Massive wildfires are torching California as strong winds blow fiery embers far and wide, setting ablaze both dry scrub and houses, leaving a massive amount of devastation.

The conflagration and destruction we've seen on television from that state in recent days also seems appropriate for another wildfire taking place, this one on the East Coast — the impeachment saga playing out in Washington D.C.

It is a pivotal moment in American history. Indeed, it is just one moment wrapped within the larger historical trend of rising populism, a fiery political movement that threatens to burn down the foundations of the American Republic.

As regular readers of this space know, I'm no fan of President Trump. He's intellectually inept, emotionally unstable and morally bankrupt. He should never have been nominated by the Republican Party, much less elected president. I have no doubt that whatever happens with impeachment, Trump will go down in history as one of the nation's worst presidents.

But I'm not convinced that impeachment is the best solution to the problem of amoral Trumpism.

There are often unintended consequences that come from dramatic actions. What we think we know today may only be part of the picture. We don't know what we don't know. In that truism, there could be a danger we don't yet see, or understand.

•••

Impeachment is a rare event, although the current effort is the third in my lifetime. President Nixon resigned before he was impeached (and he would have certainly been impeached. I was working in the newspaper's darkroom the summer of the impeachment hearings and listened to 99 percent of the hearings on the radio. Nixon was guilty.) President Clinton was impeached by a Republican Congress, but not removed from office by the Senate. Now it's Trump in the hot seat.

Trump's defenders decry the impeachment effort as a "witch hunt" and a "coup" and they have focused on attacking the process of impeachment more than defending the underlying allegations against Trump.

That's a common political and legal strategy: When the facts aren't on your side, attack the process, attack the witnesses and smear the opposition with rumors and innuendo.

Clearly, that's what Republicans — and propaganda on Fox News and the internet — are doing today. The reason is that there's little doubt Trump is guilty of attempting to strong-arm a foreign country, Ukraine, into investigating his Democratic political rival, Joe Biden.

In withholding foreign aid to Ukraine, Trump was obviously trying to ramp up pressure on the country to do his political bidding — he may not have explicitly stated a quid pro quo, but it was certainly on the table. Nobody had to say it because everyone involved knew exactly what was happening — the aid was being used as a bargaining chip to pressure Ukraine to go after the man Trump believes is his biggest political threat in the 2020 elections.

Given that, Republicans really can't defend Trump's actions. If Obama had done the same thing, Republicans would have been foaming at the mouth. (Remember, Republicans impeached Bill Clinton for something that was far less serious than what Trump is accused of having done.)

But while Republicans are flaming hypocrites in this impeachment game, so are Democrats. The same Democrats who defended Clinton 20 years ago are now calling for Trump's head on a platter. 

The standard for impeachment, it seems, is whatever the party in power wants it to be. Therein lies a real problem: The sword of impeachment can cut both directions, not based on Constitutional standards, but partisan political whim.

As a paper about the history of impeachment done in 2018 by the Cato Institute says, "The scope of 'high Crimes and Misdemeanors' shouldn’t turn on one’s opinion of any particular president. Partisans who lower the bar to impeachment in order to punish a president they revile — or raise it to save one they support — may, under future presidents, live to regret the standard they’ve set."

That's what we're seeing today. In 1999, Republicans lowered the bar to impeach Clinton for having an affair with an intern and lying about it — today, Republicans want to raise the bar to protect Trump. The reverse is true for Democrats.

That's a dangerous game, one that can be played by both parties to the destruction of the nation.

•••

One of the myths about impeachment is that a president has to have committed a crime before he can be impeached.

But that's not what the Founding Fathers had in mind, nor is that the standard that has been used in the past. No criminal violation has to have been committed for a president to be impeached. 

There are two questions today about impeachment, one legal and one political:

1. Was Trump's attempt to strong-arm Ukraine to go after Biden by using the leverage of his presidential position an abuse of power and an offense large enough to warrant impeachment?

2. Is impeachment the right solution to the larger political dynamics, or would waiting for the 2020 election be better?

Let's take these questions one at a time.

On the legal issues, Democrats are framing their impeachment efforts narrowly around the Ukraine scandal. Rather than going after Trump on a long list of issues about unpresidential behavior, their focus is to only have a handful of impeachment articles that stem from that single scandal.

