By the late fall of 1918, the German army was headed for certain defeat. After years in which the battle lines had barely budged, with tens of thousands of men sacrificed every month to move the trenches by a few dozen yards, the Allies had finally broken through. The kaiser’s troops were in disarray and on the run. Washington knew it, London knew it, Paris knew it, and so, too, did Berlin: It was a matter of days or weeks until the German line of defense would collapse.
But though the German military command knew to expect the worst, it was still unwilling to surrender and did its best to conceal the impending defeat from the bulk of the population. In Kiel, in the north of Germany, a navy admiral named Franz von Hipper told the fleet docked in the local harbor to man their ships and go into battle against the superior might of the British navy. It was a suicide mission, and the sailors, unwilling to lay down their lives for a cause they knew to be pointless, staged a courageous revolt. Within hours, their protest had spread to other navy units. Within days, large parts of the army had joined their cause. Less than a week later, the German high command communicated its surrender to the Allied forces. The most horrendous conflict humanity had, at that point, ever seen was finally at an end.
The sailors had morality and reason on their side, and their courage helped shorten the war by crucial weeks, saving many lives. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that (along with other well-meaning actions, like President Woodrow Wilson’s insistence that he would only negotiate a peace treaty with a democratic government, instantly saddling the new German leaders with much of the blame for the country’s defeat) their righteous revolt helped to set a terrible chain of events in motion.
In the weeks after the revolt, Germany’s new Social Democratic government succumbed to a humiliating peace treaty at Versailles. The country sank into civil war and economic chaos. Soon, a far-fetched but emotionally resonant narrative swept the nation: The German military, large sections of the public came to believe, remained undefeated. It was only because of the traitors in their own midst, from the sailors in Kiel to the politicians in Berlin, that they had stopped fighting.
What historians have come to call the Dolchstosslegende—the myth that Germany only lost the war because it had been stabbed in the back—proved to be one of the most powerful political forces in the interwar period. The implications were obvious, and the National Socialists wasted no time in exploiting them to the best of their considerable abilities: Since a military led by true nationalists was sure to vanquish its enemies, any attempt to make Germany great again had to start with a purge of the left.
Within two decades, German soldiers were once again setting down their boots on foreign soil.
In politics, if we try to game out all the possible chains of causation a decision might set off over the course of several decades, we will almost certainly fail—and quite possibly go mad trying. When faced with a momentous strategic decision, such as whether or not to attempt to impeach President Donald Trump, it is therefore tempting to focus exclusively on more limited questions: Are impeachment proceedings morally and legally justified? And, if so, would they in fact harm the president’s political prospects, constraining his ability to inflict further damage?
In a carefully argued cover story in the Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum resoundingly answers these questions in the affirmative. I agree with many of his arguments and a good number of his conclusions. Without a doubt, for example, Trump’s cruelty, his incompetence, and his reckless attacks on our political system give us a pressing moral reason to remove him from office.
A strong case can also be made that the initiation of impeachment proceedings would be legally justified. According to the Constitution, a president can be removed from office when he commits serious crimes like “treason or bribery.” In light of recent revelations about Trump’s secret talks about a Trump Tower in Moscow, there is some reason to fear that he may have been guilty of the latter; it would, at the very least, make sense for the House to start investigating the question. More broadly, Appelbaum argues, a president can be removed for “high crimes and misdemeanors” that inflict deep damage to the institutions of the American republic even when his actions are not, strictly speaking, illegal; while this interpretation of the nature of impeachment is more contested, there is no doubt that Trump’s behavior would qualify under that heading.
There is also some reason to think that impeachment proceedings might be a smart tactical maneuver for anybody who wants to expose Trump’s misbehavior and limit his ability to mold the country in his own image. Trump, as Appelbaum points out, has proved to have a remarkable ability to set the political agenda, derailing discussion of his more serious scandals with an outrageous speech or an inflammatory tweet. As soon as the House initiated impeachment proceedings, there would be no escape from a news cycle dominated by hearings about his most substantive misdeeds and character flaws. Large parts of the White House would suddenly have to focus on Trump’s defense, hampering his ability to accomplish his horrendous goals. He would lose control over his own presidency.
