Republicans Are Trying to Use Impeachment to Scare Their Base to the Polls

Discussing a possible impeachment of Trump began with Democrats, but is now popular among Republicans seeking to rev up their base. Photo: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

One of the big, burning arguments among Democrats heading into the midterm elections is whether candidates (or their supporters) should be openly advocating impeachment of Donald J. Trump. By and large, candidates (following the advice of congressional Democratic leaders) are avoiding the question or addressing it indirectly by talking about “holding Trump accountable” or “upholding the rule of law” or pledging to investigate Trumpian actions that congressional Republicans are ignoring. One argument made by progressive opinion-leader Markos Moulitsas is that by focusing on driving Trump from office, Democrats would be passing up more effective messages that take advantage of the Republican Party’s unpopularity. Journalist Elizabeth Drew contends that Democrats shouldn’t “go there” until there is the kind of bipartisan support that led to Richard Nixon’s impeachment and resignation. And the extreme improbability of a Senate conviction of Trump even if he’s impeached is a broadly shared concern. Do Democrats really want to excite “the base” by making a promise they are in no position to keep?

But the question won’t go away. For one thing, billionaire activist Tom Steyer is in the process of spending $40 million on ads advocating Trump’s impeachment, which are designed to keep the issue on the table for Democratic candidates and officeholders alike. And a variety of progressive voices are passionately arguing that ignoring the impeachment option represents a white-washing of Trump’s behavior, and a normalization of unacceptable presidential actions. Brian Beutler, for example, believes that Trump’s day-to-day refusal to step away from his business empire is an ongoing impeachable act, whether or not Robert Mueller identifies collusion with Russia or other overt crimes and misdemeanors:

Trump uses his businesses as conduits for bribes and is susceptible to policy extortion by creditors, hush money recipients, and others. If he weren’t such a greedy crook, he could have eliminated these fundamental problems. He could have sold off his investments, placed his fortune in a blind trust, and disclosed conduct he’d engaged in that would have otherwise made him vulnerable to blackmail.

Instead, he remains the owner, face, and (effectively) operator of the Trump Organization. He skims off the top of the Treasury and refuses to disclose his tax returns. He doesn’t and can‘t run the government in the public interest, and should thus, on the merits, be removed from office.

Beutler is not demanding that Democrats “commit” to impeachment proceeding going into 2018. But he does think it’s imperative to argue Trump deserves it.

The same argument is made in slightly varying forms by those who believe impeachment enthuses Democratic voters like no other cause, or that it’s the only thing that can vindicate the rule of law against someone like Trump, or that it’s the only proper means for reining in rogue presidents.

It’s generally conceded, of course, that new revelations from Robert Mueller’s investigation or other sources of outright criminal acts, such as obstruction of justice, could push the debate among Democrats in the direction of making impeachment a clear option if the party retakes control of the House. A Democratic House, obviously, would have the wherewithal to launch investigations and yes, impeachment hearings. And that looks more realistic each time a fresh hint of unsavory or illegal conduct, like the Stormy Daniels hush money saga, comes to light. Trump’s increasingly wild reactions to his investigatory tormenters, which could soon lead to the firing of Mueller or Rod Rosenstein, may also increase the atmosphere of confrontation with Congress that leads naturally to impeachment.

But even as the possibility of impeachment waxes and wanes among Democrats, something interesting is happening among Republicans, who are increasingly prone to using the threat of impeachment to mobilize their own base. Jonathan Martin of the New York Times recently wrote a much-circulated report on that phenomenon:

What began last year as blaring political hyperbole on the right — the stuff of bold-lettered direct mail fund-raising pitches from little-known groups warning of a looming American “coup” — is now steadily drifting into the main currents of the 2018 message for Republicans.

The appeals have become a surefire way for candidates to raise small contributions from grass-roots conservatives who are devoted to Mr. Trump, veteran Republican fund-raisers say. But party strategists also believe that floating the possibility of impeachment can also act as a sort of scared-straight motivational tool for turnout…..

[W]hen Representative Steve Stivers of Ohio, the chairman of the House Republican campaign organization, convened about two dozen party strategists in February for a private dinner at a French bistro here, the attendees were surprised when he addressed an issue not included in his formal PowerPoint presentation: the threat of impeachment against Mr. Trump, which he said fired up the party base.

It makes some political sense. Unlike most previous presidents facing toxic midterms (e.g., Bill Clinton in 1994, George W. Bush in 2006, and Barack Obama in 2010) Donald Trump is wildly popular among members of his “base.” And much of his bond with hard-core conservatives involves a shared persecution complex involving sneering elitist liberals who despise their values and want to disenfranchise or even silence them. The idea that talk of impeachment portends a “coup” to reverse the 2016 election returns does not seem that outlandish to people who think Democrats are disloyal to America and only believe in democracy when it suits their subversive purposes. Trump has already told them that their enemies routinely stuff ballot boxes and plan to win future elections by inviting hordes of illegal immigrants to come across the border and vote themselves lavish government benefits while running criminally amok. So why wouldn’t they “purge” Trump without justification, given the opportunity?

Building a backlash to impeachment is not a completely novel idea. It is arguably what happened in the 1998 midterms when Democrats used the impeachment threat to Bill Clinton to motivate their own base while making Republicans appear extremist and power-hungry (though high job approval ratings for Clinton–something Trump is very unlikely to enjoy–contributed to the results).

Bill Clinton after a Senate vote ended his impeachment trial in 1999. Photo: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

And the traditional midterm strategy for the president’s party of ignoring the commander-in-chief and “localizing” elections just isn’t available to Republicans in this Trump-dominated year, particularly given the MAGA-madness of their party base.

As the real possibility of actual impeachment grows with each investigatory revelation and Trump freakout, there’s even a quieter, more reflective discussion of Republican options in the event that Trump does get into deep trouble. The New York Times’ Ross Douthat wondered aloud this week why conservative evangelicals–perhaps the staunchest pillar of Trump’s base–might not warm to the idea of a President Mike Pence, one of their own. As he notes, the idea of Trump as a divinely appointed vindicator of the godly values he does not seem to share has an underside:

[M]aking use of Donald Trump to keep Hillary Clinton from being president is a fascinating flourish by history’s Author, but the idea that the Almighty might use a porn star to make Mike Pence president represents, if anything, an even more amazing miracle. So anyone interested in looking for the hand of God in history should probably welcome that miracle’s arrival, rather than resisting in the name of MAGA.

That’s sound advice to evangelicals, but probably not advice they are inclined to take other than as consolation if Trump goes down. For the foreseeable future, conservatives are very likely to fight any move to impeach Trump with a furious intensity, barring a descent into the kind of self-destructive flailing about that made Richard Nixon’s bipartisan impeachment an afterthought and his resignation an almost universally welcomed end to what his successor called “our long national nightmare.”

Richard Nixon announces his resignation in the face of almost certain impeachment in 1974. Photo: Bettman Archive via Getty Images

And absent that sort of consensus, it’s inevitable, especially in the current climate of polarization, that Democrats and Republicans will view impeachment from completely different perspectives: the former as a solemn duty for purposes of maintaining the constitutional order, and the latter as an act of partisan political expediency. Perhaps that’s inevitable given the decision of the Founders to make impeachment a legal action carried out by politicians rather than judges. When impeachment and removal are most plausible, they are all but unnecessary. And otherwise, they will inflame passions on both sides of the partisan barricades.

Why Republicans Love Talking About Impeachment – For Now