Has Impeachment Ever Mattered Less?

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Has Impeachment Ever Mattered Less?

Before I try to add some nuance to the cynicism expressed in my title, let me just confirm Betteridge’s Law of Headlines and answer its question: no. That speaks volumes about the previous two cases, but it still says quite a bit about our present moment. Bill Clinton’s impeachment was the canary in the coal mine of the Trumpist obstruction we have faced from the Republican Party this century. At some point in the 1980s and 1990s, the generic thesis on the right became that any kind of Democratic rule was illegitimate and not emblematic of “Real America,” and they followed Newt Gingrich’s playbook to a T—a man whose antipathy for democracy can be summed up by his 2012 presidential run on a platform of effectively getting rid of the judicial branch. The 1999 impeachment was immensely consequential simply because it was a harbinger of things to come. When Alexander Johnson became the first president to get impeached in 1868, it was over actions which essentially tried to overturn much of Lincoln’s presidency and the North’s victory in the Civil War. Now we’re impeaching the president because he’s the most transparent criminal in American history.

Which obviously isn’t nothing, the problem is that the quid pro quo Trump tried to pressure Ukraine into is exactly what we would expect from the man we knew in 2016. Or in 2012. Or 1999. He’s a guy who has worked with and around various criminal syndicates ever since he came to prominence in Atlantic City (which was built in large part by mobsters). An impeachment is a revelation of a constitutional betrayal, which is the status quo for Trump, and all that is new are the details.

Which is part of the problem, this impeachment scope is too narrow. Nancy Pelosi finally caved because this specific crime was so straightforwardly unconstitutional that she had no choice but to bring articles of impeachment to the floor given her constitutional mandate as Speaker. The issue is that this crime is not the only impeachable offense that Trump has committed. The Democrats should have looked at impeachment as a TV show, where for however many months it takes, they would investigate Trump’s Ukraine crime, his litany of emoluments violations, his children’s business ventures, the Trump Organization, the Trump Foundation (which recently was shut down in the face of an inquiry from the state of New York, and also literally stole money from kids with cancer), the concentration camps he set up at the border, the endless line of longstanding US policy he has upended almost surely due to pursuing his own interests, and Lord knows how many others currently hidden from the public view that Congress could use its immense investigatory powers to uncover. This is the most impeachable president we have had since Andrew Johnson, and by narrowing the scope of it to one offense, House Democrats have sucked some energy out of this righteous fight.

Nothing is going to happen in the Senate. The leader of the Senate already said so on state television. While this is a historical and solemn exercise, it is ultimately purely symbolic. The reason why impeachment has never mattered less is not because Trump is somehow less criminal than Clinton (definitely not) or Johnson (he's on a whole different scale of historically bad), but because our politics is so fundamentally broken by GOP obstructionism that it's not possible for any impeachment to reach the level of severity our founders envisioned for it. Conservative media has spent the last three decades constructing an impenetrable bubble that places its millions and millions of passionate brainwashees in an alternate universe from the rest of us who try to let objective observations of provable reality dictate our lives. Bipartisanship in this era simply means acquiescing to GOP demands. Plus, the Senate has always been an institution where progress goes to die, especially with Mitch McConnell running things now.

Our institutions and those atop it have failed. That is the only way that a President Trump can happen. The amount of political and economic instability experienced by the millennial and Gen Z generations in about two decades is almost unparalleled in history—save for the Greatest Generation who endured a depression and two world wars, the generation around the Civil War, and that around the Revolutionary War. In 1999 we witnessed the second American president to ever get impeached, a year later a Republican Supreme Court decided a presidential election in favor of a Republican, the next year we witnessed the largest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, then we subsequently launched America's longest war in history and not even two years later we entered our generation's Vietnam War in Iraq. Five years later we experienced the largest economic collapse since the Great Depression, then Democrats lost 1,000 seats over the course of a presidency most Americans consider to be the best of their lifetimes, and punctuated those failures by making President Trump a reality, who was just impeached yesterday. That's all before we get to the looming breakdown in human society known as climate change. Yet some folks still wonder why our generations have completely lost faith in the institutions which are supposed to be guiding us into the future. Look around, the world surrounding us is a product of their work.

Appealing to those same institutions and leaders now feels like a hopeless exercise, and it's why so many Democratic voters have latched on to big structural reforms in this primary. Our existing political and economic structures have proven themselves inept at dealing with the major challenges of our time (like the GOP eschewing democratic comity in favor of pure power politics), and so there is a widespread desire to either create entirely new ones or reform existing ones so aggressively that they are functionally new institutions. As I write this, millions of Americans far more hopeful than me (I envy you, truly) are out on the streets appealing to reason at pro-impeachment rallies, and doing what our democracy tells us to do: pressure our representatives. This likely helped ensure that all House Democrats (save for three) fell in line, but expecting this democratic message to resonate with the GOP is about as realistic as explaining physics to a squirrel and then expecting it to build you a particle accelerator.

We need GOP votes in the Senate to do the right thing, and while this impeachment has galvanized much of the country and hopefully set the stage for an electoral victory next year, now that it has passed, not much else will likely happen, as Mitch McConnell has publicly vowed to protect an unqualified and illegitimate president. Impeachment as a sharp political tool still has hope that will be tested next year, but the institution itself seems hopelessly lost under the weight of GOP intransigence, as demonstrated by their 1999 impeachment and their unhinged rants in the House yesterday. Of the three impeachments America has ever had (four if you want to include Nixon), this is clearly the one with the least widespread impact, but only because our era is devoid of any serious institutional legitimacy and the right exists in a bubble entirely of their own creation. This was an objectively good thing for the Democrats to do in order to demonstrate that there still are rules we should all adhere to in this country, but the Republicans and those who finance their intransigence have long discarded the rules and have proven they will do whatever they can to trample our democracy in order to retain their power.

Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.

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