by Jim Kavanagh edited by O Society August 16, 2019
The two-year Mueller investigation of Donald Trump’s alleged collusion (“largely synonymous with conspiracy”) with Russia is over. Nothingburger.
The 448-page Mueller Report has been published in full, and made into a dramatic hour-and-twenty-minute stage performance adapted by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright with a cast of Hollywood stars. Yawn.
Then there was the seven hours of Mueller himself testifying before two committees of Congress and the public. Painful, “very, very painful.”
One might expect that the Democratic Party’s #Resistance would abandon its attempt to unseat Donald Trump through litigation, in the face of the glaring fact that this whole Russiagate/Mueller Investigation thing has only been of great political benefit, a “massive gift,” to Donald Trump. Seeing all the chips flow to your opponent, you gotta know when to fold ‘em and play a new hand.
One might think a shrewd and serious #Resistance would perhaps switch to a strategy of frontal political assault that highlights substantive alternatives to reactionary social and foreign policies, where Trump is vulnerable for increasing inequality, social insecurity, and foreign aggression. ‘Cause, you know, as Nathan Robinson puts it: “People are upset because they’re drowning in debt, their rent is too damn high, they can’t afford their health insurance and they are working crappy jobs,” not because Konstantin Kilimnik got some polling data. One might think, with Robinson, that “hopefully we can put this pathetic chapter in American politics behind us.”
One who thinks this, however, would be underestimating the #Resistance’s capacity for self-delusion. As I put it previously, “The Mueller Investigation never happened and will never end.” Matt Taibbi chronicles how, “in the space of a single news cycle,” Mueller’s testimony was turned from a “disaster” by a “struggling,” “old and…often confused” aging bureaucrat into another heroic victory for the regiments of the #Resistance, led by Mueller, the “Trump Hunter,” a man whose “face was a portrait of rare depth, the sort one is more likely to find on a Leonardo da Vinci canvas …[or on] paintings of the Agony in the Garden, showing Jesus’ upturned face as he prayed.”
Yup, having lost a big political pot with its “Russian collusion” high card, the #Resistance Dems and media are now on full tilt with the “obstruction of justice” hand they say Mueller Agonistes has dealt them. Gotta love those Aces and Eights!
Thus, the pressure to go all-in with impeachment has increased, most significantly among members of the important House Judiciary Committee—Jamie Raskin of Maryland (“The evidence is overwhelming: 10 different episodes of presidential obstruction of justice and the Trump campaign’s enthusiastic embrace of the Russian attack on our elections.” ), Pramila Jayapal from Washington State (also co-chair of the Progressive Caucus: “this [the Mueller testimony] is a groundbreaking moment.”], and even committee Chair Jerrold Nadler. (Though he also seems to think the House can “lodge charges against the president without officially opening an inquiry.”)
Joining the pack are “moderates” like Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton, Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth of Kentucky, Diana DeGette of Colorado, the chief deputy whip, and Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts, the vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus; joining them are “progressives,” “socialists,” and “squaddies” like Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar. All told, more than 90 congresspersons now advocate beginning impeachment proceedings.
And, of course the major presidential candidates are now on board: Warren, Harris, O’Rourke, Booker, and Sanders—though not, it seems, Tulsi Gabbard.
Indeed, as Michael Tracey says: “being ‘progressive’ is now equated in the public mind with advocating that the president be impeached.”
Let me count the ways this is a supremely bad idea.
Donald Trump is not going to be impeached.
(And by “impeached,” I mean not just “impeached by the House,” but also convicted by the Senate and removed from office by impeachment proceedings.)
It just ain’t gonna happen, and everybody knows it. It’s not going to happen on the basis of the Mueller investigation, the Mueller Report, the Mueller testimony, or—the latest wall closing in—some bombshell testimony from Don McGahn. No matter how fervently they express their sincere belief that “The case for impeachment based on the Mueller investigation has been now publicly crystallized and articulated” (Raskin), they—every single one of the persons mentioned above—know very well that have not convinced even a handful of Republican legislators of that, let alone a critical mass of the public, and that there is zero chance of the Senate convicting and removing Trump for anything deriving from the Mueller investigation. That includes the “obstruction of justice” charge impeachment-hungry Democrats are trying to convince themselves is a winner, and they know it.
