Present calls for the impeachment of President Trump seem ill-considered. Looked at in a political light, however, such a move might make great sense.
Let us begin with the reality that impeachment is primarily a political undertaking, as I argued publicly in 2018 and 19. In that light, the standard is not a supposed legal or criminal violation. It is rather the perception on the part of the required number of our political representatives of a grave public misfeasance. That could well encompass a failure adequately to provide for public security. Such a judgment could quite reasonably be urged in the present moment.
The case for impeachment, however, and comprehensively appraised, would require a far more substantial justification, in light of the imminent departure of the President from office. Such a justification is available to us, if we appropriately evaluate the present political circumstances of the United States.
We have overleapt bounds in a dramatic manner, without access to a bridge of return. Having demonstrated that it is politically acceptable to refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of an election, we cannot now squeeze that genie back into the bottle. It is accordingly more important than anything else to ponder what we may do hereafter, in light of the impossibility of simply doing what we have done heretofore.
Impeachment presents a logical — and perhaps necessary — path forward, circuitous though it may be. The most salient element of impeachment is the permanent proscription from holding any office of profit or trust under the existing government of the United States. To some, that would offer a promise of apparent safety against the danger of populist attachment to dangerous personalities.
The true value that lies in the innovation of seemingly untimely impeachment, however, is that it will confirm once for all what always has been true but never recognized or at least acknowledged: namely, impeachment does not depend on incumbency. That is, anyone who has ever held office may be constitutionally impeached. Thus, the turning in the calendar in 11 days is no barrier to an impeachment procedure.
President Trump may be impeached even after he leaves office. And so, too, may anyone who has ever held office be impeached. Richard Nixon’s resignation did not save him from impeachment constitutionally speaking, but only politically speaking. Accordingly, Congress could launch an impeachment process now, without suffering undue pressure from the President’s imminent departure. For they can continue the process even after he leaves office.
What, then, is the special advantage to be derived from taking this step? Plainly, it will serve to infuse with life the ancient practice of proscription in the present democracy of the United States. Just as Themistocles and others could be proscribed at Athens, it would result that President Trump and anyone else depending only on the blowing of the political winds could be proscribed in the United States.
In that event, our hypertrophic, metastasized partisanship will acquire the outlet it now needs in order to chart the country’s future path. Only the blowing of the political winds would determine from year to year who could emerge in positions of authority and trust. Thus we can return the resolution of political differences to politics rather than criminal proceedings.
The revolutions in character that would result would assure that none can assume impunity to the verdicts of politics. What has in recent times been attempted through the criminalization of political differences will thereafter be openly and legitimately conducted on the grounds of raw politics.
If impeachment now can present this opportunity to this particular society, it may indeed serve to open the only remaining path to national salvation (albeit carrying the incalculable risk of national suicide). I asked, “what can we do hereafter?” The question is premised on the observation that there is no way to recover the past.
The answer plainly is to accept the reality that our politics henceforward will depend upon playing to public sentiment and manipulating electoral processes. Before now, elections were carried out on the understanding that the expression of democratic opinion was confined within the constraints of the Constitution. That is how mob rule was averted.
That understanding was formed on the basis of consensual principles that enshrined constitutional constraints above policy outcomes. Those constraints have broken down. When people were content to lose, so long as they believed they had a fair chance to prevail, every election was a ratification of the consensual process.
The effect was the same as what results when someone goes to court to vindicate his or her rights and is content to have had his or her “day in court.” If a people have no faith in the courts, they would never accept to lose. We now face such a prospect in our politics.
Much like the politics of the ancient world, calls for unity will fall on deaf ears. Instead, only calculated efforts to reverse prior results will occur, where before citizens would take a breather – the “honeymoon” period – before resuming political organizing.
In the present environment, politics takes on a zero-sum appearance. Victory is expressed not merely in the outcome of the election but in the repression of adversaries. Naturally, therefore, entrenched resistance is the response of the defeated adversaries. They will expect no mercy and give no quarter.
This means that they will promptly deploy the tools used by their “conquerors” as soon as they command the opportunity to do so. In the present case, therefore, we may expect proscription to become the norm rather than a mere historical blip. Merely political impeachment will become the tool of choice.
Those who wish to aspire to an ordered polity of self-government will be faced, therefore, with the necessity to foster political opportunities to “turn the other cheek” if they believe that they can, thereby, rebuild confidence in liberty and freedom of conscience. Political parties that cease to become bearers of consensual principles become merely rival armies.
What we must do, therefore, is to persevere through this period, recognizing that a political refounding has become necessary. Whether that will occur, however, is a matter altogether unpredictable.
Dr. William B. Allen is Emeritus Dean of James Madison College and Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University and has been a member of the Mackinac Center Board of Scholars since 1995.
Currently, he is a Veritas Fund Senior Professor in the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good at Villanova University and also a Visiting Professor in History and American Government at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University. Previously, he taught at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. He earned his Ph.D. in Government from the Claremont Graduate University.
Dr. Allen is a former member and chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and has been a Kellogg National Fellow, Fulbright Fellow and a member of the National Council on the Humanities. He has published several books, including George Washington: America’s First Progressive and Rethinking Uncle Tom: The Political Philosophy of H. B. Stowe. He also edited such collections as George Washington: A Collection and The Essential Antifederalist and has published numerous scholarly articles on political philosophy and American political thought.