Opinion

Impeachment feeds divisions, elevates Trump in supporters’ eyes

Let’s stipulate that President Trump’s conduct during the mob assault on Capitol Hill was appalling. If his fiery rhetoric didn’t amount to illegal incitement, his inflaming mob passions was deeply irresponsible. Even so, impeaching him a second time was a grave mistake.

Perhaps Trump’s conduct is impeachable in the abstract. In Federalist No. 65, Alexander ­Hamilton defined the Constitution’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” impeachment criterion as an “abuse or violation of some public trust.” The phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which goes back to 14th-century English common law, doesn’t require criminal action. 

Impeachment, in other words, is ultimately a political judgment, and it’s hard to blame legislators who concluded that Trump’s role in the tragic events of Jan. 6 amounted to an “abuse” of “public trust.” They are mistaken, nevertheless. Trump won’t be president in a week, and any Senate impeachment trial would take place during Joe Biden’s presidency. The effort to convict Trump, then, would be a silly and dangerous waste.

A post-presidency Senate impeachment trial can only appear vindictive. It would also be unprecedented and of dubious constitutionality. But even putting those problems aside, the timing raises a still more basic question: Why on earth bother? 

Advocates of the second impeachment generally gave two answers. The most rabid Trump-haters cite an obscure constitutional provision, seldom invoked, that would seem to bar Trump from running again if he is impeached and convicted. More erudite critics of the president usually argue that to uphold separation-of-powers constitutional norms, Congress must punish the president as both punishment and a deterrent against future presidential disgraces.

The first argument is unpersuasive to anyone other than liberals and the most frothing of Trump-haters on the right — Conservatism Inc. lackeys who yearn above all to repudiate the GOP’s populist turn under Trump. Impeachment and conviction could only heighten the alienation between these party elites and the base. Trump himself, after the events of Jan. 6, is unlikely to be a plausible contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, regardless of whether he is impeached and convicted. 

The second argument — deterring future presidential wrongdoing — is less obviously fatuous. But that goal could be easily accomplished through a simple censure, as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested. Moreover, the benefit of impeachment and conviction as a deterrent is likely overstated: There has never been a president quite like Trump, and there is unlikely ever to be one quite like him ever again. 

Put simply, none of this is worth the frankly idiotic spectacle of convicting an impeached former president.

But the most compelling reason of all not to have impeached Trump a second time, or now seek to convict, is the damage such a symbolic stunt would do to the body politic. Whether bipartisan elites wish to admit it or not, the reality is that more than 74 million Americans voted for Trump’s re-election. These are overwhelmingly good, decent, patriotic Americans who (rightly) feel that the country’s ruling class is woefully out of touch with them and their problems. 

They feel besieged by every institution, especially after Big Tech’s monopolistic post-siege crackdown. Trump voters already think that Democrats and their corporate allies seek to delegitimize them out of public life. Add the (second) impeachment and Senate conviction of a president whom millions of Americans continue to support, and the social divide may just become unbridgeable.

There was no reason to take this tinderbox and light the whole thing aflame — which is precisely how most Trump voters would interpret their man being impeached a second time, this time as his presidency is winding down. 

If elites want to take us ever closer to the brink of a ruinous internecine conflict, they can insist on their present course. If not, they should back off — in the name of the common weal and of that “more perfect Union.”

Josh Hammer is the opinion editor of Newsweek. 

Twitter: @Josh_Hammer

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