Why a sudden Trump impeachment could go terribly wrong

by The Listener / 24 August, 2017
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Scarcely a day goes by now that Donald Trump does not bring the presidency into disrepute – but we should be careful what we wish for.

As President Donald Trump’s approval rating sinks to an all-time low, there has been a commensurate rise in the use of updates on his presidency carrying the unabashedly hopeful hashtag: Impeach-O-Meter. As the dial moves up, however, the Trump-averse world should be careful what it wishes for.

Nearly eight months into his presidency, Trump is an increasingly isolated and impotent figure who has managed to deliver almost none of his campaign promises. The one standout – pulling his country out of the Paris climate-change accord – could prove catastrophic. But what appears to have taken much of the President’s attention in recent times has been his combative tweets. Some have been simply incendiary. Trump made a point, after the Charlottesville riots, of giving the benefit of the doubt to Nazis and Klansmen. As one commentator wryly noted, “If we’re taking down every monument that pays tribute to racists, we should probably take down every building with the name ‘Trump’ on it.”

But those fixating on the means and timing of his demise will probably be disappointed for the foreseeable future – and that, perversely, is not a bad thing. Were Trump either to quit in pique and frustration or, worse, be removed by either of the legal means available, the US would risk being plunged into civic unrest on an unknowable scale.

Trump still has considerable support – not least from a socially disaffected rump that might not hesitate to form militias and try to instigate civil war.

Legally, a president can be removed only if he has committed a criminal act or is assessed as being “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”. Either step could be undertaken only by his fellow politicians, with the assistance of legal and/or medical experts. Thus the avengingly populist president would be seen to be thwarted by the very elites he was elected to put in their place.

Even among his law-abiding supporters, there would be an understandable sense of grievance at his removal this way. The federation could spiral into a long period of unrest and dysfunctionality.

It is imperative that democracy be allowed to take its course, however lamentable. Pro-Trump voters will be hard enough to persuade that their experiment with a big-promising demagogue has failed without his ascending to martyrdom. Trump already sees himself as the heroic victim standing up to persecution by powerful elites, liberals and, of course, the media.

By now it’s clear that, although there is practically nothing his Republican Party can do to influence or restrict his behaviour, he will continue to struggle to implement his agenda. Revealingly, both his recently dismissed aide and muse Steve Bannon and erstwhile cheerleader Ann Coulter have now declared that the presidency they fought for is over. Bannon let a reassuring cat out of the bag when he said last week that Trump had no military solution or redress with respect to North Korea. His “fire and fury” was an empty threat. Bannon would know. Now banished like the rest of Trump’s kitchen Cabinet – save for Vice President Mike Pence, perhaps only because he cannot be sacked – Bannon has been at the heart of this administration. Some might say it’s foolhardy to fire so many of your confidants at the very time you face a serious criminal investigation.

Scarcely a day goes by now that Trump does not bring the institution of the presidency into further disrepute. His vacillations over the root cause of Charlottesville, in which a white supremacist rally drew an answering protest, moved even Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose culpable inertia before the Trump juggernaut has been another national embarrassment for many Americans, to contradict the President. There could be no moral ambiguity about white supremacy, Ryan said. It was repulsive and such bigotry was counter to everything America stood for.

Coulter, who published In Trump We Trust last year, now despairs of his “vast, yawning narcissism”, his obsession with news media and constant baiting of it, and his hypersensitivity about anyone else getting any credit for his victory. “His little tiny ego explodes.”

We must trust that, with calm generals and enduringly disobliging political colleagues, nothing else will go bang. Conservative activism may well be diverted next year with a possible change to the Supreme Court, and the mid-term elections. Meanwhile, the presidency is like a noisy, smoking, failing, lurching car that must nevertheless be nursed to its destination as carefully as possible, because a sudden breakdown would likely cause a devastating explosion.

This editorial was first published in the September 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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