Here is a provocation that might just be true: The most important moment in the impeachment battle thus far did not take place in the halls of the Capitol or even in the bars and cafes of the republic of Ukraine, but in Ankara on Oct. 17, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey met with Mike Pence and agreed to a cease-fire in northern Syria, thus limiting the scope of the moral and strategic debacle created by Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds.
I’m not suggesting that the American public, in all its wisdom, cares more about the doughty Kurds or the lines of political control in Syria than it does about abuses of presidential power. But I am suggesting that part of the country relies on general heuristics rather than the specific details of presidential misconduct to determine when it might support something like impeachment. In which case any strategy congressional Democrats pursue or any defense served up by Jim Jordan or Lindsey Graham matters less to Trump’s fate than the answers to two basic questions: Is the economy OK? Is the world falling apart?
This supposition is based on an admittedly thin historical record. We have exactly two impeachment case studies in the modern era, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon, which involved very different fact patterns and unspooled in very different ways.
The differences are grist for competing partisan interpretations: Liberals can argue that Clinton survived the process and Nixon didn’t because Clinton’s crimes were minor things and Nixon’s met the “high crimes” bar, while conservatives can argue that Clinton survived and Nixon didn’t because Republicans were more honorable in 1974 and Democrats more partisan in 1998.
But the simplest explanation is that Nixon didn’t survive because his second term featured a series of economic shocks — summarized on Twitter by political theorist Jacob Levy as “an oil crisis, a stock market crash, stagflation and recession” — while Clinton’s second term was the most recent peak of American power, pride and optimism. In a given impeachment debate, under this theory, neither the nature of the crimes nor the state of the political parties matter as much as whether an embattled president is seen as presiding over stability or crisis, over good times or potential ruin.
To the extent that this reductive theory is true — and clearly it’s at least somewhat true — we shouldn’t be surprised at Trump’s survival, and we shouldn’t assume that it can be explained only by polarization or hyper-partisanship, Fox News or fake news, or for that matter by the “that’s how you get Trump” progressive overreach that I tend to critique.
Of course it matters that Trump’s party is craven and debased; of course it matters that the Democrats have swung to an ideological extreme. But maybe it matters more to Trump’s not good but stable — amazingly stable — approval ratings that he is presiding over a period of general stability, at home and abroad, which would have to fall apart for the supermajority that turned on Nixon to finally turn on him.
The idea that the Trump era is stable probably seems unpersuasive to people who follow the D.C. carnival obsessively; the idea that it is more stable than the later Obama years may seem like a joke. But one reason Trump managed to get elected was that the waning years of Barack Obama’s second term felt chaotic and dangerous across multiple fronts — with the rise of the Islamic State, the Russian seizure of Crimea and the Ukrainian quasi-war, a modest increase in crime and a series of terrorist attacks domestically, and a version of the child migrant crisis that has recurred under Trump.
And if you don’t pay attention to the chaos in the nation’s capital, as quite a few Americans do not, the Trump era has been arguably calmer than 2014-16. The migrant crisis and white-nationalist terrorism have both worsened, but the late-Obama-era crime increase appears to have subsided, campuses and cities have been relatively calm, Russia’s aggression has given way to stalemate, the Islamic State’s defeat has been mostly completed and Islamist terrorism has grown more sporadic than in the period that gave us Charlie Hebdo, San Bernardino and much more. Meanwhile the economy has grown steadily, leaving a majority of Americans in their best financial position since the days when Clinton survived impeachment.
This environment has created constituencies that get less attention than the “with the president even if he shoots someone on Fifth Avenue” sort of Trump voter, but probably matter more to how impeachment plays out. These are voters who dislike Trump but give him some grudging credit for the solid economy and the absence of new foreign wars, voters who don’t support his policies but don’t share the educated-liberal revulsion at his style, and voters whose reluctant support is contingent on Trumpian chaos seeming confined to Washington.
It’s possible to persuade these lukewarm voters to turn on him; you can see it begin to happen in the polling data when his party pursues unpopular policies (the Obamacare repeal push) or when his personal chaos seems to produce a real political breakdown (the government shutdown) or when his bigotry seems linked to some real-world horror (as with Charlottesville). But when a feeling of stability returns, when there isn’t a cascade toward economic debacle, foreign-policy catastrophe or late-1960s civil strife, these voters drift back toward mixed feelings, lukewarm support, dislike leavened by skepticism about removing Trump via impeachment rather than the 2020 vote.
Which is why, to return to the initial hypothesis, it mattered that the impeachment debate began at the same time that Trump was stumbling badly on foreign policy with Turkey and the Kurds; it gave some of these voters (and the swing-state Republican senators who represent them) a feeling that maybe this time everything was going to fall apart at once, that Trump’s incompetence would blow up the Middle East at the same time that his scandals multiplied.
Then the pattern in polling since — the dip in his approval rating giving way to a tiny upswing, support for impeachment peaking and then declining just a bit — might not reflect some dramatic failure by Democrats to make the case or some dramatic success for the Trumpian defense. Instead, it might just reflect the fact that the situation in Syria seems to have temporarily stabilized, the economy is fine and there are voters who will support removing a president when the world seems to be falling apart, but if it’s not, then not.
This reality doesn’t make a case against impeaching Trump when his conduct is basically asking for it; an impeachment process can be morally correct even if it’s unlikely to succeed. Nor does it prove that impeachment will hurt the Democrats in 2020; it might be that keeping a focus on Trump’s misdeeds and corruptions is a better use of Democratic energy than fighting over which not-necessarily-popular progressive agenda item their presidential nominee should be pressured to support.
Rather, it just makes a case for a certain modesty in all analysis, whether it’s a critique of some Adam Schiff stratagem today or a condemnation of Susan Collins (or, perhaps, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema) for not voting to remove the president tomorrow. It might just be the case that in our system it takes a clear cascade of disasters to preemptively remove a president, even a manifestly corrupt one. And though the likelihood of such a disaster the longer Trump remains in office is one reason to wish for his removal, even his fiercest critics should prefer stability, and the necessity of defeating him at the ballot box, to the Something Worse that might expedite his fall.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.