Many, perhaps most Democrats, especially among the leadership of the House of Representatives, are pinning all their hopes on the 2020 election. The goal of voting Donald Trump out of office has been become the primary dream and ambition for millions, as reflected in polls. This, is turn, is suppressing the Democratic appetite for impeachment. Without the Republican support, so the argument goes, impeachment is an empty exercise that runs the risk of emboldening Trump and mobilizing his supporters.
This plausible sounding argument is dangerously, perhaps fatally misguided. Particularly in wake of the latest revelations, but in actuality for quite a long time, impeachment has been the only viable, last-ditch option to save the American democracy. The election cannot do it, and in fact, voting Trump out now, without impeachment, would be a disaster for both sides.
The reason is that voting Trump out of office, the standard end to a bad or unpopular presidency, normalizes all his flagrant abuses of power, and endorses his unprecedented strengthening of the office of president, and weakening of the checks and balances represented by Congress and the Supreme Court. This then becomes a dangerous precedent.
A political liberal, I gladly voted twice for Obama, yet there were things about his administration that made me deeply uneasy. One of those was his tendency to operate by executive fiat, setting bold policies and making sweeping decisions, even without the cooperation of Congress and the Court. The Republicans grumbled, and made bleak warnings about the creation of an Imperial presidency, a president with the title and office of president, but the powers of a king or emperor. They were right. Obama’s decisions were ones I largely applauded and agreed with, but they did pave the way for someone to come directly behind him and assert those same powers, first to reverse and undo all Obama’s progress, and then to commit every imaginable abuse of power.
If Trump is merely voted out of office, his way of doing the presidency becomes the new normal. Blatantly enriching yourself at the expense of the country becomes the new normal. Openly soliciting help from hostile foreign governments against United States citizens who happen to be your political opponents becomes the new normal. Making sweeping geopolitical decisions based on personal prejudice, your own financial interests, or idle, poorly informed whims becomes the new normal. Setting policies with the force of law without the approval of Congress becomes the new normal. Bullying, threatening, or punishing elected officials and civil servants because they they oppose you or don’t support you enthusiastically enough becomes the new normal. Asserting broad immunity for every kind of criminal activity, and obstructing efforts to expose your crimes becomes the new normal.
As for the popular Democratic fantasy of seeing a post-presidency Trump indicted, convicted and imprisoned for his crimes –not only is that no substitute for impeachment in terms of healing our democracy, it actually stands to make things a thousand times worse. The reason is that it endorses the principle that a sitting president has broad immunity for all criminal acts, and establishes a precedent that presidents are punished for their misdeeds only after losing. The inevitable result is that the politicized persecution of ex-presidents will become the new standard political weapon. It will no longer be safe to leave office. Every ex-president will go to jail. It won’t take long for a new chief executive, of one party or the other, to realize that the only path to safety lies in never leaving office.
In other words, the America presidency becomes entirely the same presidency-in-name-only as every other dictatorship around the globe. And anyone who believes that the Democrats are too intrinsically noble to take advantage of this greatly strengthened presidency is a student neither of history nor of human nature.
Thus, the worst nightmare for even the most partisan Republican is not Trump being impeached. It’s the increasingly plausible scenario of Trump being voted out of office, and being replaced by Warren, Biden, Harris, Sanders, or any of the other Democrats, but as wielding the full, untempered power of the imperial presidency.
It is die or get better time for our gravely ill system of government. The only possible solution is immediate impeachment and removal from office, followed by sweeping, bipartisan action to re-weaken the office of president and reinstitute the all-but-dismantled system of checks and balances. Even the Republicans must wake up and realize this is the only viable option left for the protection of both sides of our fragile union.