The Democratic party and the chattering classes are playing a dangerous game with impeachment.
Their are two modern precedents — Nixon’s resignation before his probable impeachment in 1974 and Bill Clinton’s actual impeachment in 1998. But neither is comparable to the contemplated impeachment of Donald Trump. All impeachments are partisan, but this one is in doubly bad faith: it has no chance of succeeding in removing Trump, and it has no chance of acquitting him in a way that will strengthen faith in the country’s institutions.
The only outcome possible is to confirm for Democrats and Republicans alike the idea that 2020 is a regime-change moment, for reasons that go far beyond Trump.
The conventional wisdom on Nixon’s non-impeachment is exactly wrong. Trump’s critics point to the landslide victory that Nixon won in 1972 as a contrast with Trump’s weaker position since the 2016 election. If Nixon felt compelled to resign just two years later, then surely Trump can be disposed of easily enough, given his much shallower reservoir of support.
What this overlooks is the reason why no one wins landslides such as Nixon’s in ’72 anymore: back then, even amid the Vietnam War and rising violence at home, there was still enough sense of unity in the country to produce a national consensus. That consensus was not just an agreement among voters of different regions, parties, and ideologies that they could all accept Nixon — by voting for him or simply by wishing well once he won — it was also an expression of confidence in the regime. There was an American body of opinion over and above the country’s obvious divisions, and that body of opinion exhibited faith not only in Nixon and the idea of the president as a leader for all Americans, but in the system of which Nixon and the presidency were a party.
Nixon lost that consensus, along with the legitimacy is conferred, thanks to Watergate. And the process of impeachment would have damaged that already weakened national body of opinion further. Nixon still enjoyed considerable Republican grassroots support, and a hope of surviving removal might have remained — but only at the cost of the nation’s faith in the presidency and the regime as a whole. That wasn’t the only consideration, to be sure: Republicans in Congress knew they were facing a bloodbath in the 1974 midterms thanks to the scandal, and if Nixon didn’t resign, there was every likelihood that impeachment in 1975 would be the defining issue of the next presidential election (and the congressional elections) in 1976 as well. Nixon was a bleeding wound that had to be cauterized for the good of the nation and party alike.
Richard Nixon bids farewell to White House staff in 1974
Gerald Ford lost the 1976 election anyway, yet only by a narrow margin: he trailed Jimmy Carter by just over two points in the popular vote and he actually won more states than Carter (27 vs. 23 plus DC), though fewer electoral votes. In 1980, 1984, and 1988, Republican presidential nominees won big every time: 44 states went to Reagan in ’80, 49 in 1984, and 40 for George H.W. Bush in ‘88. A national consensus was still possible, and Republicans were able to harness it until the end of the Cold War.
Democrats, meanwhile, controlled Congress the whole of this period, which was itself a sign of stability and consensus. The regular swings in congressional control that we’ve seen since the 1990s are a new phenomenon, a sign that the old consensus has dissolved.
Why did it dissolve? In 1992, many of the issues that animated Trump’s victorious campaign in 2016 were already highly salient: there was a sense of disappointment and economic distress at a time — right after the Cold War — when Americans expected to enjoy a peace dividend and celebrate their success. Crime was on voters’ minds. Trade and immigration were pressure points in Pat Buchanan’s GOP primary challenge to George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot’s independent bid for the White House. Bill Clinton campaigned as a tough-on-crime governor sympathetic to blue-collar voters.
Already in 1992, the consensus that had seen America through the Cold War was under stress, and the American public gave evidence of having lost faith in the country’s political leadership. Bush was in a tough primary fight despite his sky-high approval ratings after the 1991 Gulf War. Perot was an eccentric businessman who pronounced a pox on both parties’ houses. Clinton won the White House with just 32 states and 43 percent of the popular vote. And two years later, the public’s discontent with the regime manifested in the legislative branch, as Republicans won a House majority for the first time in 40 years.
