Trump’s blatant ownership of controversy foxes Democrats
Republicans have been fine-tuning their message that impeachment is a hoax
Amid the political storms and sharp divisions that characterise US politics, one idea appears to remain constant.
The sanctity of the constitution is a guiding principle of US political life. From the right to bear arms to the freedom of speech, Americans seem loathe to break with the principles set out in the nation’s founding document. The American constitution also sets out the ground rules on impeachment. Given the misgivings of the founders of the young American republic about a monarchical ruler, measures were designed to limit the power of the president.
Through impeachment, a president could be removed for “high crimes and misdemeanors”. But in order to ensure that the process would not be hijacked for political means, the late-18th century framers of the constitution put in place strict conditions, including the need for a two-thirds majority in the US Senate to convict.
In foreboding tones, Alexander Hamilton predicted that impeachment would “divide” the community “into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused.”
Pelosi, who had opposed impeachment up until now, evidently felt that Trump had crossed a line with his phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy
“In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or the other,” Hamilton said. As a result, the outcome would be determined by the “comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”
More than 200 years later his words have proved prescient.
As the US faces what could be the third impeachment in history (Richard Nixon resigned before he was impeached), Hamilton’s warning of a factional battle is playing out. In the first full week since House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi launched an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, the two sides have been staking their battlegrounds. Democrats have pressed ahead with congressional hearings and issued subpoenas. Republicans have been fine-tuning their message that impeachment is a hoax designed to take down Trump.
Social media drive
Trump’s campaign team has unleashed a powerful social media drive, running thousands of ads on Facebook focusing on impeachment. It comes as Trump has intensified his own Twitter activity, tweeting and retweeting claims of a “hoax” and a “witch-hunt”.
The conservative news channel Fox News has rowed-in behind the president. “Manufactured scandal” was the headline on host Sean Hannity’s prime time talk show this week, as the Trump ally parroted Trump talking points. “The president did absolutely nothing wrong . . . the media are lying to you again,” he intoned in his opening monologue.
While Trump’s defiance may reflect his underlying panic at the prospect of impeachment, it may also be based on realpolitik
A central argument of Trump allies is that Democrats are seeking to depose a democratically-elected president because they cannot accept Trump’s 2016 election victory. “They are attempting to remove a duly elected president from office,” declared Hannity. Trump decried the developments as a “COUP” that is “intended to take away the Power of the People, their VOTE, their Freedoms, their Second Amendment, Religion, Military, Border Wall, and their God-given rights as a Citizen of The United States of America!”
This argument was also predicted by the founding fathers. During the constitutional convention of 1787, some worried about the democratic implications of impeachment, pointing out that if people were unhappy with their president they could simply vote him out of office.
Pelosi, who had opposed impeachment up until now, evidently felt that Trump had crossed a line with his phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Her problem now is that Trump is blatantly owning the controversy. Whereas Nixon and Bill Clinton tried to hide their transgressions, the Trump White House published the contents of the phone call. Further, Trump is hailing the call as “perfect” and “beautiful”. During Watergate, the emergence of the tapes was the “smoking gun” moment. In Trump’s case that point has already been reached. In other words, Trump’s unpresidential behaviour has become so predictable, the bar for impeachment is higher than in times gone by.
While Trump’s defiance may reflect his underlying panic at the prospect of impeachment, it may also be based on realpolitik. American politics is much more polarised than during the last impeachment (indeed many believe a more partisan politics originated with the Clinton scandal) with Republicans in particular tending to be a more homogenous block. The result is that Trump’s base is likely to stick with the president, and the role of independent or middle-ground voters is less important than it was during Nixon’s or Clinton’s time. Though an historically unpopular president, Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans have stayed in the 80-90 per cent range, with most strongly opposed to impeachment.
Riling up his base seems to be the Trump strategy and a gamble he is willing to take – even though some polls suggest that he may need more than his base to get re-elected, particularly in middle-class, suburban Republican districts. Given Trump’s current popularity among Republican voters, Republican senators are unlikely to vote against him if the impeachment goes to trial.
Ultimately the Republican answer to Trump’s impeachment is that it will be decided at the ballot box. If Trump is defeated he will blame Democrats and the phony witch-hunt. If he wins, he will feel vindicated that he was innocent. Either way, it will be a good outcome for the president, who is likely to continue to fight the inquiry – whatever emerges in the coming months.
Suzanne Lynch is Washington Correspondent