On Wednesday, the US House of Representatives, where Democrats have a majority, voted to impeach Donald Trump. But his conviction in the Republican-controlled Senate is highly unlikely, meaning Trump will soon have the opportunity to declare victory and march forward into the 2020 election, where he will need to be defeated by electoral means. Why, then, does this moment matter?
One way to answer that question is to look at the short-run political impact of impeachment. Pundits have endlessly debated who will benefit from impeachment and what it means for the left’s progressive agenda. But another way to think about impeachment is to zoom out from our hyper-partisan moment. Instead, we should place this momentous event in the broad sweep of American history, stretching from the distant founding to the distant future – along those “mystic chords of memory” which Abraham Lincoln famously hoped would be touched once again “by the better angels of our nature”.
When we look at that long sweep of history, we see a paradox: a country which in theory has been “dedicated to the proposition” of liberty and equality, but which in practice has always fallen short. From the endorsement of slavery in the constitution through the Chinese Exclusion Act and up to the torture at Guantánamo Bay, the achievement of the American ideal has been prevented by systemic and structural – not superficial – problems. And yet, that ideal has endured.
It has endured for two principal reasons. The first is the existence of people willing to fight for it. From Sojourner Truth to Heather Heyer, citizens and those denied the rights of citizenship have stood up to demand an accounting of that gap between ideal and reality. It has often been precisely those who languished most abjectly in this gap – minorities, the poor, women, the powerless – who took great personal risk to stand up and declare with the poet Langston Hughes that “America never was America to me / And yet I swear this oath – / America will be!”
The other reason that the American ideal has endured is the country’s system of government. American political institutions – the presidency, Congress, the system of federalism and the supreme court – have often been the engines of injustice, but they have also proven their ability to stamp it out. More importantly for our present moment, they have prevented the emergence of a tyranny which might forever blot out any hope of deepening and strengthening America’s commitment to its highest ideals.
When such a threat of tyranny has emerged, its defeat has required both individuals to passionately defend the American ideal and the intervention of the country’s institutions. The dismantling of segregation required not just the sacrifice of those whose bodies were broken by clubs and dogs, but also the intervention of the federal government, which finally passed the legislation to end Jim Crow. Sometimes the wait has been agonizing, such as the “wait” which Martin Luther King Jr complained “has almost always meant ‘Never’”. Sometimes, as in our own time, progress has been reversed. But giving up without a struggle has always meant just that – giving up.
This brings us back to impeachment. The question it poses is not whether it will be the thing that drives Donald Trump from office or whether it will be an unalloyed political boon for Democrats or other progressive forces in the country. It won’t be any of these things. Instead, the issue raised by impeachment is whether America, at this stage in its history, has what it takes to stand up against the forces of tyranny – whether there is still a passion among its people, and enough vitality in its institutions, to defend the American ideal against an unprecedented assault.
Almost never has any American president, institution or electorate lived up fully to the country’s promise. But rarely has there been a president like Trump, one who treats America’s institutions and electoral processes with such contempt that he constitutes not just a failure of American promise but an existential threat to it. He and his enablers – men such as the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the attorney general, William Barr – have sought to create precedents which if allowed to stand move America dangerously towards tyranny, and the death of its highest ideals. They must not be ratified through the inaction of Congress or the people.
Like the future course of the impeachment process itself, the broader implications of this are not pleasant to contemplate. It is not foreordained that King’s theological conviction that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice” applies to the political realm. Instead, there is only the guarantee that for so long as the American ideal is alive, and for so long as there are people and institutions who embody it and transmit it through those mystic chords of memory to the next generation – for this long at least, there is struggle, and there is hope. For now, impeachment embodies that hope, and so it must proceed.