From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
Avoid the I Word
by Alan Hirsch
Because democracy is too easily subverted, I commit to promoting victory at the ballot box rather than prematurely calling for the president’s impeachment. Democrats running for Congress this November, and their supporters, should avoid the I word: sometimes inaction is the best form of action.
Calls for Donald Trump’s impeachment began almost as soon as the ballots were counted. In a different universe, the fact that fewer ballots were cast for him than for his opponent would have kept him out of office, but, as another notorious Donald (Rumsfeld) sort of said, you must deal with the universe you’re in, not the one you wish for.
Given that the actual universe delivered us Trump, the instant cries for impeachment were understandable. People felt desperate. Four years of this guy? Before he even set foot in the Oval Office, Trump provided ample ammunition to those who wished to oust him. The Constitution prohibits the president from receiving foreign or domestic “emoluments,” including business profits, and Trump refused to divest his vast international holdings. He figured to be a walking emolument disguised as a president, assuming he felt the need for a disguise.
Concern about emoluments quickly gave way to scarier stuff. The ink on Trump’s dystopian inaugural address hadn’t dried when he sought to ban Muslims from entering the country; soon thereafter, he fired the FBI director and took other actions seemingly designed to hinder the investigation into ties between his campaign and Russia. He used his pardon power to reward or send messages to cronies, declared the press an “enemy of the people,” and gratuitously assailed our most loyal allies. Calls for impeachment grew louder, and why not? After all, the purpose of this constitutional provision is to deliver us from an unfit president.
And yet we need to cool it. The calls for Trump’s impeachment are not just premature but also, at this point, counterproductive. History teaches that impeaching the president can be a costly undertaking.
Consider the unintended negative consequences of the first presidential impeachment, that of Andrew Johnson in 1868. It’s no accident that people struggle to name the half-dozen presidents who followed Johnson, so much did his impeachment and near-conviction weaken the presidency. After the impeachment of Bill Clinton 130 years later, the calls became habitual. Every time George W. Bush or Barack Obama did something controversial, pundits and even members of Congress waved the Constitution — easier than reading it — and demanded his removal from office. Payback begets payback begets payback. When impeachment becomes a partisan weapon rather than a constitutional safeguard, our political process suffers.
The Constitution reserves impeachment for cases of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” If it turns out that Trump committed such acts, he should indeed be removed from office. But let’s wait to see what the special counsel says. Being a godawful president is not an impeachable offense.
Impeachment is generally more appropriate during a president’s second term, because the voters themselves can remove him when he seeks re-election. (In some, countries special elections may be called at any time to turn out a lousy leader, but that isn’t the American way.)
The people, after all, are capable of making the judgment that the president has rendered himself unfit. It is infinitely preferable for the voters to turn a president out of office than for Congress to do so. The former is a triumph of democracy; the latter can leave close to half the country feeling disenfranchised.
As a political matter, demanding impeachment prior to the November midterm elections, or making it an election issue, could well backfire. It could give Trump supporters a sense of victimhood that drives them to the voting booth, and convince independent voters that Democrats lack confidence to win back Congress and the presidency the old-fashioned way — through elections. Impeachment is a last resort, not a first resort. Treating it otherwise betrays weakness.