Democrats are hoping that the upcoming public hearings in the House will shift public opinion for impeachment; that people will be able to clearly see a simple, legal example of an abuse of power.

Democrats are also gambling that as they turn up the heat on Trump, he will make mistakes. They know Trump is impulsive, prone to saying things in public that he shouldn't say and to acting like a petty tyrant when cornered. Democrats hope that if they pressure him enough, Trump will do something really stupid in a fit of rage.

Democrats know this reality: Oftentimes, public officials get into more trouble with their attempts to cover up their sins than they do for the sin itself. If Trump abuses his power to obstruct the impeachment process, that could give Democrats a clear charge on which to attack him.

But all that's risky. Even if Democrats can make a solid legal case for impeachment, they may not be able to make a solid political case. 

Trump could be impeached — he clearly crossed a line by attempting to strong-arm Ukraine — but should he be impeached? Will enough Americans support impeachment with the 2020 election just a year away?

And the fact is, Democrats have the votes to impeach Trump in the House, but they don't have the votes in the Senate to remove him from office. 

So what's the point of impeachment if it doesn't remove Trump from a position to abuse his power? Why put the nation through all this turmoil if, in the end, it won't change anything?

Democrats argue that even if Trump's not removed from office by the Senate, he shouldn't be allowed to abuse the office of president without facing a strong backlash. The Constitution should be upheld even if Trump stays in office, Democrats say.

What they don't say is that in pursuing an impeachment in the House, Democrats hope to wound Trump enough in the process that voters in swing states will turn against him in 2020. Impeachment is as much a political move as it is a Constitutional one.

•••

But if Democrats impeach, but fail to remove Trump in the Senate, he will be emboldened even more. Trump already has autocratic tendencies, praising dictators around the world on a regular basis, and he has greatly expanded the reach of the presidency by appropriating power from a weak, sniveling Congress. 

If Trump is impeached, but survives in office, he will undoubtedly become even more autocratic. A failed impeachment will only make him a martyr-hero to his followers, strengthening his cult of personality even more. He will become more dangerous, a wounded bear, who will be more likely to crash the American Republic.

And a failed impeachment could actually help Trump in his 2020 reelection bid, especially among marginal voters in swing states who don't follow the details, only the outcomes.

Let's face it, everyone who voted for Trump knew exactly what they were getting. Trump's intemperance, autocratic leanings and lack of knowledge were obvious in 2016. People voted for Trump knowing he would probably abuse his power in office, but they didn't care. An abusive, corrupt Trump was better in their minds than Hillary Clinton, or any other Democrat for that matter.

Making the political dynamics even worse for Democrats is that they can't get their own act together. They have too many candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for 2020 — and two of the most left-leaning candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are sucking all the air from that process.

If Trump is a right-wing populist, then Warren and Sanders are the equivalent on the left-wing. (What the hell has this country come to that we could have a choice between a right-wing nut and a left-wing nut for president with no moderates on the ballot?)

•••

Perhaps impeachment is the right thing to do in a philosophical sense — no president should be above the law — but I have doubts that it is the right thing to do for the nation as a practical matter.

If Democrats really want to remove Trump from office, a better strategy might be to put their energy behind one strong, moderate Democratic candidate. The biggest humiliation for Trump — and the best thing for the American Republic — would be for voters to toss him out of office at the ballot box on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

Democrats shouldn't just focus on defeating Trump the man; they should focus on having the American people repudiate the amoral, populist, corrupt movement he created. Simply impeaching Trump won't stop the ugly side of Trumpism — only an election can do that.

Impeachment might feel good right now given all of Trump's abuse of power and degradation of our national norms, but the wildfire it starts could ultimately burn down the very thing it's intended to protect.

(1) comment

Jim Baird

Thanks, Mike.

I appreciate your level-headed approach.

I won't defend Bill Clinton at all. (His last act in office was to sign the Glass-Steagall repeal that yielded us the financial collapse of '08.

If he had been removed it might have put All Gore in the driver's seat to defeat GW, until Trump the worst prez ever.

But I do think all who believe in the rule of law should support impeachment and trial now.

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