Although the betting odds are still against it, the possibility of Donald Trump being impeached and removed from the presidency has significantly increased this month. That is the good news.
Now for the bad news. Whether or not that happens, the political environment in the U.S. will continue to be terrible. If impeachment becomes a serious option, it will still be a matter of choosing which option is least bad and then working like crazy to minimize the damage and build for the future.
Reasonable minds can differ about whether it would be good for the country for Trump to be impeached (or forced to resign, or removed due to mental incompetency via the Twenty-Fifth Amendment). And the political implications are even less clear, as I noted in a recent column in which I laid out why Democrats might want a wounded and neutered Trump to remain in office through January 2021.
Based on what we know now, I tentatively join the “go ahead and follow the impeachment path” group. I do not, however, want to sugarcoat this. Even before the Republicans decided last year to help Trump eke out his shaky win in the Electoral College, Republicans had long since turned American politics into an ugly war zone.
The foundations that they have built will unfortunately remain with us, no matter what happens to Trump. Even so, that is certainly not a reason to fail to push back against him and his party. When one group of cruel, shortsighted people soils the country, the correct response is not to refuse to clean up the muck. The question is how to fight back.
Even people who reasonably conclude that impeachment is not the best route should be looking for the best way out of this mess that the conservative movement has inflicted on the country.
How Bad Could It Be? Thinking Through Alternative Scenarios
In a very smart piece this week, Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post, asks a rhetorical question: “So, let’s say Trump gets impeached. Then what?”
He begins by offering a deliberately silly answer: “Passions subside. President Pence begins his orderly reign. Donald Trump retreats to Mar-a-Lago. Normalcy returns. That’s about what you have in mind, right?”
Not really, but he makes a good point, even though there is more than a hint of a straw-man argument there. Hiatt helpfully reminds us that it is important to remember that there are pluses and minuses to every situation, and it is unwise to stop at: “Trump would not be president anymore. What a wonderful thought!”
I will return to Hiatt’s arguments shortly, but it is worth emphasizing here that the point that he is making applies far beyond the question of removing Trump from office.
Earlier this month, for example, I wrote a Verdict column in which I imagined what the world would have been like if Hillary Clinton had won the election last November. Although I offered a few possible counterfactual details that might not have been the most probable (such as House Republicans dumping Paul Ryan, which might have been wish fulfillment on my part), at least everything that I laid out was plausible. And most of what I described was not only highly likely but in fact was all but guaranteed to happen.
For example, I suggested that Trump would have refused to accept the results of the election, that there would have been armed confrontations in the streets, that Mitch McConnell would have sanctimoniously defended the filibuster, and that Republicans would have nearly immediately started impeachment proceedings against Clinton (maybe even before she took office). For each of those predictions, the best assessment would be: Maybe not, but probably.
The point of my column was to remind us that Clinton would have been almost immediately neutralized as president, and there is a very good chance that her presidency would have led to a wipeout for Democrats in 2018 and 2020, unless Democrats worked like mad to prevent that from happening.
That means that a person with progressive views could in completely good faith argue that electing Trump was better than electing Clinton, essentially by invoking the classic argument against incrementalism: Things must be allowed (even forced) to get worse before they can get better.
Note that this is very definitely not what some of Clinton’s detractors from the left were saying. Supporters of third-party candidates, as well as others who loudly abstained while repeating false smears about Clinton, often tried to claim that Clinton would be just as bad as Trump.
That is absurd. The anti-incrementalist argument does not say that Clinton would not be clearly better. Instead, it says that precisely because Clinton would be better than Trump, her presidency would prevent a reckoning that would in the larger scheme of things lead to better results than limping along with our current system.
Even though I rejected the anti-incrementalist argument in the context of the 2016 election, it is a respectable point of view. The more thoughtful among Bernie Sanders’s supporters could certainly make a plausible claim that his political revolution would have been more likely to succeed at the polls by giving the voters a choice between one outsider and a very different outsider.
Again, even though I have some sympathy for that point of view, it was ultimately not convincing. For one thing, some Sanders supporters used it as a reason to vote against Clinton in November, or to sit it out. But the damage that Trump is doing to vulnerable people is simply too great, and the decisions that he is all too likely to make about war and the environment are too horrific to allow us to think: “No problem. It’ll be a tough four years, but then we’ll be fine.”
Even Sanders supporters who did not actively or passively enable Trump’s election, however, engaged in a different version of the error that Hiatt highlighted, which is to pretend that the alternative reality would have been a carefree Eden.
In this view, Clinton was horribly compromised and too vulnerable to Republicans’ attacks, but Bernie-the-Outsider would have avoided all of that. As I argued shortly after the election, however, Sanders supporters tended to downplay the fact that he also was vulnerable to Republicans’ attacks, most obviously because they could endlessly remind people that he openly calls himself a socialist. (The horror!) “I don’t care if he calls himself a Democratic Socialist. That’s just two words that both mean Marxist.”