As I said in a previous essay, the Democrats have #Resisted themselves into a double-bind corner on this. Despite knowing they did not have political strength to pull it off—either in the legislature or, more importantly, among the population—the Democratic leadership and its media allies strung its base along and riled them up with the prospect of removing Trump from office via the axe of Trump-Hunter Mueller. That ploy was a deflection from confronting precisely the Party’s own political failures, but since so much of the Party’s base has fallen for it, and no one in the Party leadership is willing to admit what a failure it was, that base now expects the promised result, which is impossible to achieve.
Again, they know this. As Michigan representative Debbie Dingell says: “I think there are pragmatic people that know [impeachment] is not going to take us anywhere.” Indeed, per the New York Times, “The majority of the Democratic caucus … sees [impeachment] as a politically perilous push that would lead to an almost certain acquittal in the Senate and further drain attention from its legislative work.” Ya think?
Donald Trump will be removed from office one way: by an election. The Democrats have to stop imagining they can substitute litigation for politics. In the next fifteen months, they have to drop the irrelevant litigation strategy and wage the political fight they’ve been avoiding for the past twenty-one months, or they’ll be watching Donald Trump’s second inauguration for another four-year term.
The problem, of course, and one of the horrors of the American polity, is the political entity (can’t really call it a “movement”) assembled around the Democratic Party does not want, or know how, to do this.
Impeaching Donald Trump will make things worse.
Two words: Mike Pence.
As far as I’m concerned, for any progressive politics, Mike Pence is a dispositive argument against impeachment.
If the Democrats were somehow successful in removing Trump, they would have installed a president who is a much more serious, organized, and ideologically-coherent religious proto-fascist. The major difference is that he will not be so stupid as to waste his time on provocative tweets. There is not the slightest reason to think any policy of a Pence presidency would be any better, and many reasons to think all would be worse. There is simply no progressive political point to clearing the way for Mike Pence to become Commander-in-Chief.
Impeachment is a political act, not a legal trial or a test of moral virtue. As Gerald Ford famously and correctly said: “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
Of course, specific, egregious crimes or corruption may be important factors in the process. Sure, impeachment can be used just to remove a particular person who has murdered someone in his kitchen or taken a bribe outside of the oligarchy’s managed festival of “unlimited political bribery.” But the strong point of impeachment is not to just change a face; it is to change the political leadership in order to change the political project it drives.
Not only will replacing Donald Trump with Mike Pence not improve the political leadership or political project it drives, but the process of impeachment that will be carried out “in this given moment” by the Democratic Party and its allied media, whether it succeeds or fails, will itself worsen the politics of the country.
That’s because the Democrats will not pursue impeachment in order to change the political project that Trump and Pence and the reactionary Republican and Democratic establishments impose on the county. It won’t be seeking to remove Trump because of his criminal and dangerous aggressions against Syria, Venezuela, and Iran; or because of his arming of actual Nazi fascists in Ukraine; or because he has abrogated even the semblance of concern for international law and justice by accepting Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the Golan Heights as Israel’s territory and the sniper killing of hundreds of civilian protestors as Israel’s prerogative; or because he is exacerbating inequality and the social immiseration of American workers with tax cuts for the rich and offensives against social programs; or because his administration threatens freedom of speech and the press through the prosecution of Julian Assange; or even because of the structural, programmatic racism he oversees though racialized policing, mass incarceration, and immigration policies.
At best, a very few of these things will be mentioned in fervent speeches, based in the politics of nasty-vs.-nice (which is to say, no politics at all), that renounce the nasty and racist things Trump says about Jake Tapper and Mexicans and Baltimore. There will be many elaborations on Lindsey Graham’s perfect description of Trump as “a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot.” These will all be expressions of the personalized disgust of the man and his repellent attitudes, which, per Lindsey, were obvious to everyone when he was elected. (And not by “the American people,” but by the Electoral College. The “American people” rejected him by three million votes, as we’d all have been saying for the past three years if the Electoral College did not exist.)
But the Democrats’ official impeachment process, for the record, will not be defined as removing a president because he’s a racist, xenophobe, or religious bigot—characteristics that would retroactively diss and disqualify virtually all previous presidents and, uh, Mike Pence, the president they would be replacing him with.
No, the Democrats’ impeachment will be based on using and extending the reactionary and diversionary framing the Democrats have been using for the Russiagate fraud for the past two-and-a-half years. It will center Donald Trump and Russia, with him as the evil villain who helped the evil foreign power “attack our democracy.” It will aggressively reinforce, as a reason to overturn an election, the hypocritical, war-mongering, nouveau-McCarthyite, and fraudulent narrative—a narrative that’s been used to dismiss left critiques, to promote worship of the most repressive and mendacious state agencies, and to implicitly posit an idyllic ante-Trump America that will be restored with his removal, while disappearing the failures of the Democratic policies and politicians that made Trump’s election possible.
