Web Only / Features » May 20, 2017
A Very Cautious Left Case for Impeachment
Trump must go–and progressives can harness his exodus to build a movement.
The case for removing Trump from office is based on the belief that autocracy is a more difficult foundation from which to build a social democracy than the kind of teetering liberal democracy that’s far more likely to continue under Pence.
The only way to defeat the GOP—Trump, Pence, Ryan and the whole gang—is to beat them politically: Erode both their base of support and the legitimacy of their worldview, and take back seats from comptroller to state legislature to the Senate, county by county and state by state.
In the meantime, there are some pressing realities to deal with.
Namely, the fact that Donald Trump is president—though perhaps not for long. Some betting houses now wager that POTUS has a less than 50 percent chance of making it through a full term. There are several ways Trump’s tenure could end prematurely. He gets sick of it all and quits in a fit of rage. He dies. His own Cabinet invokes the 25th Amendment and removes him from office, sans Congressional approval. A minority of the Congressional GOP grows tired enough of him that they join the Democrats in a bipartisan impeachment effort, after which he either resigns or is forcibly ejected from office.
All of these scenarios, however, yield the same horrifying conclusion: President Mike Pence. Progressives are split over whether that would be a fate worse than Trump. As more mainstream liberals ring bells for impeachment, a vocal set of farther left progressives are sounding a cautionary note.
The counterargument to impeachment goes something like this: Liberals are so eager to oust Trump from the White House that they would gladly accept any alternative. Returned to some modicum of normalcy, the GOP’s respectability will be restored. As cooler and less combed-over heads prevail, that sheen of legitimacy will give President Pence license to carry out the GOP’s regressive and borderline homicidal agenda with relative ease. Where Trump is all bluster—pissing off all the wrong people at all the wrong times, with no rhyme or reason—Pence is calm and collected, poised to launch stealth attacks on everything from welfare to reproductive rights. The so-called Resistance will do little to stop him, sated by self-satisfaction after dethroning Trump. Moreover, devoting energy to an impeachment bid will waste scarce organizational resources on a counterproductive effort, distracting activists from the low-and-slow work of building progressive political power inside and outside the halls of power.
In These Times’ Jeff Alson articulated this case at length, arguing that it would be a “strategic blunder for the Democratic Party to fall for what I call the Impeachment Trap—the powerful temptation to lead the charge for impeachment without considering the strategic implications.”
“If Trump were impeached and convicted,” he notes about a potential bipartisan impeachment push, “Vice President Mike Pence, a right-wing, evangelical ideologue, would be a much more reliable and competent rubber stamp for the conservative policy agenda. Trump, for all his failings, cannot be counted on to support conservative Republican orthodoxy.” In other words, Trump is a wildcard whose myriad incompetences and inconsistencies can be treated by the Left as an advantage. Pence has no such flaws, and is a more dangerous opponent for it.
The logical conclusion to this line of thinking is that Trump should remain in office until 2020. Short of the FBI investigation yielding a bombshell about Pence—or the Democrats staging an actual coup—there is virtually no path to unseating Trump before the next presidential election that does not involve a President Pence.
But is President Pence really a worse option than leaving Trump in office until 2020? Trump has repeatedly pushed the limits of what kinds of suppression are possible in a liberal democracy. He has already barred specific media outlets from White House press briefings. When Trump asked Comey to “let go” of his investigation into former General Michael Flynn, he also asked him to imprison journalists who publish classified information. He goaded his fans to beat up protesters on the campaign trail, and recently brought on Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke—who likened Black Lives Matter to a terrorist organization, and ran a jail system in which four people inexplicably died in a six-month span—to serve in a top post in the Department of Homeland Security. Clarke will play a critical role in how the country defines and responds to terrorism. And whatever the reality of his ties to the Russian government, Trump and his goons seem to have an abiding affinity for anti-democratic authoritarians, whether in shaking hands with Erdogan, inviting Marine Le Pen to Trump Tower or making one of his first presidential visit to Saudi Arabia.