Again, no one can possibly know what would have happened if Sanders had been the Democratic nominee, although I still find it more likely that he would have lost to Trump. But what if he had won?
The easy, naive answer is that the political revolution would have begun, and Republicans would have been swept aside. The reality is that the defeated Republicans would have been able to rally in opposition to the new “commie president.”
It should go without saying, but I will say it for the sake of caution, that these attacks on Sanders would have been dishonest and baseless. He is no more of a communist than Franklin Delano Roosevelt was.
The whole point, however, is that the Republican echo chamber would have done what it always does, which is to ignore the facts and whip up ignorant hysteria wherever it can. (Remember death panels? Obama’s secret plan to confiscate guns? Clinton’s sympathies for terrorists?)
In other words, my alternative-reality column about Clinton’s first hundred days as president could just as easily have been written about another place in the multiverse where Sanders had won it all.
What would that world have looked like? A well-financed and shameless Republican Party would have been busily doing everything possible to destroy the Sanders presidency, reaping the political benefits of governmental dysfunction in exactly the same way that it did by blocking everything possible during Barack Obama’s last six years in office.
This of course does not mean that it definitely would have been a bad thing for Sanders to win. Had he been the nominee, I would have enthusiastically voted for him over Trump. It is always a matter of comparing bad options—and they are all bad, because the Republicans have changed the world in a way that makes that a certainty.
For my part, I think that the least-bad route available was for Clinton to win the nomination and the presidency, at which point we would have been in for a long series of shocking setbacks and disappointing results.
It would have been an ugly fight. Impeachment or no, the immediate future is also a choice among similarly ugly fights.
The Post-Impeachment Brawl: Same as the Pre-Impeachment Brawl?
Returning to the impeach-or-not question regarding Trump, then, the important mental exercise is to compare the good and bad things that would happen under alternative strategic scenarios.
The problem with Hiatt’s editorial in The Post is that he does a very good job of describing the dysfunctional post-impeachment environment, but he presumes without actually arguing as much that such an environment would definitely be worse than the alternative.
Hiatt argues quite convincingly that Trump’s supporters would refuse to accept defeat and would turn against “the Washington elite” for having undone the results of the election. That means that the political system would face stresses that it has never faced before.
I find that prediction to be not merely plausible but likely. On the other hand, Hiatt describes the alternative as waiting to defeat Republicans and Trump at the polls, sending them ignominiously to their political graves.
But why should we blithely assume that Trump and others would go quietly—or at all? The diehards and thugs who would surely make trouble after a Trump impeachment and conviction would also be likely to follow his lead when he claims that election results are fraudulent.
Indeed, his supporters are already convinced that Trump is being treated unfairly, which means that future votes against Trump would be presumptively illegitimate. This is exactly the argument that Trump made last fall when he refused to say that he would accept the results of the election.
To be sure, there is a plausible argument that some Republicans would be less likely to go along with what amounts to insurrection, whereas they would be angry enough to support Trump’s post-impeachment attempts at revenge and redemption. It is an empirical guess as to how large that group might be, but I suspect that it would not be an empty set. Is the difference big enough to tip the argument against impeachment? Maybe, but I doubt it.
In addition, the longer that Trump and his vote-suppressing enablers are in office, the less likely it is that Trump and the Republicans will face the true will of the people at the ballot box. Waiting around to let them receive their just comeuppance carries real risks.
To put this all in perspective, consider an analogy. Every time I find myself sitting on a subway train that has been stopped for no apparent reason, or when some other annoyance of riding public transit presents itself, I cannot help thinking to myself, “Oh, if only I had driven!” However, whenever I am sitting in a traffic jam, I think, “If only I had taken the Metro!”
The analogy is especially apt because we do not know for sure when we plan our commutes each day which would be the better choice. Bad things can happen either way—especially given how badly this country underinvests in both public transportation and road maintenance.
But the analogy is also apt because there actually are ways to know which is most likely to be the better choice. If a person lives in a place where non-personal transportation is available, the evidence tells us that public transportation is overwhelmingly the better option, even in this country.
Similarly, that we can imagine bad post-impeachment politics and bad post-non-impeachment politics does not mean that there are not ways to compare one bad choice with another.
The impeachment question is not as clear-cut as the drive-versus-ride question in commuting, but the probabilities line up rather starkly at this point in history. For my money, because Trump is impeachable, he should be impeached. We should not talk ourselves into being too clever for our own good.
Whatever happens, it is everyone’s responsibility to fight back against the reality-denying reactionary politics that Republicans have foisted on this country.