Centrism is under attack these days, as the left is once again ascendant in the Democratic Party. I say “once again” because many centrists seem to think that the 1990s Clintonian era is the standard in the Democratic Party. It’s not. The Great Society Democrats of the 1960s and the New Deal Democrats of the 1930s are far closer to the norm, and 1990 to 2016 is the exception. Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party is famous for kowtowing to Wall Street by repealing laws that we enacted in the wake of the Great Depression, like Glass-Steagall—not for incredibly ambitious projects designed to help persecuted parts of the populace. While the goal of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act was more in line with the standard Democratic brand of helping the most vulnerable among us, the actual policy was far closer to Clintonian neoliberal economics (just give the insurance companies more money!).
I am not a centrist, but a leftist who used to be a centrist, so I have some unique insight into this debate. Like any power struggle anywhere in any political or economic system in the world, there is tension between those who have power and those trying to take it. That’s politics, and this gets to the main critique from the left of this last generation of Democrats. Spending the last few decades genuflecting towards civility politics and favoring bipartisanship over policy outcomes have been central to the misunderstanding of power that lead us to this present moment. That platform lost to Donald freaking Trump, and now that Trump is president, the idea of trying to find some common ground with the GOP has been exposed for the farce it always was. We have a criminal president, and no matter your beliefs, we all need to rally against the biggest threat in America: the radical Republican Party aiding and abetting Trump.
Trump deserves to be impeached. Everyone guffawing over new Representative Rashida Tlaib’s use of the phrase “motherfucker” in her promise to impeach Trump should read her op-ed in today’s Detroit Free Press. This wasn’t just a primal scream, she brought receipts to this fight:
We already have overwhelming evidence that the president has committed impeachable offenses, including, just to name a few: obstructing justice; violating the emoluments clause; abusing the pardon power; directing or seeking to direct law enforcement to prosecute political adversaries for improper purposes; advocating illegal violence and undermining equal protection of the laws; ordering the cruel and unconstitutional imprisonment of children and their families at the southern border; and conspiring to illegally influence the 2016 election through a series of hush money payments.
One of centrists’ most common talking points seriously applies here: letting a criminal president walk away from the office without at least impeachment hearings violates longstanding norms, and sends a message to future presidents that you can get away with using the presidency to personally enrich yourself. Leftists love to denigrate centrists’ focus on norms and traditions, but we would be wrong to do so here. This is a serious matter and centrists would be right to stress that this is a deviation from norms that we cannot afford to deviate from.
We can sell this to the American people. There are sitting Republican congressmen who voted to impeach Bill Clinton for less than we can prove Trump has done (and that’s even without Robert Mueller’s help). Hell (whoops, sorry, heck), we can even by-your-logic Republicans in a way that’s tangibly effective! The goal does not necessarily need to be removing Trump from office (because let’s be honest, is anyone 100% certain that Chuck Schumer would back a removal vote in the Senate?), but simply protecting vitally important norms around the most powerful office known to mankind. An impeachment trial forcing Trump to publicly answer for the litany of crimes he has committed sends a message to future presidents that congress will still exercise its constitutionally-mandated executive oversight. Simply launching impeachment proceedings protects those norms.
This column is in response to centrist pundits like one of the left’s favorite punching bags, the New Yorker’s Jonathan Chait, who think that Tlaib didn’t help the cause with her “impeach the motherfucker” quote.
To be fair to Chait, he did cite Tlaib’s op-ed and said that she made a “fairly strong case.” The issue here seems to be the coarseness with which Tlaib punctuated her point at the end of the celebration over her victory last night, and this is where I’d like to respectfully disagree. On substance, centrists and leftists largely agree on Trump’s criminality, as Chait’s agreement with a member of the Democratic Socialists of America demonstrates. The issue seems to be how to go about doing it, and we do need to talk about strategy here.
It’s not a bad strategy to curse. Donald Trump bragged about “grabbing women by the pussy” and we still elected him president. Dick Cheney said he was proud of the time he told Pat Leahy to “go fuck himself” on the floor of the Senate. The optics of chiding a woman for saying the same word that countless men have said to less fanfare is not great. Sure, cursing all the time has a degrading effect on discourse that can hurt your message, but a punctuation like this at the end of a celebration signals passion and conviction. If Tlaib didn’t provide any specifics and left it at “motherfucker,” sure, then it wouldn’t look like a coherent strategy.
But she’s not light on specifics. She didn’t need to produce all of them in that present moment (which again, was at a party—which is important context that a lot of folks are leaving out today), and painting her position through the lens of one sentence instead of the many she published in a major newspaper is simply bad journalism. There is a coherent strategy here, and punctuating it with a word that evokes an emotional response helps to whip up passion for the cause.
Passion is the biggest thing that centrism lacks. Centrism preaches moderation of everything, and this ideology posing as not-an-ideology wants you to accept that your passion will not be enacted before negotiations have even begun. While there is a harsh reality to this point, as the incredibly complex (and dumb) PAYGO fight on the left demonstrated, it’s a horrible political message. You’re effectively telling your supporters to not expect things to get better, and our best hope is to inch the ball along for the next generation to hopefully set it up for future generations to achieve the progress that we all want to achieve. If you’re not trying to excite people with your politics, why are you in politics?
Half of Americans want Trump impeached. Nearly two-thirds believe he committed a crime. Thinking that someone saying “let’s impeach the motherfucker” is going to turn folks off of their previous convictions is a strange position to take. You’re asserting that civility politics will overrule independent thought—that people’s aversion to cursing supersedes their aversion to being governed by a criminal. The public is angry, and Representative Tlaib’s firery quote is far more emblematic of public opinion than the “gravely concerned” boilerplate wordbarf you’re likely to hear out of this last generation of Democratic politicians.
Decorum is important, but passion is much more so. Donald Trump has handed the left a winning case against Donald Trump, and it’s our job to make it. The centrist case for norms seriously applies here, as we must protect the longstanding tradition of not turning the presidency into a personalized money printing machine that you can obtain while conspiring with a foreign adversary. Impeachment is a political question—not a legal one—and generating popular support and enthusiasm for the cause is vital if we are to undertake this very serious quest to “impeach the motherfucker.”
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.