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Impeachment is the wrong way to beat Trump

The way to defeat a rightwing political coalition is through leftwing politics, not political theater

By Bhaskar Sunkara | The Guardian | April 22, 2019

Just about every Democrat agrees that the Donald Trump presidency has been a nightmare, and that the sooner it ends the better. How we get there is less certain.

A civil war is brewing within the anti-Trump camp: not just between backers of the surging Bernie Sanders and the Democratic establishment but between those who want to focus on defeating Trump in an electoral contest and those who want to go down the road of impeachment.

Following Thursday’s publication of the Mueller report, which revealed connections between the Trump campaign and Russia and potential obstructions of justice, liberal activists renewed demands that congressional Democrats bring charges against the president.

The political lines are not completely clear. Soon after her inauguration, leftwing representative Rashida Tlaib promised her supporters that she’d “impeach this motherfucker”. Just days ago, progressive presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren also called for action from Congress. Yet Nancy Pelosi’s response has been clear: she won’t go down that path.

I fear squandering a historic opening to advocate for social reforms in exchange for some political theater

Though Pelosi’s reasoning – that it would be partisan and divisive – is questionable, for once the party’s millionaire gatekeeper of milquetoast liberalism is on the right side of an issue. I find everything about Trump, from his demeanor to the human costs of his policies, to be reprehensible. But I fear squandering a historic opening to advocate for social reforms in exchange for some political theater.

Yes, political theater, and not even good political theater. Impeachment hearings are at their core mind-numbing procedural minutiae. We’ll hear pundits endlessly dissect conflicting legal definitions of obstruction. We’ll talk about Trump and Mueller’s motivations. We’ll see a lot of Rudy Giuliani on daytime TV. And, of course, we’ll talk a lot about Russia.Advertisement

Yet even Warren seems to think that would be a good idea. In a series of tweets on Friday, the senator announced that “a hostile foreign government attacked our 2016 election”, and called the president’s behavior “disloyal”. To the extent that her claims have a political character, it is that of nationalism, not friendly terrain for the left.

The timing also couldn’t be worse. There’s a new mass politics brewing. The lofty goal of saving the soul of the Republic doesn’t resonate with the millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck. Their political priority is rightly decent jobs, healthcare, housing rights and the constraining of corporate interests. Many of these are issues that Elizabeth Warren excels at talking about: why shift the attention to dull Washington hearings?

It’s hard to see how talk of impeachment, Russia, obstruction and corruption speaks to the anger and needs of ordinary Americans. Or how such debates wouldn’t swallow up the Democratic primary and reroute it away from the ground where candidates like Warren and Sanders are strongest.

And let’s not forget about the question of efficacy. The immediate goal is to get Trump out of office. But no one thinks that this can happen given the current composition of Congress. Talk of impeachment, then, is purely rhetorical.

It’s hard to see how talk of impeachment, Russia, obstruction, and corruption speaks to the anger and needs of ordinary Americans

But beyond the president himself, our goal must be to defeat Trumpism. Whether we like it or not Trump has a democratic mandate. Of course, given the nature of the electoral college and our representative system, he has been able to rule with only minority support. But Trump is the legitimate president by rules of the game that liberals have largely accepted. The only way to repudiate his right-populism is at the ballot box, decisively showing what polls indicate – that Americans want real, progressive solutions to their problems.

Before we go down this impeachment path, we might want to look at what happened in Italy throughout the 2000s. A little smarter, maybe, but Silvio Berlusconi is the closest international comparison that we have for Trump. He was brash, corrupt, racist and right wing. But the coalition against him ended up being dominated not by popular forces, but by lawyers and journalists. They defended the institutional values of the Italian republic, expressed disgust at Berlusconi’s personal behavior, and tried to oust him through the courts. What they didn’t do is compellingly attack him on issues that resonated with voters.

In other words, the way to defeat a rightwing political coalition is through leftwing politics, not theater.

Presidents should not be immune from prosecution. But it’s even more important to make sure that the gross violations, many of them legal, of people’s moral rights to housing, healthcare, employment and security are ended. That means talking more about the powerful interests opposing policies that would benefit the working class, and less about shadowy foreign menaces, on whom it is all too easy to blame our ills.

  1. Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine and a Guardian US columnist. He is the author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality

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