When you get to be my age, you have an awful lot of déjà vu experiences that might elude younger folk. So when suddenly the president of the United States started labeling impeachment proceedings as insurrectionary, I felt a blast of hot air from the past. Here’s Trump this week:
This instantly became the talking point of the year for many of Trump’s louder fans, as Brian Stelter notes:
Oliver Darcy emails: There is one word that has overtaken right-wing media over the last few days: “coup.” Trump’s media allies have begun referring to the impeachment inquiry as a “coup” attempt by Democrats and their supposed “deep state” allies. Rush Limbaugh said on his Monday program that he believes “there is a coup going on” and a “Cold Civil War taking place.” Hugh Hewitt called it a “coup attempt.” And Fox’s Newt Gingrich bluntly said, “This is not an impeachment process. This is a coup d’état.”
I could cite more examples, but the point is clear. The right-wing media machine is already working to delegitimize the impeachment process and make it seem like an anti-democratic process …
This sounded familiar because it was a popular conservative revisionist history contention with regard to Richard Nixon’s forced resignation 45 years ago. Here’s Pat Buchanan on the 25th anniversary of the Watergate break-in:
Until I saw an unctuous individual babbling on about how our terrified city feared a coup d’état by Richard Nixon in 1974, I had decided not to write on the 25th anniversary of Watergate. But that did it. Watergate was indeed a coup. It was the overthrow of an elected president by a media and political elite he had routed in a 49-state landslide the like of which America had never seen.
This was a more common feeling on the right than you’d guess from the usual popular recounting, in which a bipartisan league of decency drove Nixon from office. But if Nixon hadn’t been so incredibly clumsy in taping evidence of his own obstruction of justice, and then lying about it incessantly, Republicans might have never turned on him, as Jon Schwarz recalls:
In reality, the GOP of the time wasn’t that different from the GOP of 2019, and things could easily have gone the other way. Moreover, since then, much of the Republican Party has believed that Nixon was the victim of a monstrous injustice that must never be repeated …
[W]hat would have happened if Republicans had hung tough?
A huge swath of GOP elites thought that they should have. Rather than seeing Nixon as a sinner, they thought he been sinned against. William Simon, Nixon’s treasury secretary, wrote in a 1978 book called “A Time for Truth” that what Nixon had done was “a trivial matter” and his resignation was an “incredible political calamity that had struck the nation.” Alexander Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff and later Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, felt the whole thing was illegitimate because the Democrats had been “out to jail everybody” for partisan gain.
But dismissing impeachment proceedings as illegitimate and insurrectionary hasn’t purely been a conservative or Republican tendency. Conservative reporter Susan Jones served up an assortment of quotes from congressional Democrats in 1998 — many of them among Trump’s tormenters today — describing the impeachment of Bill Clinton as a “coup.” Here’s one particularly pungent quote from now-Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler:
The American people are watching, and they will not forget. You may have the votes, you may have the muscle, but you do not have the legitimacy of a national consensus or of a constitutional imperative. This partisan coup d’état will go down in infamy in the history of this Nation.
Now you can make a good argument that the “constitutional imperative” to restrain an aggressively imperial, out-of-control president like Trump is of a different order than any obligation to keep Bill Clinton from again having sex with an intern or lying about having sex with an intern. But however shabby the pretext for impeaching Clinton might have been — and despite his vast abuses of power, Nixon’s defenders thought he was railroaded as well — it’s just a bad idea for anyone to treat impeachment as somehow extraconstitutional. It is precisely the vast power and immunity from normal accountability measure characterizing the modern American presidency that makes impeachment so essential a safeguard. And impeachment is sufficiently difficult to execute (as both the Clinton and now the Trump cases illustrate) that it’s hardly going to become a routine partisan weapon.
One very common element of “coup” treatments of impeachment (including Trump’s attacks on House Democrats) is the idea that presidents should only be accountable to the electorate, which makes his or her removal by Congress an effort to “reverse” election results or “usurp” democracy. By placing impeachment of an elected president in the Constitution, the founders rather obviously anticipated precisely that sort of reversal. We don’t elect presidents to become autocrats for four years, whether they are reelected comfortably like Nixon and Clinton or placed in the Oval Office in defiance of a popular majority like Trump. If impeachment and removal by Congress are carried out wantonly, Congress will have its own “accountability moment” with the electorate. And again, there’s this problem with the “insurrection” claim: How can anyone accuse House Democrats of launching a coup when they know for an almost infallible fact that he will not be removed from office by the Senate? If anything, their argument is that the voters who will adjudge Trump’s first term next year need the evidence of his unfitness that only impeachment proceedings can highlight.
Yes, partisan defenders of embattled presidents are always going to be anguished at impeachment efforts. But I admit it makes me particularly nervous to hear “coup” talk by this particular president and his intensely reactionary backers, who aren’t big fans of democracy, either. We do not need Donald Trump fantasizing about an extraconstitutional response to an allegedly extraconstitutional move against him. If there are any responsible people in his circle he still listens to, they should tell him to stop acting as though tanks are circling the White House.