Impeachment could also channel Americans’ anger in a more productive direction. The media is currently suffused with—at times irresponsible—speculation about the true nature of the connection between Trump and Russia. By moving the debate over Trump’s alleged crimes to a forum in which evidence is carefully presented and evaluated according to legalistic rules, Appelbaum argues, the worst of this conspiratorial thinking would lose much of its force. A demonstration that the traditional institutions of the American republic can hold the president responsible might also reduce the danger of civic strife.
Finally, the best reason for impeachment may simply be to ensure that Trump eventually leaves the White House. The president, Appelbaum argues, now retains significant popular support, just as Richard Nixon did when the House of Representatives initiated impeachment proceedings against him. But the process of impeachment is likely to weaken his political position, making it much harder for him to be re-elected or to exert a lasting influence on American politics. Impeachment, Appelbaum concludes, is “a process that should be triggered only when a president’s betrayal of his basic duties requires it.
But Trump’s conduct clearly meets that threshold. The only question is whether Congress will act.”
Some of these arguments are persuasive. It does, for example, seem likely that the giant spectacle of impeachment proceedings would make it hard for Trump to refocus the conversation on any other topic. Others seem less convincing: The idea that impeachment proceedings would lower the temperature of American politics, making it less likely that extremists might resort to violence, seems fanciful. But the real reason why I am skeptical of the argument for Trump’s impeachment is that it risks the kind of short-lived victory enjoyed by German revolutionaries and social democrats in 1918: By solving one awful problem in the short-run, it may create an even worse one in the long run.
Anybody who claims that they can confidently predict what impeachment proceedings would look like, or who might profit from them, is in the grip of hubris.
There’s no guarantee that Trump would, like Nixon, become less popular over the course of impeachment proceedings; Bill Clinton, after all, became more popular. Nor is there a guarantee that impeachment would convince Trump’s base of his copious flaws. He is, after all, a master at trolling his opponents, and his supporters are already well-aware of the allegations against him. This, in fact, is the crucial distinction between Trump and Nixon: Trump utters many of his worst words, and takes many of his most despicable actions, in broad daylight; this makes it difficult to imagine what new facts could cause a drastic swing in public opinion. Nixon, by contrast, hid his immorality behind a carefully constructed mask of respectability; as a result, a large part of his base was genuinely rattled when the Watergate tapes revealed the sleazy inner workings of his administration.
From a purely electoral vantage point, impeaching Trump is therefore akin to rolling the dice. If you are a Trump opponent convinced that he is likely to win re-election in 2020, the case for shaking the state of the game up in an unpredictable manner is strong. But while it would certainly be naïve to count Trump out at this point, the best evidence suggests that he is deeply vulnerable. His approval ratings have consistently been underwater since the first days of his presidency. It is difficult to see how his intransigent behavior is going to sway the moderates who turned their back on him in the midterm elections. The betting markets now give him about a 3 in 10 chance of winning in 2020. In short, the odds are currently stacked against him—and anything that resets the political situation as radically as an impeachment process could come to his rescue.
What’s more, an exclusive focus on removing Trump from the White House is, itself, dangerously shortsighted. For anybody who seeks to save American democracy, and remedy some of the country’s great injustices, it’s not enough for Trump to leave office; it is also necessary that he should leave in such a way that his whole style of politics does not come roaring back. It is here that the case for impeachment really starts to falter.
Impeachment proceedings could easily end in disaster. In this scenario, Trump’s base stands by him and his critics within the GOP prove just as feckless as they have been over the past two years. Maybe one or two Republican senators turn on Trump, but the Senate votes to acquit him along largely partisan lines. As a result, Democrats not only fail to remove Trump from office, but they also give him even firmer control over his party and allow him to hammer home the emotionally resonant (if factually spurious) claim that he has finally been exonerated.
Given everything we’ve seen in the past two years, this depressing timeline seems dangerously plausible. But let’s, for the sake of argument, game out a seemingly more hopeful course of events. In this scenario, Trump’s popularity does suffer a significant hit as a result of impeachment proceedings. As a result, traditionalist conservatives within the Republican Party who have always secretly been horrified by the president finally see an opportunity to coordinate their resistance to him. Enough senators cross the aisle to remove him from office. Would that outcome liberate America from both Trump and Trumpism?
