A cottage industry has arisen among anti-Trump commentators, especially those on the center-left, arguing that it would be better if Donald Trump lost at the polls than if he lost an impeachment battle. Therefore, the argument continues, Trump’s opponents should drop any notion of impeaching Trump.
This argument is not daft, but it is both misguided and confused. To give the argument its due, it absolutely makes sense to imagine that an impeachment battle would be deeply divisive and damaging to the country. It would also make Trump and his supporters feel that they had been railroaded by his enemies. So yes, those would be among the costs to the country of impeaching and removing Trump from office.
As I will argue below, however, it is also true that the country will be horribly divided even if Trump is never impeached. We are choosing among very bad options here, and simply saying that impeachment would be divisive and harmful tells us nothing.
Even so, I am not going to argue here in favor of (or against) impeachment. Indeed, I will argue as a practical matter that, at least currently, there is no point in even thinking about removing Trump through the impeachment process. Instead, I will explain why we simply should be prepared for the hard reality that the country will be profoundly divided after Trump is no longer president, almost no matter what. This is not, therefore, a column aimed at anyone who is looking for uplift or optimism.
The Impeachment Possibility
I noted above that the anti-impeachment argument from those who oppose Trump is based on detailing the undeniable costs to the country of impeachment. But what about the benefits of impeaching an unfit president? Those are presumed somehow to be attainable without actually going through the impeachment process. Hold tight until 2020, the story goes, and in January 2021 we will be able finally to bid Trump the least fond farewell ever. In the meantime, we will all figure out how to make do and bide our time.
But why should we accept an “all’s well that ends well” approach to Trump? As I noted in a recent column on Dorf on Law, Trump and his administration are doing untold damage every day that he occupies the White House. From despoiling the environment to gutting consumer protection and labor laws to pulling out of a successful (and actually quite popular) agreement to contain Iran’s nuclear program, each new sunrise presents the country with another day in which large disasters are ever more likely and small disasters are certainties.
Under these circumstances, passing up the possibility of a successful impeachment and conviction of Trump because there is a politically less dramatic way to do so at a later date would be simply immoral.
And the damage from waiting would not merely flow from allowing bad policies to be adopted, having them implemented by corrupt and incompetent appointees, and having it all blessed by a judiciary system that is being packed with Trump-friendly judges. Keeping a corrupt president in office even though he has committed impeachable offenses would itself be damaging to the country and would set a dangerous precedent for the future. Impeachment should be rare, but refusing to use it for short-term political reasons would be the height of irresponsibility and a violation of our founding principles.
Moreover, deciding as a strategic matter to leave a man in place based on the assumption that he will be beatable at the ballot box in the future ignores how quickly political fortunes can change. In 2011, then-Governor Chris Christie turned down impassioned pleas from party leaders to run for president, apparently on the assumption that his position could only strengthen in the ensuing years (and also knowing that in 2016 Christie would not be running against an incumbent). We all know how that worked out for the man who soon became the most unpopular governor in the country.
Political fortunes can also move in the opposite direction. In 1991, for example, George H. W. Bush was so popular that prominent Democrats refused to run against a seemingly unbeatable president, allowing an unknown small-state smooth talker to step into the void and defeat the fading president.
Consider what could happen between now and November of 2020. Republicans nationwide continue to do everything they can to suppress votes, making it more and more difficult for Democratic-leaning voters even to register in many areas. Trump’s core of support is not going anywhere, and if the 40 or so percent of the public that worships him goes to the polls while others are prevented from doing so, he could pull off another non-majority win.
Another category of possibilities is exemplified by this week’s news that Melania Trump has been hospitalized with a medical problem that required surgery. Happily, she appears to be fine and will fully recover. But this kind of thing can happen at any moment and could swing enough voters in a relatively close election to vote for Trump in sympathy.
This might seem odd, because even Trump’s supporters do not imagine that Trump much cares about his third wife (or anyone but himself). Indeed, they seem to spend much their time trying to justify his having had multiple affairs, including his cheating on this wife even in the immediate aftermath of her giving birth to his youngest son.
Even so, there would be an outpouring of sympathy for Trump if any tragedy were to arise in his life. People care much more about others than Trump himself does (which is, of course, the lowest of low bars), and Trump could end up winning on a sympathy vote – even if people otherwise had been counting down the days until he could be voted out of office.
Impeachment Is a Bad Idea Because It Would Not Succeed, Not Because It Should Not Succeed
If the possibility of impeaching and convicting Trump were to present itself, therefore, we would be foolish not to pursue it. The man is doing everything he can every day to consolidate power and to make it more difficult to remove him. It would be too cute by much more than half to say: “We have two viable choices, but we’ll take the one later in time because we want to avoid divisive politics.”
