The Imprudence of Convicting Trump

Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate enters its second day today. Six GOP Senators voted yesterday to proceed with the trial as a constitutional matter, rejecting the judgment by the rest of the caucus that it is unconstitutional to continue with a trial of an ex-president who is no longer an “officer” of the U.S. in the impeachment clause’s language. John Yoo and Robert Delahunty make a pretty good case that the ‘deck is stacked’ against Trump in various constitutionally and politically improper ways, but I want to make the broader case for the imprudence on display from the GOP Republicans in favor of impeachment and conviction.

It is clear why the Democrats want to impeach, convict, and bar Trump from future office. For one thing, he remains quite popular with tens of millions of Americans and will remain a potent force in GOP politics and in the culture more broadly. He was the first President in many decades to mount a truly political presidential campaign—that is, he assembled a national coalition around a set of issues neither party had adequately addressed and did it while appealing to citizens as citizens rather than as discrete demographic, corporate, or identity groups (relentless lying about this from the Left and the NeverTrump Right to the contrary notwithstanding). Indeed in the closing months of his administration Trump took direct aim at the central moral premise of the Left today: the idea that Americans ought to be divided into oppressors and oppressed, with rights and honors doled out accordingly.

Aside from the novel, and therefore threatening, political magnetism of Trump, the Democrats want to bar him from future office because unlike Republicans, they know what to do with power once they win (even very narrowly). In our hyper-partisan times, with divisions going deep to first principles, this seems to be an accelerating trend. The Biden administration, in its first few weeks, has issued more executive orders than the last five administrations combined during the same time-period (this includes of course a repeal of the Trump administration’s EO barring the government and its contractors from counting and segregating citizens based on racial, sexual, or other “identities”). There was never much doubt that Pelosi’s majority in the House and Schumer’s narrow majority in the Senate would proceed with an impeachment and try for a conviction to do political damage to their central foe of the last four years.

But it is unclear why any sane Republican would go along with what amounts essentially to a show trial. In a bygone era, it may have been possible to conduct a serious impeachment in the House and then a trial in the Senate that displayed to the American people a sober pursuit of the evidence (or lack thereof) for high crimes and misdemeanors by a President. After four years of an unprecedented and rolling sabotage of a presidential administration, to say nothing of a summer full of rioting and one party excusing it, it strains credulity to think this will do anything good for our politics. And that leaves aside the shoddy and transparently partisan nature of this snap-impeachment.

Even were we to grant the constitutional outrage felt (or feigned) by the likes of Liz Cheney or Mitt Romney, this circus is bad politics even on their own terms. They hope this impeachment will cast Trump into the outer darkness and they can get back to normal politics. But a dishonest traditional media, aided and abetted by social media giants acting as the elect arbiters of “true” political information, has helped our political establishment maneuver America into an intractable position on impeachment. North of 40% of actual American voters consider the forces arrayed against Trump as fundamentally dishonest. Trust and respect, once lost, are hard to recover. The elite simply has no reputational capital in reserve to conduct a serious political exile of a president who just received 74+ million votes.

For the right, even the NeverTrump right, prudence means first recognizing this fact. How can we on the right do the most good going forward while avoiding the most harm? Impeaching former President Trump sure ain’t it.