Hardly. If Trump is removed from office because Republican senators turn on him, rather than because he loses an election, his most hardcore supporters are likely to embrace their own version of the Dolchstosslegende. If only Trump’s troops had stood by him, they will say, he would have proved to be invincible. To make up for the humiliation of impeachment, his base will then demand a purge of the Republican Party. Even if Trump himself is irremediably damaged by his impeachment, he might still prove capable of handing the reins of the party to an ideological heir, like Sen. Tom Cotton, or a literal heir, like Ivanka. Like the German Revolution of 1918, Trump’s impeachment could soon come to look like a Pyrrhic victory.
It is difficult to feel hopeful these days. Trump and his allies are pursuing shockingly cruel policies. They are lying with abandon. The White House is engulfed in continual chaos. There are credible allegations of collusion with Russia. And yet, a big part of the president’s base has stuck with him through thin and thinner. Even amid a highly unpopular government shutdown, Trump retains the approval of 2 in 5 Americans.
But though this moment may be both dangerous and disheartening, there is a way out. For, while Trump retains some significant support, a majority of Americans disapprove of his performance. Last year’s midterms demonstrated that Democrats can win big against him. They now hold the House of Representatives, which allows them to block cruel legislation and to start robust investigations into Trump’s misdeeds. If the opposition nominates a compelling candidate—and Trump continues to self-sabotage—his bid for re-election could end in an embarrassing rout.
If Trump’s defeat in 2020 is sufficiently big, it may, in turn, help to heal the country from his brand of politics. Should Republicans suffer a humiliating defeat at the polls, and Trump be forced to leave the White House, the knives will likely come out for him. The Republican Party might then choose to expunge white nationalists and recover its commitment to the Constitution. When the GOP nominates its next presidential candidate in 2024, a right-of-center insurgent who disowns authoritarian populism could clinch the nomination.
This is, admittedly, a narrow path to tread. Considering both the pathologies from which the GOP suffered before 2016, and the extent of its complicity with the president over the past two years, Trumpism might well live on even if he is destroyed at the polls. But anybody who still retains some hope of making the American political project succeed—of saving the institutions of the republic while building a more fair and harmonious multiethnic society—has to base their actions in this perilous moment on some theory of how to accomplish those larger goals. Dealing Trump a decisive loss in 2020, and hoping that this humiliation will empower honorable Republicans to purge their party, is one such theory. Impeaching him is not.
Recent American political history shows just how badly impeachment proceedings can backfire. When Newt Gingrich went after Bill Clinton in 1998, a lot of observers feared that it would spell the effective end of his presidency. But because the worst charges laid at Clinton’s feet were never proven and the vote in the Senate proceeded largely along partisan lines, the public quickly turned on the Republicans. By the time impeachment proceedings failed, Clinton was far more popular than he had been before.
“Pundits,” Appelbaum argues in a video that accompanies his article, “have overlearned the lessons of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, which backfired on his impeachers, and entirely forgotten the real significance of Andrew Johnson’s.” But one need not look that far back. Abortive attempts to oust authoritarian populists from office have gone sour in a depressingly large number of cases in recent years. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez made a big step toward dismantling democracy after he narrowly survived a recall referendum in 2004. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has crushed the remaining liberties of his opponents since an abortive coup failed to oust him in the summer of 2016.
Even Appelbaum’s favorite case—that of Andrew Johnson—is hardly a story of unalloyed success. As Appelbaum tells the story, Johnson deserved to be impeached both because of his authoritarian tendencies and because of his determination to ensure that America would remain a “white man’s republic.” And though impeachment proceedings ultimately failed by a single vote, they were seemingly a success: Johnson lost so much support that he was unable to stand for re-election.
I do not doubt either the legal or the moral case for impeaching Johnson. But anybody who knows a little bit about the history of Reconstruction has reason to contest the idea that it should serve as a model for our own perilous moment. For, while the failed attempt to impeach Johnson did end his career, it did precious little to halt the rise of his larger project. Within a decade of his departure from the White House, the vile aspiration for which he had fought—the hope of reversing the progress blacks had made in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War—had triumphed.
There is every reason for Democrats to start holding hearings into Trump’s misconduct. There is every reason for them to demand his tax returns and ask him to testify in front of Congress. But for now, impeachment would be the wrong means toward a noble end: Designed to contain the damage a dangerous president can wreak, it may turn out to help Trumpism survive even after Trump is forced to leave the White House.
Support our journalism
Help us continue covering the news and issues important to you—and get ad-free podcasts and bonus segments, members-only content, and other great benefits.Join Slate Plus