I left Washington last week while it was in a state of suspended animation over former FBI Director James Comey’s upcoming testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Now that Comey has sworn under oath that the president is an untrustworthy liar who operates like the head of a crime syndicate, it’s not surprising that the I-word has begun to enter the conversation as perhaps the only corrective to a growing cascade of crime and coverup. After all, it was obstruction of justice that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation in the face of certain impeachment, and while the politics of Republican survival precludes the possibility of removing Donald Trump from office right now, the cost of defending him will continue to mount as more details become public and his public support erodes. The situation is unstable and unsustainable, and pressure for a resolution will grow if the resistance to Trump remains focused and organized.
Without diminishing the importance of building the coalitions that could one day make it possible to remove Trump from office, I want to address the limits of what impeachment can do to fix the underlying problems that led us here. Ousting Trump through legal means would be like removing a rusty nail from the gut of the constitutional system, yanking out the source of infection without cleaning or closing the wound. The more contentious the extraction, the more we risk aggravating the injury. And does anyone think the process won’t be ugly?
I see at least two issues—there may be more—that we will have to address before the wound can properly heal.
One issue involves legitimacy. When intelligence officials tell us with certainty that Russia interfered with the 2016 election, we should step back and consider what that means. We still do not know the scope of the interference, the extent of collusion by the Trump campaign, how much the president knew and what promises might have been made between the parties. But we do know that the process was compromised, and this was a close election. Russian agents didn’t have to tamper with the vote count or registration lists to influence the outcome. Even if we never know for sure that the Trump/Russia connection was decisive—and we likely never will—we are still dealing with an administration that is the product of a crime, and as that crime unravels a growing number of people will come to regard this administration and everything it touched to be illegitimate. Impeachment cannot fix this.
The other equally troubling issue involves the Republican base, that one-third or so of the country cheering on Trump’s brand of chaos as the palliative for our broken politics while he serves as their voice against a corrupt elite. Whether this administration ends with a senate trial, repudiation at the polls, or (my vote for the most likely outcome) Trump walking away from a job he hates as his odds of survival diminish, his cover story will be the same: the press, liberals, Republicans who turned against me—they despise me and disrespect you, and they are out to get all of us like they have been from the beginning. This is the origin myth of the Trump era and the deep narrative of the modern Republican Party, and it plays on the social divisions that made the Trump presidency possible. It is the justification for everything Trump has done and the reason why his fellow partisans fear their own voters. Impeachment will only make it worse.
These are big issues. It’s tempting to say that we should deal with them later and focus on the immediate imperative to remove the rusty nail. But I think we can and should do both, because things will grow uglier as the inevitable confrontation gets closer. Addressing the challenges of legitimacy and division requires a new politics that understands this singular moment. We can come through this stronger and we can begin to heal if we get it right. But changes will have to be addressed from across the political spectrum as part of a general realignment of both parties. I’ll have more thoughts on how this might happen and what we can do to help make it possible in the coming weeks.