Would a President Pence have the same autocratic aims as Trump? My guess is probably not, given the specific talents and tendencies that make his boss such a textbook case of an aspiring autocrat. Every indication Trump has given is that he’ll strive to make the United States a less democratic and more terrifying place.
Possible devolution into a police state aside, however, let’s think for a minute about what three and a half more years of a Trump White House might look like. Within less than four months, Republicans—enjoying more power than they have since 1928—have handed Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil top cabinet posts. The Senate is one vote away from issuing a near-fatal blow to the administrative state with a bill that would add 53 steps before rules on everything from water quality to education can be made and enforced by federal agencies—a bill that quietly passed in the House in January. As Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) boasted this week, they have detained some 41,000 people since January, up 40 percent from the arrest rates under “deporter-in-chief” Obama. For all his talk of bucking the Republican establishment, Trump has helped it fulfill its long-standing policy priorities in droves. Among those is attempting to strip away three decades of environmental protections. Whether climate catastrophe or nuclear war, a Trump presidency poses environmental threats that would be nearly impossible to reverse.
It could be argued that Pence might agree with Trump on all of these points and more, and—all else being equal—would face less resistance than Trump in following through on his priorities. Any discussion of whether Pence would be a smoother and more efficient version of Trump is speculation, based mostly off his tenure as a governor during an entirely different political moment and with a decidedly mixed record of pushing his agenda through.
If Mike Pence were to become president, however, all else would be far from equal. Played right, removing Trump from office would leave progressives on stronger footing than keeping him there. Enter: A very cautious case for why the left should embrace calls for impeachment or something like it.
Necessary, but not sufficient
To start, it bears repeating that the Republican Party at this point is comprised mainly of sociopathic ghouls. Pence is among the worst of them, having spearheaded the GOP’s attack on Planned Parenthood, along with LGBTQ and reproductive rights writ large. As a woman who’s enjoyed the benefits of Planned Parenthood’s affordable reproductive care, I don’t take the threat of a Pence presidency lightly. But let's not forget that Trump was all too happy to sign an executive order allowing employers to use the cloak of “religious freedom” to deny jobs to LGBTQ folks and to women who’ve had abortions. There are no good options here. But at the end of the day, Pence seems far less likely to launch us into war with a nuclear power based on the musings of a Fox News segment. The choice between Trumpian nuclear winter and a Pence-induced, Handmaid’s Tale-style theocracy is vomit-inducing, but clear nonetheless.
Relatedly, it’s important to remember that Trump isn’t just some bizarre fluke from which we can return to “normal.” Impeachment won’t solve the underlying conditions that propelled him to the presidency—decades of painful neoliberalism and a political establishment that is rapidly leaking legitimacy.
In that sense, impeachment should be seen as one of many blows progressives can deal to the GOP—a means to an end rather than an end in itself, to be complemented by a no-holds-barred offensive to take back power at every level of governance.
Impeachment simply buys us time, stopping Trump from eroding basic democratic norms to the point where the fight for progressive political power becomes far more difficult. Political scientists who study autocracy have been raising red flags for months. “This is very common—in semi-authoritarian and authoritarian regimes,” University of Denver professor Erica Chenoweth told Vox of Comey’s unprecedented firing. Modern authoritarians aren’t the masterminds of a Handmaid’s Tale scenario, Chenoweth adds. Rather than following a well-orchestrated master plan, “they’re winging it.” Trump is seeing how far he can bend the rules in the moments when it suits his ego and policy whims. New York University’s Sheri Berman told the New York Times that authoritarians “will push and push until they find a spot where they can’t push anymore—and if they don’t, they’ll keep going.”
A creep into authoritarianism under Trump, scholars on the subject contend, also likely won’t be defined by some sweeping, Glasnost-style moment whereby a twisted rule of law is brutally applied en masse. Eelco van der Maat, who studies authoritarianism in the Netherlands’ Leiden University, describes a “ladder of violence” as being more likely, expanding the types and numbers of people considered enemies of the state—and the punishments deemed appropriate. Five months in, there’s already evidence of this creep: a sweeping Muslim travel ban, calls for ICE officials to not comply with court orders and attempts to intervene in investigations of the Executive Branch. Or take the case of Daniela Vargas, a DREAMer arrested hours after speaking out at a press conference about her family being ripped apart by ICE. Do these add up to some grand conspiracy? No, because Trump isn’t smart enough to have one. But it should worry anyone interested in preserving this country’s democratic institutions.