The idea the Democrats can create a political tide Republican senators cannot resist, by proving “obstruction of justice” legally and cleanly as the impeachable “high crime” in its own right, regardless of whether there actually was any “Russian collusion,” is another awkward delusion no one really believes.
First of all, the criminal charge of “obstruction of justice” is not proven, or even made, in the Mueller Report, and, despite all the ticked boxes the Democrats produce, the legal issues involved in it are more complicated than they suggest. In or out of office, Donald Trump will not be convicted or even charged with obstruction of justice. And the Democrats know this.
More importantly, as Michael Tracey says:
“While the two issues are technically separable in a legalistic sense, politically speaking they are wholly inseparable. Impeachment is a political maneuver, and both offenses would inevitably get bundled into the same sprawling morass of complexity that comprises the Mueller investigation and ‘Russian interference’ writ large.”
We see this inevitable conflation in play already, when Jamie Raskin says of the Mueller testimony: “The evidence is overwhelming: 10 different episodes of presidential obstruction of justice and the Trump campaign’s enthusiastic embrace of the Russian attack on our elections. [my emphasis]”; and when Kathleen Clark says: “We must be relentless in exposing the truth, act to protect our national security, and ensure that every eligible American can vote without foreign interference. [my emphasis]”
Making it worse, it will all be wrapped in hypocritical moralizing about their constitutional duty to protect “American democracy” that ignores not only the US’s war on democracy throughout the world, but “our” untrustworthy, designed-for-fraud electoral system, our anti-democratic constitutional structures like the Senate and the filibuster, which prevent any progressive legislation, and, oh, the Electoral College—that thing that actually allowed the guy who lost the election by three million votes to take office. Three years the Democrats have had to confront these home-grown defects of “our democracy,” and not word one about them. It’s all been, and will continue to be, “Russia, Russia, Russia.”
The only political tide impeachment will engender will be the tide of anger from Republican politicians and Trump voters at the transparent attempt to cloak a political maneuver seeking to reverse an electoral defeat in the language of a mission of honor to uphold criminal law and constitutional duty. If the Democrats initiate impeachment proceedings, they will trigger a political battle that will tear the country apart, and end with them either a) losing, taking a big political hit, and handing Trump another effective political weapon, or b) “winning” and giving us President Mike Pence. And still taking a big political hit. There is no third ace that will make it a real winning hand.
The Democrats know this, which is why they are not going to do it. Unless the foolish “progressive” forces that the Party has been riling up about this for three years pressure them into it. Hoisted on its own petard, it would be.
There is no clearer example of how ridiculous US political media is than its framing of the question of whether to start impeachment proceedings against Trump a year before an election as an argument between “moderates” and “progressives.” And no more unfortunate example of how pathetic that distinction is in the Democratic Party than the fact that Nancy Pelosi seems to be smarter on this issue than the progressive cool kids.
There is nothing the slightest bit “progressive” that can come out of impeaching, or trying to impeach, Donald Trump. If Democratic “progressives” and “socialists” think it would be a heroic victory for anti-racism, they are imagining another universe. “In this given moment,” on this political planet, with this Democratic Party, it will not and cannot be. It will be a victory for a deeply reactionary and diversionary political paradigm—for centering politics on personality rather than structure, for valorizing the national-security and intelligence apparatus, for restoring the smiley face on foreign aggression, for mythologizing “our democracy” and otherizing its critics. It will be a victory for “nothing-would-fundamentally-change” neoliberal imperialist complacency, wrapped in moralizing anti-racist rhetoric.
Did I mention Mike Pence?
Nathan Robinson has it exactly right: “It’s time to forget the Mueller-fuelled impeachment fantasies.” It’s not going to happen, and there is no reason for leftists to try and make it happen.
The real progressive mission is to wage a determined political fight against the structures—including all the political and ideological supports—of racism, capitalism, and imperialism, of which Trump is only a particularly vulgar representative. But the Democrats are not going to do that, either. Which is why, though they will not impeach Trump, they will continue to dangle the shiny possibility before their enraged and transfixed constituents—so that they will not turn their attention away from Trump to the structural problems.
Impeachment? It’s a dead-man’s hand. Know when to walk away.