Impeachment: The Word That Dare Not Speak Its Name

We may be in the beginning stages of the process that could remove the president. But it may be moot, since the most important battle is over control of the statehouses.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other senior Democrats are terrified an impeachment will backfire, giving Republicans control of all three branches of government. 

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If the 2020 presidential election is going to be about anything, it’s going to be a referendum on four years of President Trump. This is true in spite of the ongoing Democratic campaigns, in which more than 20 candidates are trying to position themselves on what they see as issues critical to primary voters: health care, climate change, racial inequity, and so on.

Those are all important, but 2020 is going to be about Trump, especially because Trump’s arguably sole mastery is in making everything about him, even if it means violating long-established norms or breaking the law in plain view just to generate headlines. Despite this behavior, the one thing that’s only barely entered the national conversation is impeaching him. Even after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and his congressional testimony on Russian efforts to aid Trump’s election (and his welcoming of those efforts), the report and testimony have gained little traction outside the Beltway, and even many insiders seem  inclined to just move along.

In fact, the word “impeach” barely crossed the stage during the presidential debates this week, coming only at the end of the second night, and feeling like an afterthought, even as most candidates seemed on board with impeaching Trump. Meanwhile, many other words about the president were uttered on stage: racist, disgrace, threat, false god (that last one actually an indictment of corporations by Marianne Williamson, but the label works here too, given how cultlike Trump’s base has become). It’s the Word That Dare Not Speak Its Name.

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On the one hand, that makes sense, because if Candidate X wins the election, Trump’s as good as gone, and impeachment is moot. Moreover, impeachment is the job of the Congress in session now, not the next one, to hold him accountable.

On the other hand, if Trump wins and Democrats hold onto the House of Representatives, the impeachment debate becomes more fraught. A victorious Trump would undoubtedly interpret his win as not only validation of his reprehensible behavior thus far, but also as a mandate to carry on, unrestrained. Would the opposition Democrats find renewed purpose to impeach him, regardless of how the measure would fare in the Senate? Or would they just give up?

The framers of the Constitution who put the impeachment clause into Article I seemed to have someone exactly like Trump in mind: undignified and disgraceful, blatantly influenced (if not directly manipulated) by hostile foreign governments. You’d have to go back to the 19th century, to presidents Andrew Johnson (who was impeached for Trumpian behavior) and James Buchanan (who should have been impeached for driving the country to a schism over slavery) to find a similar degree of awfulness on display in the White House.

A bigger issue is at stake, however, and it’s playing very large in the minds of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other senior impeachment-shy Democrats: They are terrified that an impeachment will backfire, and the Republicans will take control of all three branches of government again. They’re aiming to protect those vulnerable moderates who helped the Democrats take back the House in 2018, even though more than half of the House Democrats now support a formal investigation, including some freshmen representing swing districts that turned blue for the first time in 2018, such as Katie Porter and Harley Rouda in conservative Orange County, California.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler also quietly acknowledged the momentum toward impeachment, first in a court filing arguing that his committee needed access to grand jury testimony from Mueller’s inquiry to fully exercise its constitutional powers, including pursuing an investigation. Later, he came out and said it, that Trump “richly deserves impeachment” and should be removed from office and held accountable for his crimes. Four other members of the committee, including vice-chair Mary Scanlon, have baldly stated that they’ve already begun an impeachment investigation.

Despite Trump’s behavior, impeachment has barely entered the national conversation.

But the caution stems from the fact that the 2020 election is probably the last chance to stop a full-on right-wing makeover of the United States.

It’s not just Congress, either. Whoever wins control of local statehouses is going to be in charge of redrawing the congressional and legislative districts for the next decade. And as the past decade has proved, those changes have a disproportionate effect on local and Congressional elections.

This always has been important, but this year, the Supreme Court specifically blessed the kind of extreme partisan gerrymandering that ensures whoever controls the statehouse can work to suppress the votes of anyone likely to vote for the opposition party.

The June 29 ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause freed political parties from federal oversight when it comes to partisan redistricting. The case drew from examples in North Carolina and Maryland, when the dominant political parties blatantly skewed congressional and legislative districts to increase their own power at the expense of the other.

In North Carolina, the Republican-drawn 2011 district lines were struck down in the courts as an illegal racial gerrymander; the redrawn districts in 2016 were upheld, giving Republicans 10 seats to the Democrats’ three, despite Republicans having won just 51% of the votes in the 2010 elections. … And also despite such supposedly non-race-based lines like the one in Greensboro that split the dorms at the historically Black North Carolina A&T University between two districts.

In the 2018 midterm election, North Carolina as a whole voted 50.5% for Republicans in Congress and 48.3% for Democrats, but every  congressional district was won by at least a 55% to 45% margin, and Republicans maintain a 9-3 advantage. (The 9th Congressional District is now unrepresented in Congress because Republican-led ballot fraud was so egregious that the election was invalidated and a new election called for September.) Greensboro, one of the cradles of the Civil Rights movement, has been traditionally Democratic, but gerrymandering has ensured that the city is now divided between two Republican-dominated rural districts.

The ability to draw such heavily skewed voting districts is also what drove Trump’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. The administration believed, not without reason, that the presence of a question about legal status would deter Latinos and other people of color from taking part, thereby reducing the total population count in their districts, which—surprise!—tend to vote Democratic.

Election districts can be drawn fairly, and some states are trying to do just that. Voters in 2018 approved anti-gerrymandering measures in Colorado, Missouri, and Utah. Legal challenges are underway in at least 10 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, although some are in doubt with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

When Trump lost his case over the citizenship question, he signed an executive order July 11 stating the federal government would provide states with the “maximum assistance permissible” in obtaining citizenship data through alternative means—from other agencies that already collect that information, specifically the Social Security Administration and the departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and State.

In a sense, Trump was not so much surrendering the fight as he was shifting the battlefield to 50 state capitals, where the redistricting fight starts in early 2021.

The 2018 midterms delivered a victory that many Democrats interpreted as the beginning of oversight of the Trump administration, and which would lead inevitably to his impeachment. That may still happen, but a better interpretation is that 2018 marked the first step in taking the real reins of power out of the hands of a radicalized and compromised GOP. The election of 2020 will be about many things, but finally wrenching the reins from the party of Trump at the state level should be the top priority for everyone.