Pundits counsel caution, hanging onto visions of bipartisan compromise. Others invoke the hazards of 1998, when the impeachment and acquittal of then-President Bill Clinton hobbled GOP political ambitions. And Democrats weigh the potential backlash to pursuit of impeachment against the unvented anger of their base in this year’s midterm elections.
Of the many arguments against impeachment, none is a moral one. Republicans not immediately within the Trump inner circle do not even assert his innocence as a defense. Instead, they use the threat as a motivating tactic for their base, stoking their resentments and fueling partisan animosity.
Perhaps if the only costs paid by the American people were ones of hyperpartisanship and aggressive Fox News broadcasts, it would be a reasonable calculation to avoid the question of impeachment. But there are far more terrible costs extracted by Trump’s malfeasance and Republican complicity.
The Republican Party is, in a certain vernacular, ‘ride or die.’
At the minor end of the spectrum ― crimes in violation of decency, if not statute ― there is the president’s encouragement of white supremacists, use of eliminationist rhetoric and praise for actions of genocide. His administration has asked for punishment to be inflicted upon private citizens in the private sector for exercising their free speech rights. He has disbursed pardons as political favors, even when the crimes are against the system he governs. The president has, against all sense of reason and patriotism, asserted the right to pardon himself of any crimes he should commit (or already has committed), placing himself above the very Constitution he has sworn to protect.
More seriously, the president has repeatedly breached the barriers between the executive office and the Department of Justice, called for his political opponents to be investigated, and demanded loyalty above patriotism from the director of the FBI ― and, failing to receive that personal loyalty, terminated him.
The president has forwarded and enacted racist, unconstitutional policies like the so-called Muslim ban and “forced separation,” destroying immigrant families, damaging American communities and denying immigrants and citizens equal protection under the law. He has deliberately ignored his obligations to the well-being and safety of American citizens in the wake of a natural disaster, leading to thousands of deaths.
Beyond this, the president of the United States has routinely attacked an ongoing investigation into the unusual and potentially criminal interactions his campaign had with a hostile foreign power that (with extraordinary documented evidence) tampered with that very same campaign in his favor.
And those are but a fraction of his infractions.
Trump is a wrecking ball through the institutions, norms and laws of the country. Republicans have dutifully refrained from holding the president or his openly, unbelievably, recklessly corrupt Cabinet to account for any of the damage they are doing. With their avoidance of impeachment, Democrats are implicitly supporting all of this.
Democrats must break the silence. If this situation ― for their constituents, for their Constitution, for their country ― is not enough, then what is? If impeachment is a tool of remedy, not retribution, what better time to deploy it? Waiting increases both the chance that the damage becomes truly irreparable and the dependence on the dignity and honor of a Republican Party that has demonstrated neither.
This is not an assertion made in a vacuum: The implicit assumption to the backlash argument and recent history both validate the claim. Despite the significant list of crimes, many of which were the basis of articles of impeachment against former President Richard Nixon, Republicans have shown every intention of running a combative campaign of protecting Trump from accountability. This is understood by pundits and Democrats, and stated by Republicans themselves.
Despite this, Democrats and pundits persist in believing that there is a breaking point for the Republican Party. At some point, this logic goes, the crimes and abuses will be too much, and GOP members of Congress will join their Democratic colleagues to force consequences upon a sitting Republican president.
This is a delusion.
The Republican Party has shown no bottom to its willingness to support and defend depravity. This is the party that met on inauguration night during the middle of the greatest economic calamity in 80 years and spoke only of how they could sabotage the presidency of a man elected by a 7-point margin. This is the party that organized relentless, mendacious opposition to a health care reform initially developed by a Republican think tank and implemented by a Republican governor. This is a party that invited the endorsement of a man trafficking in a racist conspiracy theory about the first black president’s birth and thus eligibility for office, and then subsequently nominated that racist conspiracy theorist to lead their ticket. In Congress, the Republican Party is under the stewardship of the same leader who, when told of a foreign attack on the very mechanism of American democracy, threatened to make it a partisan issue if the president attempted to inform the American people of the threat.
The Republican Party is, in a certain vernacular, “ride or die.” The very least the Democrats can do is force them into making a choice between the two options. It might turn out that doing the former with the least-popular president since the advent of polling might actually result in the latter.
Besides the present and immediate value of forcing the GOP to reckon with its decisions, there is a longer-term danger to consider: moral hazard.
But besides the present and immediate value of forcing the GOP to reckon with its decisions, there is a longer-term danger to consider: moral hazard. Without meaningful accountability, perpetrators of abuses of power will simply replicate the behavior with an even better understanding of how to proceed unimpeded. If there is no price paid for what Trump has done to the country, then what is to keep him from extending his perfidy, or keep another from imitating his criminality with a smoother ascension and a more accommodating party? Impeachment is a mechanism by which we can signal to future generations that there are lines that still cannot be crossed.
It is true that running on impeachment carries risks. It could animate GOP voters, it could create tough questions for candidates in swing and red districts, or it could gain the same ugly reputation as the Clinton impeachment in 1998. But those risks are more problems of narrative and optics than of substance, and this is a substantive moment in American political history.
Frame impeachment as a reluctant response to criminality in order to demoralize Republican voters; prepare a message that ties swing and red district Republicans to the problems in their communities either caused or unsolved by Trump; invoke Nixon rather than Clinton, and remind Americans of an era when country really could mean more than party.
With the perfidy clear, with the outlook bleak, with no assurance that our system will endure, it is not really a question of the Democrats making a case for why Trump should go; it is the responsibility of Republicans to explain why he should stay.
Kaitlin Byrd is a writer and political activist based in her hometown of Brooklyn, New York. She tweets at @GothamGirlBlue.