The most common refrain from activists who oppose beginning impeachment hearings is that holding them and then failing to get the supermajority needed in the Senate to convict will help Trump and ensure his re-election. Let’s be clear: no one who cares about our country or democracy wants to lose the 2020 election to Trump. There are few thoughts scarier than imagining him untrammeled for another four years. But fear can induce tunnel vision, making it less likely that we’ll be successful, not more. Predictions that impeachment hearings will help Trump are often stated with certainty – “history tells us” – itself a warning sign. But there is no evidence to support this claim. History, it seems, isn’t telling us that at all.
Those wary of hearings cite the impeachment of Bill Clinton as “proof”, pointing to the fact that Clinton’s approval ratings shot up after the Republican impeachment attempt failed. It’s unwise to place a critical strategic bet on a single data point and, in this case, it’s wildly flawed. For starters, let’s note that there were electoral impacts from the Clinton impeachment. While Clinton’s popularity rose, Al Gore chose not to have Clinton campaign for him in 2000 and selected Joe Lieberman as a running mate in order to distance himself from the taint the impeachment attempt had caused. Gore himself believes Clinton’s impeachment cost him the election. In 2016, the doubt about the Clintons’ trustworthiness that Republicans had begun to sow with the impeachment paid further dividends when Hillary Clinton couldn’t shake reporting and long-held public opinion that relentlessly questioned her honesty.
What’s more, the Clinton impeachment was an anomaly. Republicans grasped at impeachment because they wanted some way to damage Clinton, not because he was abusing his office. The Lewinsky affair was a scandal, but it had nothing to do with how Clinton was running the country. Voters saw this and gave him a pass.
There have been two other impeachments in American history, however, and they are much more instructive, because they were in response to true abuses of the office. Andrew Johnson survived being removed by only one vote. But it ended his political career – he didn’t run for a second term. Richard Nixon resigned, but only after he was informed that the Senate would vote to remove him from office. He was successfully impeached, that is, in all but name only. Like a man told that the jury was about to convict him and then left alone with a pistol, he took the other route available. His career was ended, too.
So if we’re looking to history, the evidence in each case, particularly those more similar to Trump’s, shows that impeachment has damaged or destroyed the political fortunes of those being impeached, not the reverse.
However, Trump’s case is unlike any other. And the difference should move us to be courageous, not fearful.
Trump is an autocrat, not a president. He’s not following a president’s playbook and trying to combat him requires a different playbook, too – one that Congress has never used before but will have to invent. Trump is working to dismantle the federal government and install people who answer only to him. The longer this goes on, the more power he accumulates and the harder it will be to remove him. At some point, it will be too late. We don’t know when that will be, but we’re already in very deep. Every week brings more dangers and more destruction. For democracies that have fallen, this is how it happens. We must not reach the point of no return.
Democrats therefore need to be worried not only about the next election, but about what happens between now and then. The next election will be interfered with again, likely far more than the last time. We can assume this because we know that the federal government under Trump won’t fight Russian or other interference. Like the Trump campaign before, they’ll welcome it. They will also find additional ways to cheat, as Brian Kemp did in Georgia in 2018. And Trump may also use his new powers to do things like investigate or arrest his opponent. In fact, he’s already begun the process of attacking Biden and appears to be enlisting William Barr’s help. None of this is far-fetched. It’s not what presidents do, but Trump isn’t a president. He’s a strongman.
Even when/if we manage to defeat him, Trump will be unlikely to relinquish office. He’ll need to be forced out, especially as indictments may be waiting for his return to civilian life. And unless he’s been thoroughly discredited or jailed, he will remain a threat to democracy, even as a private citizen.
All of this means that Trump needs to be constrained between now and the election and he needs to be discredited, thoroughly and publicly, for good, in the eyes of the majority of the public (not his diehard supporters; they’re hopeless). Impeachment hearings can accomplish this, even if they fail to result in a Senate conviction. Indeed, a Senate acquittal would demonstrate conclusively that the Republican jury was tainted, discrediting them as well. Impeachment hearings constrain a president because they divert his time and attention. They help control the message – one that’s currently being shaped by Bill Barr’s disinformation campaign. They can discredit him because they provide a clear, fair hearing where evidence can be presented and seen by the public. Vitally, their context is whether or not he has abused his office – committed not just individual crimes, but crimes against the nation by someone sworn to defend it. No other setting for accusations carries this weight. And no other process will remind the public of the crimes Russia and Trump committed in 2016, which will be essential to protecting the 2020 election.
Cowardice isn’t inspiring or motivating and we will need plenty of inspiration and motivation not only to win the next election but to stave off disaster in the meantime. Democratic leaders should be far more afraid of a weak and hesitant “under-reach” than of appearing forceful. They have the results of a nearly two-year investigation, undertaken by a Republican of stellar reputation, that show ample evidence of impeachable offenses. There are many more impeachable offenses easily found that lie outside of Mueller’s remit. Short of a witness stand confession, a prosecutor couldn’t possibly ask for a more damning supply of evidence.
To not begin impeachment proceedings now can be interpreted one of two ways: the Democrats are afraid of impeaching Trump or they don’t think he’s committed impeachable offenses. Either interpretation strengthens Trump and endangers our nation. When confronted by an authoritarian take-over, one can either fight with everything one has, or acquiesce and watch democracy die. To protect our nation, the House needs to summon its courage and begin impeachment hearings. Now.