George Will: The idea of an aesthetic impeachment
If congressional Democrats will temper their enthusiasm for impeachment with lucidity about the nation’s needs and their political self-interest, they will understand the self-defeating nature of a foredoomed attempt to remove a president for aesthetic reasons. Such reasons are not trivial, but they are insufficient, particularly when almost all congressional Republicans are complicit in, by their silence about, Donald Trump’s comportment.
Impeachment can be retrospective, for offenses committed, or prospective, to prevent probable future injuries to the nation. Greg Weiner is a Madison scholar par excellence and author of a new book on a subject — prudence — that Democrats should contemplate (“Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, and the Politics of Prudence”). Elsewhere, he writes this about what he calls “one of the Constitution’s most solemn powers”:
“The purpose of impeachment is not punitive. It is prophylactic. Criminal law looks backward toward offenses committed. The object of impeachment is not to exact vengeance. It is to protect the public against future acts of recklessness or abuse.”
Attempting to overturn the result of a presidential election is a momentous undertaking. In 1998, when Republicans impeached Bill Clinton for lying about sex with an intern, the public punished them for what it considered a grossly disproportionate response. Today, many Democrats are fixated on Trump’s possible obstruction of the investigation into an offense — conspiracy with Russia — for which the investigation did not find sufficient evidence.
What can accurately be called aesthetic considerations are, however, powerfully germane. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 65, impeachable offenses should “relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.” Trump’s incessant lying and increasingly contemptible coarseness are as reprehensible as was Richard Nixon’s surreptitious criminality. And — because they are constant, public and hence desensitizing — they will inflict more long-term damage to America’s civic life than Nixon’s misdeeds did.
But Democrats should heed Weiner: “That an offense is impeachable does not mean it warrants impeachment.” Potential impeachers must consider “the general political context of the times,” including “the potential public reaction.” Democrats should face two lamentable but undeniable facts: Trump was elected because many millions of Americans enjoy his boorishness. And he essentially promised to govern as a lout. Promise-keeping would be an unusual ground for impeachment.
Furthermore, impeachment will not result in Trump’s removal. Consider today’s supine behavior of most congressional Republicans, which stirs fragrant memories of the vigorous obedience of many members of the U.S. Communist Party to Stalin in the late 1930s.
Most congressional Republicans today display a similar versatility of conviction. They were for free trade until Trump informed them that they were not. They were defenders of the U.S. intelligence community until Trump announced in Helsinki that he believed Vladimir Putin rather than this community regarding Russian support for his election.
Republicans have moved from stressing presidential dignity to cowed silence when, to take only the most recent example, Trump endorsed a North Korean state media outlet’s ridicule of “low IQ” Joe Biden (a taunt Trump falsely ascribed to Kim). Republicans railed against Barack Obama’s executive overreaching but are mute when Trump declares “emergencies” in order to “repurpose” funds Congress appropriated for other purposes, and to truncate the process of congressional approval of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Impeachment can be an instrument of civic hygiene. However, most of today’s Senate Republicans, scampering around the president’s ankles, are implausible hygienists.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and can be reached via email.