As readers will be aware, the United States House of Representatives voted last week to impeach president Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress’s investigation. The Senate is expected to conduct a perfunctory trial next month before acquitting him.
At one level, the question “Why impeachment?” has an obvious answer. Trump’s conduct has merited impeachment almost from day one. He has never made any secret of the fact that he has the ethics of a gangster and treats government accordingly; he has no conception of serving the public interest rather than his own personal and political interests.
But in that case, why now? Why did the Ukraine scandal in particular drive the Democrat majority in the House towards impeachment?
Jon Chait tackled that question a couple of weeks ago, and I think his answer is the right one. When the scandal broke, many Republicans indicated that it might finally rouse them to action. But they then changed their minds and returned to quiescence:
Democrats are impeaching Trump over the Ukraine scandal in large part because Republicans invited them to do just that.
… They acted in response to his Ukraine scheme because Republicans explicitly signaled they had finally had enough. Instead they have reverted to form, meekly endorsing any abuse of power Trump commits.
So that pushes the question back. Why do the Republicans support Trump so steadfastly? Why have they not deserted him the way most of them did Richard Nixon 45 years ago? Trump is much less connected to the Republican establishment than Nixon was; he is also much less qualified for the job and has committed his crimes much more blatantly. What are the Republicans afraid of?
Part of the answer, I think, is that the nature of party loyalty has changed since that time. People follow the party ticket much more closely, and partisan identity is more central for both voters and politicians. As I explained on the eve of Trump’s election, this is “a general change in the way American politics works,” and the trend has been clear for a couple of decades.
But that doesn’t quite explain what’s going on with impeachment. Republican senators and other party leaders seem to fear that their voters would be loyal to Trump rather than them – that if they were to attempt to cut Trump loose and reclaim control of the party for themselves, the voters would not follow them.
Unfortunately, since they are not likely to take the risk, we will never know for sure whether or not that fear is well founded. The evidence for it is fairly thin; Trump won in 2016 because he was the Republican nominee, not because he brought in some new base of support that was otherwise alienated from the party. Its House and Senate candidates generally out-performed the presidential ticket rather than the reverse.
But because Trump is so beloved by the media, a contrary narrative has widely taken hold. And on the assumption that they care only about their political future rather then the country’s welfare, one can understand why Republicans would not want to take the chance of purging Trump unless he somehow left them no alternative.
They may also recall that, once before, a Republican leader split the party after losing the presidential nomination, with disastrous consequences. Theodore Roosevelt, identifiable as a proto-Trump in many ways (although it’s one of Trump’s features that he has made even the least likeable of his predecessors look good), ran as an independent in 1912 against the Republican nominee, incumbent William Taft – and he beat him, 27.4% to 23.2%.
But that, of course, just split the Republican vote, and allowed the Democrat candidate, Woodrow Wilson, to win an easy victory with 41.8%, carrying 40 states.
I don’t think Roosevelt’s feat could be repeated. The two-party system is much more firmly entrenched than it was a hundred years ago, and the organisational effort required to mount a credible independent challenge would seem beyond the capacity of Trump or his immediate circle.
But I could be wrong about that. And more to the point, even a much less widespread grassroots revolt could still do serious damage to the Republican brand. If Republican senators were to display some backbone and vote to remove Trump, they would be steering the party towards a hazardous future.
When Trump began his run for president, and even after he became the Republican nominee, many of the party’s leaders – not to mention their fellow-travellers in places like Australia – condemned him, regarding his character and attitudes as beyond the pale. It’s hardly credible to think that most of his critics have changed their minds. Indeed, having observed him in office, they may have even less respect for him than they started with.
What’s changed is their political interest. Once he had won in their name, standing up to him became fraught with danger. It may be disappointing, but it’s no surprise that very few of them will take the risk.