Prior to yesterday, when the specter of impeachment was still hovering over Republican hearts like a death-summoning pall, some conservatives tried very hard to deny the political gravity of what it would mean for Donald Trump to become only the third US president in history to be impeached.
A recurring criticism of the Democratic impeachment effort from the Republican side was that it was merely symbolic — the Senate is under GOP control, so impeachment will obviously come to nothing (per the US Constitution, the House impeaches but the Senate convicts). Conservative author and commentator Ben Shapiro managed to get a right-wing two-for-one — by sneaking in a dig at taking climate change seriously — when he tweeted: “Impeachment is like the Paris Accords. Both accomplish nothing, but make everybody who supports them feel good.”
Dilbert comic strip creator Scott Adams predicted: “Trump will change what the word ‘impeachment’ means to the country more than impeachment will change the Trump presidency. We are only days away from the word becoming meaningless.”
But Trump’s impeachment is absolutely meaningful. So momentous is it, in fact, that it should be viewed as having a kind of bidirectional temporal power: it is historically significant, representing the highest rebuke a president can receive from Congress, a rebuke only two presidents prior to Trump have ever received; but it will also be massively significant to future generations who, looking back on this era in curious bafflement, will wonder how a person as transparently incompetent and irredeemably vile as Trump was ever allowed to ascend to the nation’s highest office.
Impeachment situates Trump among the congressionally condemned. President Andrew Johnson, the anti-Reconstruction successor to Abraham Lincoln, was impeached for flagrantly disregarding congressional dictates. President Bill Clinton, more recently, carried out an affair in the Oval Office and then lied about it under oath. Trump now sits at their table. With yesterday’s vote in the House, this is now assured; we can put it in textbooks. And this matters, of course, because the story we are able to tell of American history matters. Bad things will happen, bad actors will emerge in our midsts to do bad things, but history gives people and governments the opportunity to respond to those things — and it records not just the violations and the transgressions but the responses, too.
But set aside the past and the future: Trump’s impeachment also matters in the here and now. Democrats now find themselves in a situation where they can take this fact — that Trump has been impeached — and build out an entire political messaging strategy for an electoral cycle. Throughout 2020, they will be able to bang on and on, in various different ways, in national, state, and local elections, about how the leader of the Republican Party has been formally charged with, in the language of the US Constitution, “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
What’s more: if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) does what he’s expected to do, which is to make quick work of Trump’s Senate trial, Democrats will be able to charge Republicans with not taking this seriously enough. “And just like that the meaningless Democrat impeachment stunt will be over,” wrote the hard-right news site Breitbart, in response to Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) promise that Trump’s impeachment trial will meet a “quick demise” in the US Senate. But the independents and moderates Trump needs in order to win re-election likely won’t appreciate what will be made to look like a Republican-controlled institution covering for a Republican president. McConnell could avoid this by facilitating a genuine impeachment trial, but the cost there would be that America gets a closer look at Trump’s obviously impeachment-worthy actions.
Republicans are banking on electoral indifference. But 2020 is an election year, and Americans care about presidential elections. A headline on the right-wing commentary site The Federalist read: “Outside of DC, Nobody Paid Any Attention To Impeachment,” as if the meaning of Trump’s impeachment could be gleaned from Nielsen ratings or from article clicks from the American heartland. But the meaning comes from the fact of impeachment, not from the impeachment inquiry’s TV numbers or article analytics.
Trump’s impeachment is now a matter of historical record and a balm that soothes the wound future Americans will feel over our ever having let this man in the White House. And if Democrats use it properly, Trump’s impeachment could be the fuel for a winning strategy in 2020.
I’d say that makes Trump’s impeachment far more than merely symbolic.