Vox’s Ezra Klein published a lengthy piece Thursday arguing in favor of impeachment, at least in general. Klein opens with a series of questions like this one: “What if we elect someone who proves himself or herself unfit for office — impulsive, conspiratorial, undisciplined, destructive, cruel?” He proceeds to argue that we’re being far too stingy with our definition of impeachment.
In the course of reporting this piece, I spoke to a slew of legal scholars and impeachment specialists. Here is my conclusion: There is no actual definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” There is wide agreement that it describes more than violations of the criminal code, but very little agreement beyond that. When is the “misconduct of public men” impeachable? When does a tweetstorm rise to the level of “egregious violation of the public trust”?
Setting aside the theoretical question for a moment, Klein admits that, in practice, impeachment of the president could be extremely dangerous and could even lead us to the brink of civil war.
The question is whether this cure is worse than the disease. For all the dangers Trump poses, his removal poses dangers too. In August, the New Yorker posted a viral piece questioning whether America was barreling toward a new civil war. In it, Yale historian David Blight warned, “We know we are at risk of civil war, or something like it, when an election, an enactment, an event, an action by government or people in high places, becomes utterly unacceptable to a party, a large group, a significant constituency.” Invoking the 25th Amendment seems, to me, like the precise sort of event Blight describes. The bitter political polarization that marks Trump’s America would look gentle compared to America if Trump were removed from office.
And yet, Klein thinks the danger of this president is too great to let our fears of what comes next hamper us:
We have made the presidency too powerful to leave the holder of the office functionally unaccountable for four years. We have created a political culture in which firing our national executive is viewed as a crisis rather than as a difficult but occasionally necessary act. And we have done this even though we recognize that the consequences of leaving the wrong president in power can include horrors beyond imagination — World War III, as Sen. Corker suggested.
And so, Klein concludes we should “reassess” impeachment because our fear of what Trump might do should be greater than our fear of what impeachment might do to the country. In fact, when Klein eventually returns to the aftermath of impeachment he brushes it off:
Impeachment, in Donald Trump’s case, would lead to the elevation of Mike Pence — a Republican who is better liked by his party and who, to Democrats’ chagrin, would likely be much more effective at pushing a conservative legislative agenda. But it would mean less danger of an accidental war with North Korea, less daily degradation of democratic norms and civil discourse, an executive who has the attention span to follow briefings and the temperament to stay off Twitter when he’s angry, and the precedent that there is some minimal level of job performance that the American people and their political representatives are willing to demand of their president.
An objection to this is that it might lead to more common impeachment proceedings in the future. And indeed it might. Other developed countries operate on roughly that basis, with occasional no-confidence votes and snap elections being used to impose midterm accountability, and they get along just fine.
Klein is a good writer in the sense that he’s good at laying out facts and striking a thoughtful tone. What he’s not good at is making an honest argument for his position. In this case, he’s arguing that we should break with 200 years of democratic norms partly in order to maintain “democratic norms.”
An alarm must have gone off in Klein’s head because he adds that subsequent graph trying to smooth over the idea of breaking norms to preserve them. But having suggested earlier in the piece that Trump’s impeachment could put us on a course toward civil war, he now sidesteps that and says, ‘Hey, this would work in Europe.’ That’s not a quote obviously but it is the gist. No confidence votes are a part of the parliamentary systems in the UK, Germany, Italy and other places.
Let’s grant that those nations with parliamentary systems are used to doing things differently. That’s how their systems were designed and have long worked. But Klein suddenly wants to conclude that America will be fine abandoning our own historic norms on impeachment because something vaguely similar happens in other countries with very different systems of government. If Klein were being honest he would have just inserted a shrug emoji instead of that entire 2nd graph: ¯_(ツ)_/¯ It would make just as much sense.
I don’t know that America would get into a shooting war over Trump’s impeachment but it would certainly raise the prospects enormously. Many Americans would rightly see it as a left-wing power grab. Indeed, many American must already suspect all the talk about it is just that. And once that norm is wiped away, just as Democrats eliminated the filibuster for most votes in the Senate, you can bet that the next time Republicans control the Congress and face off with a Democratic president, he will be impeached as well. The cycle will perpetuate with each party pointing to the prior misdeeds of the other as justification for firing another torpedo at the sitting president. And somewhere in Russia, Vladimir Putin will be sitting back and laughing as he admires the collapse of American Democracy.
Simply put, this is a horrible, very bad precedent for Democrats to set. It is everything they warned against when Trump briefly seemed to refuse to accept the outcome of the election in advance. It’s no surprise to me that Klein can’t see what a blatantly partisan move this is. But be assured he’ll feel differently when the wrecking ball he has unleashed starts swinging back in his direction.