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Donald Trump & the politics of impeachment

United States

It took only a few months.

Donald Trump scarcely made it past his first 100 days as President of the United States before the prospect of impeachment went from fringe fantasy to plausible possibility.

Trump apparently hoped that he could make a brewing scandal disappear with his abrupt firing of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey – the official responsible for investigating his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian interference in the US election. But the move only intensified scrutiny. It also raised the spectre of presidential obstruction of justice, itself an impeachable offence.

While the path to Trump’s removal from office by a Republican-controlled Congress still looks rocky, we should not underestimate the president’s talent for undermining his own job security.

Surprisingly, many US progressives are not particularly excited about the prospects for impeachment. Left-of-centre publications have run articles with titles like ‘The Liberal Case for Not Removing Trump’, warning against ‘the impeachment trap’.

Leftist sceptics make several arguments: they contend that the Russian scandal is unlikely to produce a ‘smoking gun’ that ties Trump to criminal acts, and that past presidents escaped far more serious imbroglios – such as Reagan’s Iran-Contra Affair.

They argue that liberal fascination with nefarious Russian plots echoes rightwing rhetoric from the Cold War, and that it distracts attention from organizing against Trump’s attacks on immigrants and his efforts to dismantle vital social services.

Perhaps most importantly, they believe that fixating on Russia as the reason for the lost election gives corporate Democrats an excuse to avoid examining their own faults. Talk of impeachment serves as a ‘quick fix’ for the party’s problems – far more simple than reviving grassroots organizing at the Democratic base, and certainly easier than articulating a vision that both repudiates neoliberalism and provides a persuasive, progressive alternative to Trump’s faux-populism.

These positions have some merit. At the same time, the sceptics have a way of spitting on the gift of political scandal.

Advocates of impeachment argue that we should use any and all opportunities to delegitimize the Trump administration and disable it from pushing its agenda. Already, the issue is proving to be a major distraction for the White House, inhibiting Trump’s ability to govern.

In January, some smug detractors insisted that the Russia story had no legs. And yet, just a few months later, it has grown into a strong runner – with the president’s own acts of arrogance and impulsiveness serving as water stations along the marathon route.

Who knows where it will lead us? The burglary at the Watergate Hotel was hardly Richard Nixon’s cardinal sin, but it was the blunder that brought his downfall.

Anti-impeachment progressives like to point out that removing Trump would merely place ultra-conservative Vice President Mike Pence into office. As a writer for the New York Observer put it, Pence’s politics are just as bad, ‘but he’s much smoother, much less likely to screw up, and much more likely to be re-elected than Trump in 2020’.

But this view overlooks the fact that Pence has already been implicated in the Russia affair, and it is doubtful he would survive an investigation unscathed. Pence would serve as a deeply tarnished president, leading a Republican Party struggling to live down its association with a disgraced and deranged Donald Trump.

Besides, can’t we cross the Mike Pence Presidential Overpass when we come to it? Theories about whether a Pence administration would be effective are pure speculation. As writer Rebecca Solnit states, obsessing about it now is like saying ‘if we escape from prison, we might get hit by a car’.

Amid headlines of scandal, the president’s approval ratings are reaching new lows. A push for impeachment does not replace the need for progressives to build from below and to present a compelling alternative to the failures of Trumpism. But it doesn’t hurt either.

Mark Engler’s latest book is entitled This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website DemocracyUprising.com.

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