As the Ukraine whistleblower and impeachment saga unfolds, my frustration is less with Trump’s actions (we already know who he is) and more with the predictability of the outcome. Nothing of consequence will happen—except of course the continued erosion of any avowed standard of propriety surrounding the presidency and any hope for a functioning public discourse.
With this in mind, I want to draw a conclusion that few seem to have noticed. When we combine the whistleblower story with Trump’s insulation from impeachment, we learn a sobering lesson: the 2020 campaign will see unprecedented levels of lying, corruption, and criminality. People are right to worry about whether the country can handle a second Trump term, but people are not worried enough about whether the country can handle a second Trump campaign.
This is not an endorsement of the move to open an impeachment inquiry. I’m simply encouraging a clear-eyed appreciation of the reality. The worry about a Trump second term is, in fact, overly optimistic.
First we must realize that impeachment is not one size fits all. Calling for impeachment is less important than a plan for reckoning with all the ways that impeachment could go poorly. Trump’s immunity still exists in many impeachment scenarios. He has the protection of Mitch McConnell’s ironclad control of the Senate. Plus Democrats always find a way to make themselves look bad for doing good.
Second, when we look at the specific topic of the impeachment inquiry, we get a glimpse into how Trump plans to win reelection. Because the Democratic nominee will be less scandal-prone, they will be forced to endure far more than Hillary Clinton did. The conspiracy theories, racist/sexist attacks, and general hate will be on another level.
But more frightening, Trump has the full power of the executive branch behind him. It is comprised of cabinet members who remain in their positions for no reason other than their obsequiousness. A similar story can be told about GOP legislators. The Supreme Court is also, at best, far from a reliable check. There is no doubt how a scenario even vaguely like 2000 would end—especially if the Democrat has, as they should, plans for reforming the court.
Foreign interference, unfounded investigations, (threats of) violence—all are coming. They are here now.
Trump will do whatever it takes. Because, if he wins, or if enough powerful people think he wins, Fox News and the GOP will interpret the result as acceptance of everything Trump did during the campaign and the preceding term. The people have spoken! Any attempt to open investigations or impeachment proceedings after the election will be slammed as anti-democratic. Trump will have a clean slate.
This implies that a Democratic victory in 2020 will likely mean little. Trump will feel no shame in destroying any standard of fairness, truth, or conversation that stands in his way. We are already seeing evidence of the tactic in the laughable implausibility of the defenses of Trump from GOP leadership. And no policy from the new president can undo such damage.
We should place the impeachment and 2020 election in their broader context. The GOP, for many years now, has paved the way toward extended minority rule. The conversative judiciary, including the Supreme Court, will long survive Trump. The party has learned that authoritarianism, racism, and conspiracy works for them, not just on the margins but on the whole.
Perhaps the most enduring gift of Trump will be the political efficacy of shamelessness. The GOP hypocrisy on fiscal issues has been on full display for years. Now the hypocrisy is an end in itself. There is a reason why all Trump/GOP/Fox critiques of Democrats are projection. There is a reason why Trump is accusing Biden of the exact type of corrupt family enrichment that has been a central preoccupation of Trump’s. Such brazen inconsistency undermines norms of public conversation and reduces all disputes to partisanship. Both benefit the GOP.
Impeachment is no answer to the broader GOP success story. As I have admitted elsewhere, I don’t see a solution. A solution requires an accurate picture of the problem. I worry that an inherent feature of the problem we face is that, just like with impeachment, any attempted solution, no matter how noble, strengthens those who caused the problem in the first place. That, intended or not, is the cynical brilliance of the Trump GOP.
For example, to the people who have become numb to the absurdity, you are evidence of Trump’s success. The 2020 campaign will be so dark that, to many people, it won’t seem dark. It will be politics as usual—two equally corrupt candidates. A cornerstone of GOP politics is cynicism, and in that respect, the GOP has convinced many of us to join them. After Trump, the politicians who don’t flaunt their corruption will seem the most corrupt. The politicians who don’t brazenly lie to your face will seem the most dishonest.
The viability of impeachment should, then, not be our focus. Of course Trump should be removed. Of course he won’t be. The focus should instead be on the Trump GOP strategy of destroying any possibility for a shared public conversation that values truth, consistency, and coherence. It is precisely due to this strategy that impeachment is a pipe dream.
But notice the consequences of the strategy. It has brought Trump immunity from impeachment, which opens him to employ any means necessary to win in 2020. Regardless of the outcome, the destruction, and the destroyers, will remain and face no accountability. How can we rebuild when, to those in power, destruction is victory?