But we do not in fact have two viable choices, because Republicans are united behind the man who took over their party. In my Dorf on Law column last week, I held out the possibility that the politics could change, noting that “impeachment will only make sense if something bigger than what we have already seen emerges, because even in the best of circumstances [after the mid-terms] conviction would require at least fifteen Republican votes after a Senate trial. Those votes will not be easy to find.”
At this point, however, we might as well admit that it has become impossible to imagine anything that would change the politics of impeachment. In a different context, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin provides a useful rundown of the long list of Trump’s offenses that have not been deal-breakers for Trump’s supporters or congressional Republicans.
After Trump’s shameless self-dealing, his firing of the FBI Director (and then his admission on television that his reason for doing so was not what his aides had claimed), and the full litany of indecencies including his defending the “very fine people” who marched with the neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in Charlottesville, what could possibly be the “something bigger” to which I hopefully referred above?
In these circumstances, then, although we can talk about what to do if something cataclysmic were to change, there is no point at all in talking ourselves into avoiding or embracing impeachment. If something big comes along, it is not too trite to say that we will know it when we see it.
Divisiveness Is the New American Way of Life
The more relevant and more useful inquiry, therefore, is to think about what a post-Trump world will be like after he loses the next election. Trump thrives on sowing divisions and stoking grievances, which suggests that his departure from Washington could provide an opening for improvement in the national political culture. It is admittedly possible, but I remain highly skeptical.
Imagine that Trump loses in 2020 by a fairly healthy margin – not a blowout (which is impossible in a world in which his approval ratings seem incapable of dropping below forty percent for very long), but something like 55 percent to 45 percent in the popular vote and 380 to 158 in the Electoral College. This would most likely result in a Democratic sweep, creating or increasing Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.
Even then, it is easy to predict that Trump would do everything possible to say that he was cheated out of a second term. That is who he is, having shown again and again that his definition of “unfair” is simply anything that resulted in something that he did not want. He said in 2016, during one of the presidential debates, that he might not accept a loss at the polls. We should take that seriously in 2020.
I will set aside here the possibility that Trump will refuse to leave office even after losing, even though I consider that a very real possibility, because I plan to write a future column devoted to that scary scenario. Short of that, what would happen even after a peaceful transfer of power?
The Post’s Paul Waldman pointed out in a recent column that there is an entire political/entertainment industry devoted to feeding the sense of grievance among white voters. It existed long before Trump came along, and it will only become more aggressive after he loses. We will see years of claims about voter fraud as well as conspiracy theories of all kinds, with resistance to the new president being pushed 24/7 on cable television and right-wing websites.
Waldman points out that this manufactured grievance among the pro-Trump portion of the public makes it pointless, and even damaging, for Democrats to fall for the idea that Trump voters can be won back if only Democrats can show “respect” for them. The grievance industry does one thing, and it does it very well. Everything Democrats say is twisted to create maximum outrage, and when Democrats try to respond, they are mocked for being insincere.
Democrats can and will offer policies that would be better for everyone – especially including Trump’s non-wealthy supporters – but they cannot allow themselves to be deluded into thinking that they could somehow make Trump’s people feel that they are not being disrespected. There are too many people who rely on a continuation of that outrage to allow it to dissipate.
And we should not forget that the Russian government’s successful campaign to sow division in the United States is not going anywhere. Trump, of course, refuses to do anything about it, and a new Democratic president would surely receive pushback if she tries to root out Russian influence, because enraged congressional Republicans would (as Mitch McConnell did in 2016) insist on viewing anything along those lines as a partisan matter.
What this means is that, should Democrats win, we must simply steel ourselves to the reality that Trump’s supporters will still be numerous after the election and that they will be even more angry and alienated. They will hear again and again that they are losing their country to liberal elites, and they will readily believe that the election was stolen from their hero.
In short, things will be very much like they were during Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s presidencies, but worse. Therefore, even if the anti-impeachment argument is that impeachment would be more divisive than a clear-cut election loss for Trump – an argument that is, to say the least, not self-evident – the fact is that the United States will remain deeply divided politically for the foreseeable future.
It will be nice if there is a sudden outbreak of conciliation and good feeling in a post-Trump world, and we should not foreclose any paths to a more harmonious future. We need to be aware, however, that there are strong forces that are hard at work to make us hate each other. And we need to adapt accordingly and realistically.