A Very Cautious Left Case for Impeachment

Trump must go--and progressives can harness his exodus to build a movement.

Kate Aronoff May 20, 2017

Protestors fill the streets of downtown Washington during Donald Trump's presidential inauguration on January 20. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

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.

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.

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, Hand­maids 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 Hand­maids 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 Repub­lics 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 naïve 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.

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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