If Impeachment Stalls, Will Liberals Be Willing to Stop Trump?

Centrists scream "impeachment" and turn to the FBI—but they're too afraid to turn to the people.
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President Donald Trump outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C, on May 31st, 2017.

President Donald Trump outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C, on May 31st, 2017. 

It will be hard for Democrats to pick one particular misdeed for which to impeach Donald Trump. He's racking up egregious offenses so fast they're going to have to name the news updates they push to your phone in his honor. We live under a tyrannical deluge of dumbfounding Trumpdates, and if he keeps going, the rats will start fleeing the ship and Congress will fulfill its constitutional obligation and remove him from office. In this account, Americans will tough out President Mike Pence (hampered by a Democratic legislature) for the rest of the term, at which point we'll elect whomever Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton tell us to. Then we can try to pretend that none of this ever happened.

This looks to be the plan—or at least the more radical one. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has signaled that she wouldn't mind keeping Trump around for campaign purposes, and immediate impeachment hasn't acquired a lot of support from national leaders (that is, outside the Congressional Black Caucus). But "Impeach him!" is an applause line for the Democrats willing to deliver it, and as we move toward 2018 with the transgressions still piling up, I expect the chorus will get louder. Ross Douthat might be the first notable conservative to call publicly for Trump's removal under the Twenty-Fifth Amendment on the grounds of incapacity, but I'm sure more of them have suggested it in private. The man is an obvious menace, causing chaos in our collective name—there must be something we can do to stop him.

Some commentators in the eclectic center—including improbable cheerleaders like former Tory member of Parliament Louise Mensch and Eric "Game Theory Guy" Garland, who appears to be some manner of management consultant—see impeachment as both inevitable and imminent. There's a gang of actual and would-be pundits ready to pounce on any thread that might end up unraveling the administration; they know that someone is going to be the Twitter Woodward and Bernstein, and they figure it might as well be them. The same dynamic motivates readers, some of whom really want to be the first to know (and post) precisely how Trump is about to go down. Gamblers in the United Kingdom are so enthused that they've pushed the betting line on impeachment to even odds. Our national soothsayer Nate SIlver puts the odds somewhere in the range of 25 to 50 percent—slightly smaller, but still staggering.

When other countries have coups, it's the generals who take over; in America it would definitely be the lawyers.

Such people's belief in Trump's upcoming collision with the Constitution (or, in some projections, a heart attack) seems based more on karmic faith than sober reasoning. Trump has to be impeached; therefore he will be. To believe anything else would be to concede that the American federal government has been successfully co-opted by fools and frauds, and there's nothing we can do about it. Either Trump will be removed from office, or democracy in the United States really is broken and we live in the bad timeline from Back to the Future II.

Yes, it is getting hard to believe we don't exist in a cautionary tale instead of reality, but feeling nonplussed is not a strong basis for a political agenda. Maybe we as a nation know the Watergate script so well that we think we can fast-forward through the Trump administration in the next year, and then spend the next decade or two trying to undo and forget. But I don't much believe in karma, and not a lot about the present situation leads me to think that Trump is on his way out.

A Tax Day protest in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on April 15th, 2017.

A Tax Day protest in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on April 15th, 2017.

Because of the expansion of presidential power and the technology at his disposal, Trump is able to wield a kind of authority we haven't seen before. His recent predecessors, Democrats and Republicans alike, expanded the job's scope and authority at nearly every opportunity. Conservatives say they want a smaller federal government, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security were founded recently, under George W. Bush. Clinton-era crime policies built up the law-enforcement community that is Trump's most fervent base of support, and Obama ought to be perturbed that his name is forever linked to the phrase "deportation machine." If these past executives were somewhat constrained by norms—even as they nudged them further and further out of whack—Trump seems energized by violating them. Shame that would cripple a normal man hardly seems to make a dent on Trump, and he flouts conventional behavior as if he literally can't stop himself. Prying him out of the presidency after his term is over sounds difficult, never mind before.

While liberals comfort themselves with Andy Borowitz "jokes" about the door hitting Trump on the way out of town, he remains, improbably, the president, week after week. If the poor diet and lack of exercise finally take their toll and Trump drops dead, it's his flunkies who would inherit. Putting aside the bad lesson for children about the virtues of cravenness, in such a scenario we'd be more or less where we are. How different is President Pence or President Paul Ryan from President Trump? Either of these two would likely adhere to a minimum George Bush level of proceduralism that might appease liberals, but when it comes to voting rights, abortion access, or the general welfare of working people, we wouldn't even have made it out of the frying pan. The line of succession involves Trumpian policy all the way down, and if his rule is illegitimate or intolerable, then so is theirs. And if that's the case, then we're going to need a mechanism outside the government.

It's easy to imagine that, in a similar situation, in a country with a different modern history, the military would have already moved in and assumed power custodially, based on their sworn duty to protect the nation. Traditionally, Americans are proud that our system doesn't recognize any armed extra-democratic counterweights. But Trump has been so absurdly bad that he has even the most stalwart proceduralists drawing up plans to storm Mar-a-Lago. Politico suggests that now-cool Federal Bureau of Investigation lawyers James Comey and Robert Mueller were going to "take down" the president, and, according to the article's framing, we should be begging them to take over next. When other countries have coups, it's the generals who take over; in America it would definitely be the lawyers.

Compared to the erratic bully-in-chief, a portion of Americans (and an alarming number of reporters) would like nothing more than a tall no-nonsense rule-lover with a gun. These folks need to snap out of it. The FBI is one of the most regressive institutions in America, though it is little worse than three of Comey's other former employers: bomb-maker Lockheed Martin, Connecticut hedge fund behemoth Bridgewater, and the George W. Bush Department of Justice. When liberals and other centrists start salivating for a guy with that kind of resume, we are very far misled as a polity.

Trump must go, but we can't pluck a petal and expect the plant to wither. Whether impeachment or the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, (natural) death or bureaucratic coup, none of the options suggested or implied so far addresses the deep corruption and absurd dysfunction that now characterize the federal government. We are ruled by the worst among us, as is abundantly clear from any video of our leaders interacting with their constituents. The security services are no solution, but that's where liberal fantasies about the system fixing itself have come to rest. If, however, Trump proves resilient, and nothing in their book works, are the proceduralists prepared to pull the real emergency switch? Our Constitutional tradition has one restart button, and it doesn't belong to any branch of the government.

The American left has mostly ceded the idea of popular sovereignty to the right and their beardo militias, but is there any leader or party that even aspires to do that much better a job running America that Trump is doing? Rather, of all our country's civic mechanisms, it's these town halls that have been most aggressive, informed, and passionate when it comes to holding the government accountable. The only people who have the right to dissolve the U.S. government are the people themselves. Now let's get started.

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