ is a euphemism for an ongoing coup attempt.”

The term coup conjures “a sudden, illegal, often violent, taking of government power, especially by part of an army.” The House impeachment inquiry is neither sudden, nor illegal, nor violent, nor being carried out by the military. Using the word coup to describe the process is dishonest and irresponsible.

“At best, we have turned a uniquely constitutional republic into a European parliamentary system in which heads of states can be removed from power without national elections,” Hanson writes, referring to a removal mechanism created by the Constitution. “At worst,” he adds, “we are now a rank banana republic in which coups are an accepted model of political opposition.” His rhetoric is inflammatory nonsense that can succeed only insofar as it overwhelms logic.

Hanson goes on to characterize the impeachment inquiry as the latest of multiple attempts “to reverse the 2016 election.” As he well knows, however, impeachment and removal by the Senate would not “reverse the 2016 election.” Neither the previous president, Barack Obama, nor Trump’s 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, would occupy the White House in the event of removal. Neither the laws Trump has signed nor the judicial appointments Trump has made would be negated. And the new president would be Mike Pence, by virtue of the fact that he was on the same Republican ticket that won the Electoral College in 2016.

The Constitution matters. So does the English language. To conserve the integrity of both––a project avowedly conservative writers ought to care about––requires choosing words with more intellectual honesty and care than Hanson shows. Alas, he is not an outlier among Trumpists. Even the House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy has called the impeachment inquiry “a calculated coup.”

Ramesh Ponnuru responded at National Review as a constitutional conservative should. “This is the same rhetoric that Democrats used during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton,” he wrote. “It is no more apt now. The Constitution lays out a way for presidents to be removed from office by Congress, just as it lays out a way that presidents can take office without a popular majority or even plurality.” That constitutional procedure, he continued, “cannot successfully be invoked without the support of a supermajority of the public larger than what is necessary to elect a president in the first place.”

If efforts to oust Trump ever trigger political violence by people who don’t understand the constitutional legitimacy of impeachment and removal, blame for the bloodshed will reside in part with Hanson, McCarthy, and all the other pro-Trump commentators who cast a tool the Framers gave us as illegitimate.