Impeachment Isn’t Binary

President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Sunrise, Fla., November 26, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Another way to think about the daft little pageant playing out in Washington today — and I think it is the right way to think about it — is this: Impeachments are not binary.

If we can dispense with the ridiculous notion that the Democrats are acting in good faith here (some people may believe that; I recently spent some time with people who believe the Earth is flat, too) then the idea here is to put Donald Trump through the rigors of a highly negative political campaign while depriving him of his greatest asset in the 2016 election: a Democratic opponent.

In the impeachment proceedings, the question is not Trump vs. Democrat X, but Trump qua Trump.

In 2016, a lot of people were more than ready to accept the proposition that Donald Trump is awful. But the election put forward a different proposal, i.e. that Hillary Rodham Clinton should be president of these United States. That turned out to be a losing case in 2016, and a similar one may well turn out to be a losing proposition in 2020, given recent polls suggesting that Trump would win a contest against Elizabeth Warren (but would probably lose to Joe Biden). And so the Democrats would prefer to talk about Trump qua Trump than Trump against Warren or Trump against Sanders. Impeachment gives them that opportunity, and they obviously intend to make the most of it. And they apparently think “the most” adds up to a lot.

I think that there is some miscalculation there. There were a fair number of Republican voters holding their noses in 2016 — they were not so much voting for Trump as against Mrs. Clinton. But that has changed. A great many Republicans — a large majority if the polls are to be believed — have moved from regretfully choosing Trump over Clinton to the eager embrace of Trump per se, on his own merits.


In 2016, a lot of Trump voters would have been happy to see Ted Cruz elected president but doubted his ability to win. In 2020, many of those same voters would stick with Trump even if they were given a 100 percent, no-backsies, metaphysical guarantee that Senator Cruz would win the general. Those voters are not very likely to be pried away from Trump by the impeachment circus. Trump was right about that Fifth Avenue headshot.

The Trump movement is very much a personality cult, and personality cults are largely immune to rational argument. But, even so, the Democratic strategy here is the wrong one for reaching out to those who might be reached. Trump’s partisans are not going to dump him because people who read the New York Times think he is a boob, a boor, a doofus, etc. Trump’s bumptiousness and his willingness to show his ass to what passes for polite society between Boston and Washington is part of the charm for many of his supporters — as is his willingness to play fast and loose (and worse) with the rules. Remember that for Bill Clinton’s most abject apologists, “Slick Willie” was a term of endearment, not one of reproach.

Trump’s people believe what Elizabeth Warren’s people believe and what Bernie Sanders’s people believe: that the system is rigged, that it is corrupt, that our elites are complicit in selling out their interests, etc. Senator Warren’s people enthusiastically support her patently unconstitutional proposals, the more vindictive the better. Senator Sanders’s people endorse his irresponsible calls for “revolution” and his old-fashioned class-warfare rhetoric. Trump’s people resonate on a different cultural frequency, but the right-wing populists’ fundamental assumptions about what ails the country are very much like those of the left-wing populists.

“Trump does not play by the rules” is not likely to move those voters. The more fruitful line of criticism — which has the added benefit of being true — is that Trump has failed to deliver on his own terms: no gorgeous new wall paid for by Mexico, no 3-percent GDP growth, a trade deficit that has grown rather than shrinking on Trump’s watch, no grand deals on immigration or trade, etc.

That kind of criticism might sting. But “Trump violates Washington norms”?

Please. That’s what he was sent there to do.

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