Opposition With and Without Impeachment

by Neil H. Buchanan

We cannot know how much additional damaging information about Donald Trump and his people will emerge, adding to the already overwhelming case for removing him from office.  And we certainly do not know whether that new information will be bad enough to send some Republicans into the impeach-convict-remove camp.

It is notable that a former Republican congressman, Bob Inglis of South Carolina, who was a prime mover in the Clinton impeachment, recently wrote that the charges against Trump are more serious than the Republicans' case against Bill Clinton.

Inglis also offered an explanation as to why the Republicans are not (yet) rebelling against Trump: They are too cowed by the right-wing echo chamber.  Or, as Inglis put it more pointedly: "The difference, now, is the presence of sycophantic media."  That certainly captures what is going on.

In any case, we know that Trump's own statements -- whether or not one believes James Comey's compelling testimony or thinks that Jefferson Sessions was lying to his former Senate colleagues -- already make an easy case for impeachment.  Beyond Inglis's explanation, why has this not been enough to move at least a few Republicans away from Trump?

One answer is that Trump has benefited from the press's obsession with new information (and the misplaced emphasis on criminality as the sine qua non or impeachability), such that people no longer even think about what we have already known for weeks or months about Trump's confessed offenses (and his violations of the Emoluments Clause).

In any case, Trump's response to the grave developments of the last few months has been completely consistent with his dysfunctional personality.  He has whined (witch hunt!), shifted blame ("What about Hillary's Russia connection?"), claimed victory ("Complete and total vindication!" -- even though Comey is supposedly lying), and become ever more dependent on flattery ("Mr. President, we thank you for the honor and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda").

In addition, one of the major talking points for Trump and his Republican enablers has been that this is all a plot by Democratic losers who want to undo the results of the election.  Democrats were gunning for Trump from the beginning, according to this self-serving theory, and now they are just shoehorning evidence (and making things up) in order to do what they could not do at the ballot box.

This is nonsense, of course, but in a rather interesting way.  It is obviously true that Trump's opponents -- not just Democrats but plenty of Republicans (none of whom currently hold office, unfortunately) and other conservatives -- have been talking about impeachment since before he took office (and even before the election).  Does that not prove Trump's point?  No, it does not.

In a recent column, I asked "What Did We Really Expect?"  That question most immediately applied to the Comey testimony, but my broader point was that people like me had been expecting Trump to commit impeachable offenses for quite a long time, even though we were not sure precisely what Trump would do to merit his early departure from office.  I can definitely say that I did not anticipate his decision to fire the FBI director in order to stop a damaging investigation.

But my questions here are a bit different.  No matter what we thought Trump's impeachable offenses might be, why were we so sure that he would do something impeachable?  And more to Trump's sophomoric point, does that long-term discussion of his almost inevitable impeachment prove that we had it in for him all along and would do anything to take him down?

We can address these interrelated question by thinking about how Democrats and other liberals would have acted if someone other than Trump, such as Marco Rubio, had been the Republican nominee.

It is certainly true that Democrats would have had a boatload of raw material to work with in campaigning against Rubio in the general election.  His touted moderation was completely fraudulent, and it would have been easy to expose him as a lightweight and an opportunist.

That is not to say that he would have lost, but the point is that his detractors would have focused on his substantive positions and his lack of qualifications or gravitas.  Unless something had come out about him that we currently do not know, however, I certainly cannot see how I could have written columns in which I anticipated his inevitable impeachment.

To put it more simply, Rubio did not present any reasons to think that he was a threat to constitutional democracy in the United States, as Trump so obviously did.

Similarly, think about the last several Republican presidents.  Although liberals were understandably distraught by Ronald Reagan's election and reelection -- to say nothing of his bizarre subsequent deification by Republicans, despite his entirely undistinguished presidency (especially his second term) -- there was no serious talk by Democrats of impeachment.

Of course, there are always some people who talk about impeaching any president, Democrat or Republican.  Those people, however, had no influence on Democratic politics in the 1980's.  In fact, even when Reagan did commit impeachable offenses in the Iran/contra scandal, Democrats did not pursue the matter.

The same can be said of both Bushes.  Democrats did not like losing to either of them, and the 2000 election is still galling, but no one of any importance said, "Let's find a way to impeach him right away!"  Surely, people would have been open to hearing evidence of wrongdoing, if it existed, but that was not the default mode.

What Democrats did do, with varying degrees of success, is oppose Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II on policy and politics.  Too many Democrats went along with George W. Bush's falsified case for war (including Hillary Clinton, which almost certainly cost her the presidency in 2008), but the fight was about their policy choices, not their possible removal from office.

After winning reelection in 2004, Bush immediately tried to begin the process of privatizing Social Security.  Democrats did not decide to impeach him, because that was not an impeachable offense, just a bad idea.  And despite being in the minority in both houses of Congress, Democrats beat back the Republicans and prevented Bush from undermining Social Security.

The point is that the default mode for political opposition is not impeachment, at least for Democrats.  Republicans, of course, did impeach Clinton, although the Senate did not convict him.  And many, many high-profile Republicans screamed about impeaching Obama for eight years.

Even there, however, most of the action was not about impeachment.  The Republicans became all too willing to abuse the filibuster, to threaten default on the debt, and so on, but that still amounted to opposing Obama by twisting procedural rules and ruthlessly enforcing party discipline, not pursuing a futile impeachment process.

Trump could have been neither more nor less than a guy who wanted to pursue horrible policies -- to set polluters loose on the environment, to limit women's reproductive freedom on the basis of extremist religious dogma, to make workplaces less safe and retirement savings less secure, to give to the rich and to take from everyone else, and to encourage people to hate nonwhite people and non-Christians.  In other words, he could have been a standard-issue 2016 Republican.

In that case, the response from people who oppose Trump would have been to protest, to try to find moderate Republicans (if they really exist) with whom to forge coalitions, and to organize to win future elections.  They would, in short, have acted as minority parties must always act.

Trump's opponents are doing all of those things now, but Democrats are also energetically pursuing the impeachment of Donald Trump.

This is not because they set out from the beginning to undo the legitimate results of an election, but because it was obvious well before Trump took office (and especially during the transition, when his refusal to forgo the "corruption premium" became so shockingly obvious) that Trump was an autocrat in the making.

During the campaign, Trump attacked the judiciary without shame.  He amped up hatred of the press beyond levels that even the most extreme Republicans had theretofore attempted.  He encouraged violence against protesters.  Most amazingly, he stated flatly that he might not accept the results of the election if he lost.

I think people could be excused for suspecting that maybe, just maybe, this man would claim to be above the law once he became president.  And if he did, it would be important to stop him from turning the government into a personal cash machine run by lackeys and loyalists.

In the end, Trump is wrong about why people are calling for his impeachment.  (No surprise there.)  That his opponents have been talking about the possibility of impeachment for so long does not support his claim that this is a longstanding political strategy by the losing political party.

Indeed, the people who opposed him in the election (certainly including the NeverTrump Republicans) did so in large part because they did not want the country to have to go through what it is now going through.

None of that means that we are "unwilling to accept the results" of Trump's non-majority Electoral College win.  It means that we were prescient and unwilling to ignore the overwhelming evidence of Trump's contempt for the rule of law.