Michael Kinsley: Against Impeachment
Failing to convict Trump for a second time gains the Democrats nothing
By Michael Kinsley
Democrats should forget about impeaching and convicting Donald Trump. It seems vindictive. In fact, it is vindictive. It’s as much about settling scores of the past four years as it is about what Trump said on his way out the door. The man’s reputation is in ruins. He will forever be remembered as a psychotic loser. I know nothing about President Andrew Johnson, except that he is regarded as one of the worst ever, along with Richard Nixon. Trump now joins this exclusive club: presidents that everybody regards as awful, even if they don’t know why.
But what is the point of rubbing the bully’s nose in the dirt? Oh, at the trial there will be much clucking about how impeachment demonstrates the strength of democracy. And much of this, from both sides of the aisle, will be sincere and even true. But nobody’s mind is going to change because of it.
President Biden has a long list of things he wants to accomplish. He has also spoken eloquently about the need for a return to civility in public life. These are Biden’s two great themes: a renewed activist government and a “kinder, gentler” society (as George Bush the Elder put it, though it was not one of his priorities). Impeachment undermines this. And it won’t shorten Trump’s term by so much as a day, or improve the chances for Biden’s agenda by 0000.01%.
No matter how well-behaved the Democrats in this trial will try to be, it will inevitably be perceived as a partisan exercise. If they must do something to register their disgust, Democrats in Congress should settle for a censure. It will have the same practical effect as impeachment—i.e., none. It will satisfy the Trump haters without terminally offending those who are put off by all the grandstanding. Few voters will know or care about the difference between impeachment and censure.
And why do Democrats and the media keep referring to Trump as the first president in history to be impeached twice? They tried once and lost, and now they’re trying again and are almost certain to lose again. At what point does impeachment lose its sting and become just another piece of the political tool kit?
The Constitution says that if Trump is impeached and then convicted, he can be banned from running for president again. Trump run again? Democrats should only be so lucky. The media culture does not allow second chances, whatever the Constitution may say. “Trump? we already did that one.” He’s over. He lost the election by 10 million votes. Is there anyone who has become more sympathetic to Trump since Election Day?
There is also a logical problem with impeachment that has no answer I can see. The single article of the impeachment document accuses Trump of fomenting rebellion against the government. His speech on Jan. 6 encouraged a mob to storm the Capitol. Or that is the argument we will hear repeatedly during an impeachment trial, and it is not an unreasonable interpretation of Trump’s words that day.
But meanwhile, federal prosecutors are fanning across the Internet, tracking down and indicting leaders of the mob, which appears to have been far more organized and pre-planned than we thought initially. Every bit of evidence that the rampage was actually a plot undermines the case that Trump’s somewhat ambiguous words shortly before the event are responsible for causing it. You can argue that the rampage was planned or you can argue that Trump caused it. You can’t argue both.
In reality, the animus that energizes the call for impeachment and conviction has its roots long before the events of Jan. 6. Democrats’ grievances against Trump are mostly justified. He’s a horrible man, and deserves his ignominy. But Democrats should calculate what’s best for them, and not what’s worst for Donald Trump.
Michael Kinsley, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, was the founder of Slate, editor of The New Republic and Harper's, managing editor of The Washington Monthly, and the American editor of The Economist.
This is something of a broken window argument. You aren't impeaching him because it will work to get you elected, or because you can succeed in barring him from office, or even to force all the senators who vote to not convict him to put that vote on the record.
Mostly you impeach him to show that there are still barriers that will be defended between the US Government and the next, more competent authoritarian who is waiting for that sign of surrender that is being suggested is the best course of action.
Even if none of that were true, you impeach him because it is the right thing to do, and it is good governance, and it fulfills your oath of office.
"It seems vindictive. In fact, it is vindictive. It’s as much about settling scores of the past four years as it is about what Trump said on his way out the door. [...] Trump now joins this exclusive club: presidents that everybody regards as awful, even if they don’t know why."
I don't understand this sentiment. A very large portion of the country still regards him as the best president we've ever had -- to the point where, if those in power did believe he was awful, they are still not willing to risk the blowback from admitting it. The fact that the impeachment and trial is a contentious affair at all shows the argument that "hey, time already served is justice enough, deterrence enough" is not strong. The President of the US baldly and emphatically lied about election results repeatedly and loudly and with the intent to overturn the results, to keep himself in power unelected to that power; he made grave and vehement claims of fraud with flimsy-to-nonexistent evidence. I think it was Ben Sasse who said it was like pointing a loaded gun at the heart of legitimate self government, but I don't think that goes far enough. He and his fellow travelers indeed pointed that gun at the heart of legitimate self government, and then they pulled the trigger again and again until the magazine was dry. Hopefully none of the wounds are fatal.
To me, the arguments in favor of impeachment and conviction revolve around justice on the one hand and pragmatism on the other. About justice, I don't think I need to say more than I have above; however, impeachment and conviction serves a pragmatic purpose: the same purpose for which we have locks on doors.
My father likes to say "Locks exist to keep the honest people honest." You lock your doors not because it keeps you safe from the person who is strongly committed to robbing or hurting you, but to discourage those who are not fully committed to robbing or hurting you from doing so (but who might if it were convenient or not too much trouble). If a person becomes violently psychotic and decides they want you dead, those locks are worth very little. They make it harder, but not much.
The prospect of impeachment and conviction hold little deterrence for a person like Trump without some assurance he's likely to indeed be convicted, and such a failure to get impeachment and conviction emboldens such a person. That is one key risk of impeachment: if you fail to get conviction, the sociopath / narcissist sees only your weakness and their strength in that failure -- they do not consider how close it may have been. (I don't mean to suggest they are indifferent to the risk of impeachment; they merely don't care about norms and are impulsive enough that only significant and relatively certain negative consequences will deter them; to them, no matter what happens, they will always frame things as they did nothing wrong and the world is out to get them and they never feel shame.)
However, most people -- even most politicians -- do not operate at that level. They crave acceptance and approbation and dislike being painted in a negative light as most of us do; in short, they feel bound by norms and reputation. They would be ashamed to be impeached at all, let alone convicted. Impeaching Trump again and getting a conviction would be excellent, though I think it is unlikely. However, the knowledge that impeachment is very much a tool that will be used when someone acts with depraved indifference or with malevolent intent to damage our republic will deter many.
Having said that, there are risks. One I identified above if conviction fails. Mr. Kinsley points out another: the process makes it harder for the Democrats to pursue their agenda quickly -- but I think that does miss one fundamental issue: maintenance of our republic and the institutions that bind it (self-governance through elections, the primacy of facts over lies) *are* and *should be* the most urgent items on the agenda. They should be the most urgent for Republicans too, but I do recognize that it takes exceptional courage to pursue that course of action given that it virtually guarantees a strong primary challenge and a whole lot of disapproval from some of their fellow Republicans and from their constituents.
Another risk I've seen identified (elsewhere) is that it promotes disunity rather than unity. That is absurd. There can be no unity without adherence to truth and accountability. Anything else is the performance of unity rather than actual unity. Ultimately, everyone pretends they want unity, but no one is willing to make the compromises that unity entails. Unity is the club each side uses to beat the other into submission; it is mere performance. Both parties seem to think "unity" is synonymous with "capitulation."