I want to revisit my earlier post on impeachment. I am more inclined to support impeachment today than I was 6 days ago, although it is still far from clear that impeachment makes sense.
Trump has done great damage to this country by making clear that congressional Republicans will allow a lawless, authoritarian president who is popular with Republican primary voters to get away with almost anything. Many of them would have let Trump subvert the 2020 election. Our goal should be to prevent another Republican from using the Trump playbook.
Given the current alignment of forces in U.S. politics, to prevent another Trump from attacking our democracy our priorities should be 1) to help Democrats win elections by discrediting the Republican party, especially its Trumpiest members, and 2) to discredit the right-wing conspiracy mongers and especially the terrorist groups that have thrived with Trump’s encouragement. These are the factors that should drive our thinking about impeachment. (If you think that impeachment should be judged without taking these broader political consequences into account, here’s a question for you: would you really prefer impeaching Trump and having Democrats lose the House and Senate in 2022 to letting Trump scamper away unimpeached but having Democrats keep control of Congress?)
It is far from clear that impeachment will help safeguard our democracy.
Will impeaching Trump prevent another Republican authoritarian from using Trump’s playbook? This seems unlikely. Impeaching Trump does little to prevent another Republican from using Trump’s playbook. Punishing Trump because he attempted to overthrow an election in a violent but inept and buffoonish way at the end of his term when many in his party consider him a liability and are ready to be done with him will not deter future authoritarians. Future authoritarians may have better opportunities to undermine democracy (a closer election, more popular support). Or they may be better able to exploit opportunities to undermine democracy. (Think President Cruz or Hawley, both of whom undoubtedly think of themselves – probably rightly – as much more strategic and operationally capable than Trump. What makes them less likely than Trump to successfully subvert an election is lack of charisma and populist appeal.)
Impeaching Trump would have little precedential value. Future Congresses are not bound to follow precedents of previous Congresses. Congress isn’t a court, and we know that the current Republican party is willing to flout norms and precedents with impunity. It will be easy for future Republican congressional enablers to distinguish the misbehavior of their authoritarian from Trump’s wrongdoing, provided they are motivated to do so, and future Trumps will know this. This highlights the critical point: it is now clear that Republicans are willing to let an authoritarian, charismatic Republican president get away with almost anything. Impeaching Trump now does little to change this.
Will impeachment damage the electoral prospects of the Republican party? Certainly, the attack on the Capitol has greatly damaged Trump, and it will undoubtedly damage his party. (I suspect that as we learn more, the damage will get much worse.) But this damage is already baked in the cake. The question now is the marginal effect of impeachment (hey, we had to get some economics in here).
A reasonable case can be made that impeachment will benefit the Republican party – if the stories that McConnell is considering impeachment are correct, this is undoubtedly his calculation as well. It may give Republicans an opportunity to minimize their complicity by voting to impeach and convict Trump. If impeachment fails it may energize Trump supporters. And either way, impeachment will shift attention from Republican complicity in Trump’s assault on democracy to Trump’s responsibility for the violent events of January 6, an issue that Republican politicians and right-wing groups can effectively gaslight (see David Henderson here). (Indeed, Republicans are gaslighting as we speak.)
Will impeachment discredit and disempower right-wing militia groups? If so this is a reason to favor impeachment. But it is far from clear that impeachment will discredit right-wing militia groups. The best way to discredit these groups is to keep the focus on what they did at the Capitol on January 6, not to get bogged down in a debate about Trump’s responsibility for their behavior, a debate that will be easy for Trump’s supporters and right-wing extremists to gaslight. To discredit far-right groups we need hearings, videos, and prosecutions.
Some other arguments for impeachment:
Would impeachment prevent Trump from doing something catastrophic in the final days of his presidency? If so, this certainly would justify impeachment if impeachment would lead to removal from office before the end of his term, but this seems highly unlikely.
Barring Trump from running for office again: Apparently it is unclear if Trump can be barred from holding office in the future if he is impeached and removed after his term ends. (I have no opinion on the weight of the legal arguments or any prediction on how the courts would decide them.) And Trump could conceivably be barred under the 14th amendment without an impeachment process, at a time that was chosen by the Democrats rather than being dictated by the calendar.
Should Trump go down in history as the only President impeached twice? Sure, Trump deserves to be condemned by history, but whether he will be does not depend on whether he is impeached, it depends on whether we find our way through this dangerous moment in our history. And this underscores that we need to worry much more about real consequences for our politics than about momentary moralistic victories. This is not an argument against impeachment, just an argument against impeaching Trump simply because he “deserves it” (which he does). Politics is not a morality play.