By Rebecca Hill (October 14, 2019)
Over the last week, a few pundits have put out left wing arguments against impeachment on the basis that impeachment treats Trump as the only problem, seeking to return to the pre-Trump neoliberal normalcy that preceded (and contributed to) his election. I doubt that a successful impeachment would result in this outcome.
First of all, existing social movements have already shown that the old “normal” models are broken. Second, the current move to impeach is happening in the midst of a broader legitimation crisis in the government, and a conflict within the ruling class. This conflict does not just exist between Democrats and Republicans, but within both the Democratic and Republican parties. Liberals will no doubt make the argument that impeachment should be a return to normalcy, and they will surely advocate a united front with never Trump Republicans. The choice that the left faces is not simply to accept these terms or reject impeachment as a creature of “normal” politics. Much about the current moment already represents a break with that, and a desperate struggle to maintain the center as the Democratic base moves left. As long as we are talking about politics short of revolution, there are plenty of legislative actions that a left movement could advocate as part of a popular movement to impeach the president, including a number of legislative campaigns to follow after the 2020 elections – even if Trump is not removed in the Senate. Watergate and the Nixon resignation had long-term impacts that benefited both liberal and left politics. They strengthened FOIA and the War Powers Act, were part of a more general activist push against the war in Vietnam, and the federal government’s legitimation crisis paved the way for the investigation of federal policing agencies, including the Church Committee hearings on the FBI in 1975 and 1976. Obviously Nixon’s resignation didn’t create a revolution against capitalism, and neither would Trump’s impeachment, but popular movements contributed to the way Nixon’s impeachment happened. Possibilities opened in the 1970s, and it wasn’t the impeachment of the president that caused the political defeats that the left suffered in the decade that followed.
Popular movements have already been part of the House’s decision to finally open a formal inquiry. The centrists had to be pushed into impeachment by the Democratic base, which has been leaning left and whose aspirations are not captured by Clinton, but by “the squad” who very openly challenged Pelosi. As someone who follows many #Resistance Twitter accounts and a few large popular podcasts, I was surprised to see the confrontational responses to Nancy Pelosi coming from people sometimes sneeringly dubbed “wine moms” and “shitlibs” by some on the left. My own hope is that the left would build on this popular momentum against the Trump presidency and help it grow, rather than writing it off as a creature of normative party politics. That a movement for impeachment would go toward the left is not a foregone conclusion. The leadership wants to keep the impeachment inquiry narrowly focused on the Ukraine phone-call, and that’s because the lesson they learned from the Mueller Report was that slow, long, detailed legal investigations behind closed doors followed by the release of a complex 450-page legal document didn’t build popular momentum. What a shock! It’s also, as others have pointed out, because Trump’s actions in Ukraine offended bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that has been and continues to be ruptured by challenges from the left and the right since the Iraq War. However, that bipartisan consensus around broader foreign policy within the current party leadership is not going to change because of not impeaching Trump.
The Republican strategy has been – and apparently still is – to let Trump serve as a figurehead to rally the base while they “govern around” him on the issues that actually matter to them (tax cuts, judges, maintenance of US international power, contracts with corporations in their home districts).
Look for example at Lindsey Graham’s recent effort at threading the needle by denouncing Trump’s green light to Turkey while maintaining his position that an attempt at Congressional oversight of the president is some kind of unconstitutional outrage. There is nothing good about letting the GOP continue to govern by “damage control” while Trump keeps pushing the line on the level of xenophobia, mendacity and authoritarianism that is acceptable to the Republican leadership and base, whether by treating domestic political opposition as enemies in a war of elimination, building walls, raiding immigrant homes, or maintaining concentration camps on the border. The risk is not going back to the old normal, but accepting a new normal of even less government transparency, an even more disempowered congress, greater levels of voter suppression in GOP-led states, greater violence against even liberal opponents who are seen as godless socialist revolutionaries regardless of their actual views, and a continued attack on institutions perceived as strongholds of the “left,” including universities.
What are the positive things a Trump impeachment *could* lead to?
It can reduce the perception of invincibility of, and possibly even remove from office the individual who continues to encourage his followers to be ever more cultish, giving hope to democracy activists and a dose of reality to the deluded Trumpian cult. It can also include the continued push from the left for small “d” reforms related to reducing the power of the imperial presidency and the GOP’s ability to succeed as a minority party, especially as it is likely that the Senate will outrage everyone again by refusing to convict and remove. Any left support for impeachment can advocate including more counts of impeachment, and if the House doesn’t pick these additional counts up, let them become part of a running count of people’s impeachment articles for crimes that social movements declare they will not tolerate in their leaders, and which can be followed by legislation in years later.
After impeachment, what next?
Momentum against authoritarianism in the GOP can lead to movements to reconsider many long over-due restrictions on executive power that take into account the longer-term trends that enabled the Trump presidency. Activists have already been making a case for the reorganization of the Supreme Court, a reform that the left could support. A broadened set of articles of impeachment including Trump’s crimes against refugees and the pardon of Joe Arpaio can be taken up by and can help people learn more from the broader movement to abolish prisons and police. My belief is that part of the reason that many have supported the impeachment of Trump since before he was even inaugurated is a general sense of the injustice at the second GOP president to be elected with a minority of the popular vote, only because of the electoral college, and supported by a Senate that represents such a small portion of the electorate. Left support for impeachment could also support an increasingly robust movement to radically reform or eliminate the electoral college, as well as contribute to existing movements for voting rights and against gerrymandering. These are the concerns of broader popular outrage with the entire political system that are currently directed toward the single goal of impeachment, but which need not stop there. Concerns about hyper-partisan media and monopoly control of social media in the rise of the current “asymmetric” media environment could also contribute to major reforms regarding corporate media concentration that would consider such changes as a reconsideration of the fairness doctrine, among other ideas.
Finally, the risks of not impeaching are great.
Everything will become a precedent for the next leader, and the will to popular outrage will fade more and more into cynicism and despair. Iran-Contra and the failure to hold the Bush regime accountable for torture and war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan paved the road to Trump. What will Trump’s unpunished law-breaking lead to, even if there are fair elections in 2020 – which is already in doubt. A small victory on impeachment in the House, even if it fails in the Senate, has momentum. That momentum will not be a distraction, but full of possibility for a mass popular movement against ongoing impunity for the wealthy and powerful.