President Donald Trump deserves to be impeached. But the prospect terrifies me, and it should terrify you, too.
That’s not to say that it’s the wrong move. Arguably, it’s the only move, at least in terms of fidelity to the Constitution and to basic decency. From the moment that Trump stepped into the office of the presidency, he has degraded it — with words that a president has no business speaking (or tweeting); with ceaseless lies; with infantile and often unhinged behavior; with raging conflicts of interest; with managerial ineptitude; with a rapacious ego that’s never sated; and with foreign dealings that compromise America’s values, independence and interests. How can principled lawmakers not tell him, in the most emphatic manner available, that enough is enough?
But there’s no way to say what happens now that a formal impeachment inquiry is being opened. None. You’re going to hear a lot in coming days and weeks about Bill Clinton, but using the example of his impeachment in late 1998 is a bit ridiculous: He was a very different president accused of very different offenses at a very different time. Besides which, political analysts who do cite it don’t agree on the lessons. So a pundit making confident predictions about the political fallout from the impeachment of Trump is a pundit far out on a slender limb.
Any scenario is possible, including one in which impeachment redounds to Trump’s benefit and increases the chances of his reelection because he paints himself a martyr, eludes conviction in the Senate, frames that as exoneration and watches his fans mobilize and turn out as never before. And a second Trump term wouldn’t just be the sadly suboptimal byproduct of a noble stand; it would be disastrous. Morally as well as practically, limiting this unfit, amoral, unsteady man’s time in the presidency takes precedence over any small cluster of sentences written centuries ago.
But while an impeachment’s effect on November 2020 is unknowable, its effect on us as a nation is almost certain. A dangerously polarized and often viciously partisan country would grow more so, with people on opposing sides hunkering down deeper in their camps and clinging harder to their chosen narratives as the president — concerned only with himself — ratcheted up his insistence that truth itself was subjective and up for grabs.
That’s not a reason to blink, but it’s a reality to brace for. At a juncture when we so desperately need to rediscover common ground, we’d be widening the fault lines. Bringing the country together afterward would call for more than a talented politician; it would demand a miracle worker. None of the Democratic presidential candidates qualify.
Impeachment should terrify you because it would mean a continued, relentless, overwhelming focus on Trump’s lawlessness, antics, fictions and inane tweets. He would win in the short term — and all Americans would lose — because as long as most of the oxygen in Washington is consumed by the ghastly carnival of this barker, there’s too little left for the nation’s very real problems and for scrutiny of his substantive inadequacy in addressing them.
From the House Republicans’ persecution of Hillary Clinton though the permanent hysteria of House Democrats under Trump, Washington has devolved ever further into a place where process muscles out progress, grandstanding eclipses governing and noise muffles any meaningful signal. To be engaged in politics is to be engaged in battle — and that shouldn’t and needn’t always be so.
Where’s the infrastructure plan that we’re — oh — a quarter-century late in implementing? Where are the fixes to a health care system whose problems go far beyond the tens of millions of Americans still uninsured? What about education? Impeachment would shove all of those issues even further to the margins than it already is.
During the Democratic primary and then the general election, the Trump melodrama and the Trump spectacle would overshadow all else. And many Americans’ estrangement from Washington — their cynicism about its ability to improve their lives even a whit — would intensify.
That could be all the more true on account of their confusion. If you’re favorably disposed toward Trump and receptive to his claims of persecution, you’ve watched the meticulous and drawn-out work of Robert Mueller, you’ve noticed a seemingly nonstop schedule of Capitol Hill hearings and of star witnesses (Michael Cohen, Mueller, Bill Barr, Corey Lewandowski), and you thought that the House Judiciary Committee was already doing an impeachment inquiry. The latest developments strike you as “Groundhog Day” on the Potomac.
If you’re horribly offended and utterly exhausted by Trump, you’re tempted to cheer impeachment as long-sought justice and prayed-for release and forget that it’s just the prelude to the main act, which is a trial in the Senate. That chamber is controlled by Republicans, who, based on current conditions, are as likely to convict Trump as they are to co-sponsor Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax. So Trump’s supporters would wind up furious that he was put through what they regarded as an overwrought exercise with a foregone conclusion, while the frustration of Trump’s detractors would be exponentially multiplied. Let the healing begin!
And would impeachment proceedings effectively lay bare — and force Americans to focus on — sins of Trump’s that are being ignored? That’s long been one of Democrats’ arguments for impeachment, but I wonder. For starters, some of the hearings to date — Lewandowski’s in particular — raise questions about their ability to pry loose what they want from witnesses and isolate the damning evidence amid the ambient vitriol. But more than that, there has been such saturation coverage of Trump that many voters may not be able to stomach it any more, and today’s political tribalism doesn’t allow for all that much in the way of epiphanies and transformations. Trump’s true colors were conspicuous from the start. You either saw a perverse rainbow or you stared into darkness.
Meanwhile, Trump. How vulnerable will drawn-out impeachment proceedings make him feel? How impotent? How desperate? To flex his power, vent his fury or distract the audience, what would he do? He’s untethered by scruple. He’s capable of anything. Maybe it’s not just a culture war that he’d whip up. Maybe it’s the real thing.
Certainly he’d do all he could to convince Americans of the nefariousness of Democrats, and absolutely his strategy would be to smear the people, the procedures and the institutions arrayed against him as utterly unworthy of trust. If holding on to power meant ruling over rubble, so be it. Trump is beholden only to Trump, and he’d simply declare the rubble gold dust.
Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.