The case for removing Trump from office, then, is based on the belief that autocracy is a more difficult foundation from which to build a social democracy than the kind of teetering liberal democracy that’s far more likely to continue under Pence.
Worth remembering here is that Pence is Trump’s vice president. It’s hard to imagine him emerging from an impeachment scenario—or any situation forceful enough to remove Trump from office—unscathed. Several senior administration officials are considered tainted either by their loyalty to Trump or alleged ties to the Russian government. As his boss’s heir, Pence would need to undergo a massive rebranding in order to be seen as anything other than a vestige of a government that Democrats and likely several Republicans will have just spent months painting as illegitimate. Impeachment would almost certainly leave Pence tainted and beleaguered, presiding over a party in existential crisis.
As the New Republic’s Jeet Heer has pointed out, any scenario by which Pence ascends to the presidency would see him reigning over a GOP in chaos. Divisions will deepen between the already-feuding Freedom Caucus and Christian Right and Never Trump contingent as the party’s simmering internal contradictions boil over on Capitol Hill and Fox News. The picture would be complicated still further by Trump himself. “Lest you think Trump’s political voice would weaken outside the White House, remember that he would still have his 30 million Twitter followers and his choice of TV networks eager for an interview,” Heer writes. “And unlike Nixon, Trump has a formidable personality cult, so his followers will believe his tales of betrayal by the Republican elite.”
So as much as impeachment is about getting Trump out of office, it’s about weakening the Right more generally and sowing discord within the GOP. Impeach Trump, then neuter Pence, and chip away at the idea that either ideology has a place in American democracy.
Ceding an impeachment campaign to mainstream Democrats is a good way to ensure that broader project never gets carried out. It will take the Left to turn impeachment from the demand into one of many.
For the Left, impeachment can be thought of as a kind of vehicle: Both a means to disrupt a slide into authoritarianism and to galvanize people into organizing around a set of genuinely progressive politics. There are a hell of a lot of people—48 percent of the country, according to a recent poll—interested in kicking Trump out of office, disgusted by the threat he represents to some of this country’s most deeply held values. Impeachment is the easiest way to say that. Dismissing those people as naive liberals means handing millions of potential recruits over to mega-non-profits and sitting Democrats, who’ll offer not just inane, surface level political analysis (“The White House Is Turning Into The Kremlin!”) but scant opportunities to actually organize, save for a few call-in days and big rallies in Washington and recess visits to Congressional offices.
Any push for impeachment should be situated within a much bigger effort than The Resistance has been so far. Like the doomed campaigns to recall governors Scott Walker and Rick Snyder, hyper-focusing on a single foe ensures the movement will operate on that enemy’s terms. What if, instead of asking how to get Trump out, new recruits were encouraged to envision what kind of country is possible when Donald Trump isn’t president? What does the country we need look like, and what are the steps to getting there after impeachment? Orbiting the campaign around shared desires—rather than shared ire—can keep so-called impeachment activists from disengaging after they reach their nominal goal. Kicking Trump out of office should never be the goal; it’s necessary, but wholly insufficient.
It’s hugely disempowering to imagine that establishment Democrats hold the keys to kicking Trump out of office before 2020. The left case against impeachment and removal seems to rely on a kind of worst-case scenario, wherein the effort is fueled by frantic DCCC emails and Louise Mensch-style conspiracy theories. That could well happen, and is all the more likely if the Left allows liberals to define the terms of the impeachment debate.
Should impeachment be the only thing into which progressives channel their energy over the next four years? Absolutely not. But it may be one of the best weapons available for dismantling the GOP.
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Kate Aronoff is a Brooklyn-based journalist covering climate and U.S. politics, and a contributing writer at The Intercept. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.
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