The Left Case for Impeachment

Impeachment is about more than Donald Trump — it has the potential to undermine the right-wing forces that stand behind him. Socialists should see impeachment as an opportunity to attack a movement that poses a long-run threat to the Left’s very existence.

The House Judiciary Committee votes on the two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump on December 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

The urgency of removing Donald J. Trump from the presidency seems to escape some on the Left. Coverage of the progress toward impeachment is conspicuously absent from the front pages of leading left websites.

To be sure, an obsession with impeachment can be tedious. We seek more than a restoration of the Obama-Clinton order, much less the elevation of President Michael Pence. The House Democrats’ main complaint about Trump seems to boil down to his being a bad Republican. Both the Left and center can do better, especially with some coordination, a bit like what we old folks used to call a popular front.

I share the pervasive boredom with the House Democrats’ national security focus, a frequent theme in their attacks on the president. It may please the remaining neocons and #NeverTrumpers, but we don’t need to dwell on how to fortify NATO or support Ukrainian authoritarians against Russian kleptocrats (or vice versa).

Some may hope that the Democrats’ narrow impeachment framework will be helpful at the polls next fall, particularly with suburban women. Haven’t we seen that movie before? Will Soccer Mom be mobilized in defense of Yushchenko vs. Yanukovych? How crooked is Poroshenko? Has anybody checked in with Lobachevsky?

Getting back to the urgency of removing Trump, has the damage attributable to him since his inauguration escaped notice? The leading bullet points include:

  • Pursuing the progressive degradation of state electoral systems’ security against manipulation, gerrymandering, and voter suppression, the latter in starkly racist terms;
  • Packing the federal court system and the Supreme Court itself with a raft of deplorables handpicked by the Federalist Society (effectively the judicial arm of the Koch/Heritage Foundation apparatus) who can be counted to extirpate what remains of labor and reproductive rights in the United States;
  • Unleashing a vicious, racist assault on immigrants, both those legally resident and those undocumented, by unleashing a newly empowered, barbaric US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency;
  • Encouraging the germination of an outright neofascist, armed underground that has already been connected to online threats, mob street assaults, and outright capital crimes;
  • As Bernie Sanders and Yanis Varoufakis have noted, supporting the replacement of quasi-democratic institutions such as the European Union with a string of authoritarian, homophobic regimes around the world.

At the risk of getting lost in a fog of abstraction, disagreements on impeachment derive implicitly from one’s view of the state. This old doctrinal question can be simplified into two stark categories: one is the state as a bourgeois redoubt subject to absolute control by the ruling class. The other is the state as a contested field, an apparatus capable of doing both good and bad things.

If the state is capable of no good, then the only purpose of electoral activity is for purely demonstrative exercises, a channel for elevating demands that are vital to the working class, regardless of whether they can be won under capitalism. By this view, no Democrat running for president, with the possible, grudging exception of Bernie Sanders, is acceptable.

My own jaundiced take on the latter perspective is that it implies a delusional scenario (one that I once — ahem — upheld myself) wherein a situation of dual power somehow comes to pass, presumably on the strength of powerful mass mobilization, leading to the elimination of the capitalist state, root and branch.

Alternatively, if the state is contestable and potentially useful, then it pays to stand for election as socialists within the Democratic Party, with a view toward winning control of the party and getting good things done when elected. It also usually pays to support Democrats over Republicans, especially when third-party candidacies are made fruitless by winner-take-all, first-past-the-post election rules. If you are in this latter camp, then it follows that socialists should support the removal of Donald Trump from the presidency.

The centrist interest in removing Trump overlaps with the Left’s priorities in at least one key respect, beyond the generality that Trump is just worse than any Democrat in every dimension. It is the need for honest elections and durable democratic institutions. No self-respecting Democrat, however hidebound and centrist, wants the party to be shut out of the presidency, numerous governorships, the US Senate, and the federal judiciary for the indefinite future. The strengthening of democracy could hardly be less vital for the future of DSA. We would better know what we had if it was gone.

Democracy also has an international dimension, going back to the Sanders-Varoufakis initiative cited above. Trump would recast the existing network of US alliances to facilitate his own style of dealmaking, a process that would foster growing power for his cancerous stable of close allies in Brazil, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Egypt, Israel, Hungary, England, and Russia. Internationalism should still be a thing.

How should we regard the impeachment proceedings? The narrow cast being constructed by the House Democrats should be expanded. Trump’s self-dealing with respect to Ukraine and a Biden candidacy dovetails with his pervasive, ubiquitous corrupt practices. Corruption in this context defies accountability and, by extension, democracy writ large. His blatant obstruction of justice and defiance of all calls for cooperation with the US Congress defy the Constitution and attest to his basic illegitimacy. His illegitimacy should confer discredit on all his other policies, as well as the Republican Party as a whole, which has steadfastly supported them, and him. In general, the House Democrats have a reasonable grip on this story, but we can do better.

Ideally, impeachment becomes a full-spectrum fightback against the panoply of extreme, right-wing maneuvers in play, and implicitly against their near-substitutes from the mouths of Democratic candidates like “Mayor Pete.” It should also be a warning to Democrats such as Senator Kyrsten Sinema or Senator Joe Manchin that failure to take the right stand facilitates an invigorated primary opponent in their future.

More specifically, the ongoing Republican assaults on voting, reproductive, and labor rights, as alluded to in the bullets above, deserve emphasis. Their implications for race, gender, and class in the United States are profound. I would argue these are the principal themes that the Left should inject into the popular discussions on impeachment.

A comment I’ve heard disparages impeachment as little more than “drama.” Whether we like it or not, there are more people paying attention to this drama than chewing over the differences between Medicare for All and Medicare for Lots More Folks. Drama is interesting! That’s why it’s called drama.

As the hearings proceed and actual votes are taken, general interest will only increase. Socialists need to get our concerns into that picture, instead of trying to persuade everyone it is the wrong picture.