Impeachment: The Historical Argument

Impeachment: The Historical Argument

Americans only know what this means because Bill Clinton was impeached.

The year is 2050, and people are talking about political history. Somebody mentions “the Trump-Russia scandal.” Most people can’t remember what it is.

But people will always remember Bill Clinton getting impeached for lying about a blowjob. Why? Because he was impeached for it. Because, whatever the questionable merits of impeaching a president for perjury about his sex life, Congress chose to make it a big, historical issue — an issue so big and so historical that Clinton became one of only two presidents in American history to be impeached by the House of Representatives.

In the 1980s, Congress decided not to impeach President Reagan for the Iran-Contra scandal — selling arms for hostages and then lying about it. Perhaps that’s why hardly anyone born after 1970 who isn’t a political history buff knows much of anything about that particular scandal. For the most part, it has passed into the mists of history along with the hundreds of other scandals that presidents have been involved in. I know a lot of political history, but I only recently learned that impeachment was even being considered in the case of Iran-Contra. Similarly, future generations might not remember that impeachment of Trump was considered in the Russia scandal — if they even remember what the Russia scandal was — unless Trump is actually impeached.

Nixon is remembered as one of America’s worst presidents because he resigned from office under threat of impeachment. Does anyone remember the good things Nixon did, such as creating the Environmental Protection Agency or supporting a Universal Basic Income? No, because of the Watergate scandal. And it is only because the House of Representatives pursued an impeachment investigation that his legacy was disgraced.

Andrew Johnson’s presidency is remembered (when it is at all) for two things only: the fact that he replaced Lincoln who was assassinated, and the fact that he was a terrible president who was impeached. People don’t even remember why he was a bad president. They simply assume he was bad — because he was impeached — even though the impeachment did not result in his removal from office.

Bill Clinton’s presidency is remembered for two things: booming economy, and impeachment for lying about his sexual affairs. He has gone down in history as a president who ran the country pretty well but was kind of a sleazy guy. If he hadn’t been impeached, the “sleazy guy” part of that assessment would be nowhere near as strong in the public consciousness after memory of the Clinton years fades away.

Donald Trump has committed far more serious offenses against the law and the Constitution than President Clinton, Reagan, Andrew Johnson, or even Richard Nixon. He has repeatedly committed obstruction of justice in an investigation into an attack on our election by a hostile foreign power which helped him win the presidency. Now, he has encouraged other countries to interfere in our electoral process again, by saying that he would accept dirt on his political opponents from foreign governments in his 2020 reelection campaign. I wonder what “deals” he would give to such countries in exchange for such “oppo research.” The potential for corruption is staggering, calling the very integrity of the U.S. government into question, as though our country is nothing more than a pawn on the political chessboard of our enemies around the world.

So, how will Trump’s presidency be remembered?

Here’s what I suspect a future history book might say about Trump, if the House of Representatives doesn’t impeach him: “Donald Trump was a controversial president who was loved by his supporters and intensely disliked and feared by his opponents. He was dogged throughout his first term by allegations that he obstructed an investigation into Russian support for his campaign in 2016, but Congress did not take significant action on the issue, allowing Trump to focus on the strong economy in his 2020 reelection campaign. Trump’s bold expansion of executive power, largely unchecked by Congress, became a model for future presidents, and in hindsight can be seen as the beginning of a new era in which the role of the legislative branch in America’s system of government has weakened considerably.”

On the other hand, here is what a future history book might say if Trump is impeached: “Donald Trump’s scandal-plagued term as president is most notably remembered for his impeachment by the House of Representatives for obstructing an investigation into Russian attempts to assist Trump in his 2016 campaign, as well as other abuses of power. When the Republican-controlled Senate refused to hold an impeachment trial as required by the Constitution, public opinion shifted towards the Democratic Party, which was able to brand itself as the party of ethics and Constitutional government. After Trump’s landslide defeat in 2020 and the Democrats’ recapture of the Senate, the Republican Party entered a period of soul-searching, no longer able to win elections based on its traditional themes of patriotism and moral values which had been successfully co-opted by the Democrats.”

Which version of history do you prefer?

I would argue that only if impeachment is initiated by the House of Representatives will the history books record the type of narrative we believe is fair and appropriate regarding the presidency of Donald Trump. Impeachment by the House — even if unsuccessful in the Senate — will focus the minds of voters on the grave danger posed by presidential autocracy and the importance of the rule of law for our democratic republic. Impeachment empowers the Democrats to frame the narrative and literally make history — and to look strong and principled in the process, which is always a good thing when you’re standing up for truth and justice.

But if the House chooses not to impeach, future generations of Americans may see Bill Clinton as a worse president than Donald Trump, simply because Clinton was impeached and Trump was not. Most people don’t carefully study history. They form their impressions of what is normal and what is not, what is acceptable in our country and what is not, based on simple facts that can be easily remembered.

Trump wants to be remembered; he follows the motto of “all publicity is good publicity.” Perhaps in this case, it is for the benefit of our country that his narcissistic wish be granted. Let him be remembered as one of a very small group of presidents whose conduct was viewed as so odious by enough Americans that the House of Representatives took the extraordinary step of impeaching him. Let Trump be very well remembered — in infamy.

Originally posted on DailyKos: