vision 2020

Is ‘Doing the Right Thing’ Worth Increasing the Risk of a Second Trump Term?

The nightmare of a second Trump inaugural is not an insignificant thing to avoid. Photo: Doug Mills - Pool/Getty Images

A new argument for impeaching President Trump has gained attention in the wake of Robert Mueller’s testimony in the House on Wednesday, during which the special counsel confirmed his understanding that Trump could be prosecuted for obstruction of justice (or any other crimes he might have committed) after leaving office. There’s a problem with that scenario, notes Brown University’s Corey Brettschneider:

Mueller’s answer needs to be front and center as Congress decides its next move. If the president is reelected and serves his full term, the five-year statute of limitations on obstruction of justice will run out before he leaves office. Thus, reelection would almost guarantee that Trump will never stand trial for his crimes. The only way Congress can ensure Trump is ever held accountable is to begin impeachment proceedings.

But it is as certain as anything in this life that the Republican-controlled Senate will not remove Trump from office under any foreseeable set of facts (and no, the Nixon precedent is not especially relevant). A failed impeachment effort — whether the House doesn’t formally take up articles of impeachment, or it takes them up and they are defeated, or the Senate acquits — would not only leave the president in office, but could even look like an exoneration (which is precisely how Trump would depict it). So what would be the point? A theoretical discharge of duty?

Perhaps so. Enthusiasts for the project of impeaching Donald Trump often scorn Democrats (notably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) who have opposed this path as elevating politics over principle, and subordinating their constitutional duty to bring a scofflaw president to justice to the less lofty prospect of beating him in a mere election. Yes, some impeachment fans think initiating proceedings will actually help Democrats in 2020 (though the process whereby that is supposed to happen is generally left hazy), but the more prevalent position is that it’s a question that shouldn’t be given a lot of attention in light of the precedent that letting Trump evade impeachment might set for the future. Here’s Brian Beutler on the moral calculus:

[T]he Pelosi standard will commit Democrats to the course of consciously, publicly choosing to proceed no further, to say Congress will take no position on Trump’s obstruction of justice, his violation of the emoluments clause, and his criminal schemes. That might or might not be the safest political course of action for the party, but it will establish a new precedent in our country that presidents can make themselves untouchable, to the law and to Congress, if only they’re willing to be as selfish and malevolent as Trump. And it will do so at a moment when one of the country’s two political parties has fully embraced an ethos of corruption, greed, and will to power.

This is a compelling enough argument. But to take it seriously, one needs to follow its logic and admit that it suggests a second Trump term is an acceptable price to pay if it’s necessary to warn future Trumps that they cannot simply do whatever they want with impunity.

While I doubt any impeachment fans feel equanimity toward a Trump reelection, you have to wonder if they are really thinking through what it means to brush off 2020 concerns as “political” and less important than engaging in a quixotic effort to pretend Trump can be removed from office any way other than at the polls. Talk about untouchability! A reelected Trump would be rampant, vengeful, and (of course) unrepentant. The Supreme Court and the entire federal judiciary would likely become a confirmed enemy to progressivism for a generation. With one or two more Trump appointees to SCOTUS, reproductive rights would almost certainly be vaporized. Climate change might well become truly irreversible. Trumpism (or something worse) would complete its conquest of one major political party, and the other would be truly in the wilderness and perhaps fatally embittered and divided. As I argued a few months ago, this is no matter of “mere politics”:

For those left of center, 2020 is an emergency, and those activists or observers who would increase the risk of a second Trump term to promote candidate or factional interests ought to attract a lot of pushback. A 2021 with Trump in charge is a progressive hellscape. Avoiding it is really important.

Impeachment is not, of course, the only matter that is — and ought to be — overshadowed by the specter of this terrible man remaining in office. The selection of a Democratic opponent to minimize the risk of “Hellscape ’21” cannot be rationally discussed without the much-maligned concept of “electability.” Yes, of course, “electability” is a slippery concept, and sometimes voters choose poor metrics for measuring that quality. But in 2020, you really cannot blame them for becoming consumed with this issue.

In choosing presidential candidates, partisans usually have to balance electability against the possibility that this or that less-electable candidate might produce better results if they do win. One of the great engines of progressive candidacies is the belief that the pain and struggle (and risk) involved in carrying them to victory is justified by the payoff that only a transformational presidency could produce. But what if the risk factor includes raising the odds of a second Trump term? Let’s just stipulate for the sake of argument that a Warren or Sanders presidency would yield a progressive legacy twice as valuable as that of a Biden presidency, but would also increase the odds of a Trump 2020 win by ten percent (again, this is all hypothetical). Is that politically — is that morally — justifiable?

I have no ready answer to that question, and it’s not ripe for an answer until we get further down the road and have more data on the vision and the electability of various candidates. But at some point it will become the critical question. With respect to a doomed impeachment drive or following one’s heart rather than one’s head in the nominating process, these are abnormal times when “doing the right thing” is much easier said than done. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” is a tired cliché often used to dismiss bold thinking and decisive action. But sometimes, the choice is between “the good” and the unimaginably bad. Those are crossroads progressives may arrive at very soon.

Is Anything Worth Increasing the Risk of Trump’s Reelection?