The Republican Congress’s impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 took for granted the possibility of a renewed national consensus — either one that could motivate a Senate supermajority to convict and remove Clinton (a tall order) or one that at least might lead public opinion to condemn Clinton after he survived impeachment. As it turned out, the GOP got it all wrong: not only was Clinton acquitted in the Senate, neither of the articles of impeachment received even simple-majority support in that Republican-controlled chamber. And Clinton’s popularity remained high.
Demonstrators wave signs showing support for Bill Clinton during a rally at the US Capitol in Washington in 1998
To the extent that there was still a skeletal national consensus, it favored Clinton. Impeachment was a circus, but it wasn’t a national trauma. It cast no shadow over the next presidential election two years later. It was a dud that reaffirmed the stability of the American regime.
With Trump, everything is different. The 2016 election was a referendum on the regime itself. Trump resurrected the populist attacks on the country’s political and economic establishment that Buchanan and Perot had battle-tested in the 1990s.
Trump was no mere conventional Republican who happened to beat Hillary Clinton. He was a completely unconventional Republican who first beat the party’s own ideological standard-bearers during the primaries, in the course of which he often said things that no Republican had said for a generation or more. Trump’s message in the primaries and general election boiled down to: they screwed you. ‘They’ being the Bushes, the Clintons, the establishment in both parties, the warmongers, the trade-deal architects, the communist Chinese, free-riding allies, and more.
Trump is no ideologue or political theorist, but he launched a comprehensive attack on the domestic and international liberal order. He campaigned against the system as it has existed since the Cold War ended.
Trump’s enemies are not just the left, they are the ancien regime. Anyone who supports the political and economic dispensation of the post-Cold War era is apt to feel threatened by Trump and even more menaced by what stands behind him — a growing anti-consensus, a force that declares every center of power in this country illegitimate and antithetical to the well-being of the people.
That’s why this impeachment attempt is radically different from the Nixon or Clinton episodes. There is no consensus to save this time; there is only an anti-consensus waiting to be radicalized. Trump’s enemies have been in denial about this since the day he first declared for the White House — they have wrongly assumed that a healthy, old-fashioned, pro-establishment consensus must emerge out of sheer revulsion at Trump. Hence all the appeals on the part of anti-Trump pundits to Republican decency and conscience. They assume that, deep down, for all that Republicans are racists and deplorables, they still love the regime, and they will support it over Trump.
In fact, for most Republicans, certainly at the grassroots, the voice of conscience and their sense of decency command them to support Trump, in spite of his sins, against an absolutely illegitimate and malevolent regime.
Impeachment is a regime counter-attack against a man elected to bring about change. And while impeachment is certainly constitutional, it is an elite procedure not a democratic one. The prestige media has passed the first judgment on whether it’s warranted in this case. (It is, they say.)
The Democratic House will investigate and then — inevitably, if they’re not to lose the faith of their own voters — bring articles of impeachment. Ultimately, the Senate will hold the trial (if Mitch McConnell can’t delay it until the election), and Trump will almost certainly be acquitted on a partisan vote. Instead of showing, as the Nixon and Clinton impeachments did, that party isn’t quite everything and some establishment cohesion remains, the failure of the Trump impeachment will deepen the divisions of 2016 and sharpen the question of regime legitimacy. A mistaken premise — overestimation of support for the ruling class and their rules — will lead to the regime losing rather than gaining credibility. This will be most obvious among the activist wing of the Republican party, but the effects won’t stop there.
The old saying is that if you strike at a king, be sure to kill him. In this case, the regime is striking not a king but at the very idea that an elected official can challenge the establishment. This risks revealing just how weak the country’s ruling class really is: if 40 percent of the country remains with Trump through the ordeal of impeachment, that will show that 40 percent is anti-regime — revolutions are made with less. And that 40 percent would be a floor, not a ceiling; a starting point for a future anti-regime movement.
The moderate path here is the one that eschews impeachment and instead shows that the elite still has faith in elections. Let the voters decide whether they want to defend the ‘norms’ of the regime, and even if they decide not to — by re-electing Trump — the regime will have lost less credibility than it stands to through a failed attempt at impeachment. Legitimacy is bleeding away from American politics and society, and Trump is a symptom not the cause. The cause is the folly of America’s leadership class as a whole. Electing Trump was the public’s way of impeaching that class.