Impeachment Could End Badly

Democrats may regret the dynamics that the House’s actions will set in motion.

President Donald Trump
Tom Brenner / Reuters

I don’t have the courage of my convictions. President Donald Trump deserves to be impeached for trying to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political opponents. With every week, he says or does something worse than what he already said or did. But to say Trump deserves impeachment is different from saying that impeachment is good for the country. It might, in fact, turn out quite badly.

Most of the people whom I like or trust believe—and believe rather strongly—that what Trump has done rises to a crime. For them, the analysis of whether Trump should be impeached can’t help but be informed by their view that Trump represents an existential threat to the country. If he might damage American democracy at some fundamental level, without any obvious recourse, then pursuing his removal from office would seem to go without saying. That he is in a position to win again in 2020 and serve another four years makes impeachment all the more urgent.

Yet if you believe, as I do, that Trump is bad, but also that his badness falls somewhat short of an existential threat, then impeachment, however justified in theory, becomes less straightforward. The process does not unfold in a political vacuum, and Democrats should not let the certainty of their legal reasoning push them toward impeachment without regard for its real-world consequences—which are uncertain and could prove costly. Impeachment also runs the risk of hijacking the debate in the Democratic primary, as well as further embittering Trump’s supporters and souring them on the democratic process.

Ultimately, the decision to impeach is a matter of judgment, not so much a question of whether Trump committed high crimes and misdemeanors (he almost certainly did) as whether invoking the Constitution’s impeachment provision right now is a good idea.

The now-infamous Ukraine quid pro quo might be obviously worse than what came before, but it is still only the latest in a long series of impeachable offenses. In April 2017, the American University professor Allan Lichtman published The Case for Impeachment, which made its case based on a “deep analysis of Trump’s past and proven behavior.” Considering that the book came in at 300 pages, presumably there was a lot of material (and that was just a few months into Trump’s term, before he had a chance to do much of anything as president). In a September 2017 review of books about impeachment, the law professor Noah Feldman and journalist Jacob Weisberg argued that Lichtman had overreached, but they identified other plausible reasons to impeach the 45th president. “What might constitutionally grounded articles of impeachment against Donald Trump look like? The most clear-cut one,” Feldman and Weisberg wrote, “would be based on public corruption, including conflicts of interest and receipt of foreign emoluments.”

Every Democratic politician is asking—and should ask: Is impeachment at this moment a good idea politically, and, related but probably less important for politicians, is it a good idea for the country? Presumably, many of them decided finally that, with the Ukraine fiasco, it was a good, or at least an unavoidable, idea politically. To do nothing would be to shrug their shoulders in the face of one of the most corrupt presidents in modern history. Impeachment is, after all, in the Constitution, and if not now, when? A minority of House Democrats may have had doubts but had little choice to go along with it. This being a democracy, they have to be responsive to the people who actually voted for them, and the majority of Democrats support impeachment.

But will impeachment be good for Democrats in 2020 and beyond? On a purely tactical level, it is unlikely that any of this will erode Trump’s support. It has been more than two months since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initiated the impeachment inquiry, on September 24, yet polling averages have remained as they have always been: immovable, a testament to the growing inelasticity of American politics. What parties or politicians do, or don’t do, has limited bearing on what people—most of whom have already made up their minds—think of them. When Trump made his notorious comment that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters, he was describing a country in which his supporters’ views are perfectly inelastic.

Even if impeachment proceedings fail to change any minds, they will still have consequences on the overall dynamics of the 2020 election. For one, they threaten to consume public debate and pull the various Democratic candidates in the direction of endlessly commenting on or responding to Donald Trump. Whether this would be to Democrats’ benefit is debatable; focusing on what’s wrong with Trump at the expense of building an inspiring, affirmative case for the presidency didn’t quite work well last time around.

More substantively, a full-blown impeachment trial distracts Democrats from their natural strengths: channeling Americans’ anger against massive inequality and economic injustice and moving Americans toward what I’ve described as the “economics of meaning,” in which economic or class critiques are a means to focus anger, create meaning, and build solidarity. Joe Biden may have based his candidacy on not being Trump, but the other top-tier candidates—Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg—have all based their candidacies on something more than mere opposition to the incumbent. They have an interest in keeping it that way. As Ari Berman writes, “One of the biggest divides in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is whether Donald Trump is a cause or a symptom of the current dysfunction in American politics.” To focus on impeachment, then, is to focus on the symptom.

Then there’s the question of whether impeachment is “good” on its own terms. It is nearly impossible to imagine how Trump could actually be convicted by the Senate and therefore removed from office, but this doesn’t change the fact that the ostensible goal of impeachment is to remove him—and to erase what, for many Democrats, has been since November 2016 an unacceptable reality. The desire to remove Trump from office cannot be separated from the decision to pursue impeachment, so it is worth considering, even as a thought exercise, what removal would actually mean.

As I have argued elsewhere, the removal of Trump, however legally and constitutionally legitimate, would confirm the worst suspicions of his supporters: that their voices, in the end, wouldn’t be allowed to count. Their democratic and electoral agency would be denied. In Britain, there was a palpable anger among Brexiteers that what they’d won at the polls in the 2016 referendum would be taken away from them with calls for a do-over vote. Similarly, a sense of disenfranchisement would sour tens of millions of Americans on the democratic process—and on the idea of democracy. The perception that a legitimate electoral outcome was undone by those other than the voters themselves—in this case partisan actors and political elites—could inflict the very damage on the system’s democratic legitimacy that Democrats themselves have been warning against. Already, as the political theorist Nathan Pippenger writes, “public debate seems driven by an urge to deny the legitimacy of one’s ideological opponents.” How do we reduce—or at least not exacerbate—these “legitimacy” risks?

Some of these legitimacy risks, albeit on a (hopefully) more manageable level, would be present in either of two possible scenarios short of removal: impeachment without removal, followed by a Trump victory in 2020, or impeachment without removal, followed by a Trump defeat. A prolonged impeachment process, even if it has nothing to do with Trump’s loss, could taint an otherwise clean Democratic victory, particularly if the numbers are close. Some Republican voters will, of course, treat any Democratic victory as illegitimate, but there’s no reason to give them additional arguments to use in their favor. If Trump wins, he will be the first president to serve a new term after having been impeached the previous term. This would, in the minds of Democratic voters, make him seem even more illegitimate than he already was and further undermine their perceptions of the democratic process. Democrats will rightly ask how it is that their fellow Americans could reelect—after everything they know—a president both disgraced and impeached. In impeaching Trump, House Democrats are posing a question whose answer they do not want to hear.

And this is why I’m torn. Democrats had to do something. The president has been wrong and done wrong, and his misdeeds must be recorded somehow. There is something to be said for upholding basic constitutional principles, irrespective of outcome, especially when future scenarios can comfortably remain in the realm of the imagined. Or more fatalistically, as the Atlantic Council’s Faysal Itani put it: “Maybe sometimes you gotta do something even if it’s a bad idea.” Democrats have probably made the right choice. It’s just a choice Americans may have to pay for.