Occasionally someone on my side asks why the Republicans don’t impeach Trump. No one doubts that they would rather have Mike Pence in office. Pence is just as committed to their agenda as Trump – probably more so, since to him it is a matter of real conviction, rather than naked opportunism. He is infinitely more disciplined than Trump, free of any taint of corruption, irreproachable (to the point of prudishness) in his private life, capable of basic administrative competence, willing to put in the basic work to get things done, and not prone to embarrassing outbursts. But above all, in case of crisis, there is no need to handcuff him, stuff something in his mouth, and lock him in the closet until it is over. Very important, that!
Some people have suggested that given how ideologically unreliable Trump his, Congressional Republicans may welcome his sleaziness. It allows them to play a little blackmail game – stick to our ideological agenda and we won’t dig too deeply into your shady financial dealings and ties to Russia. But I have to believe that they would prefer a leader who is ideologically reliable and not sleazy.*
The primary reason the Republicans won’t impeach is simple. What is an impeachable offense? The answer is simple – an impeachable offense is anything public opinion says is impeachable. Try to impeach a President when public opinion does not support you, and you simply create a groundswell in favor of the target, by people who are angry that their judgment in electing him is being second guessed.** This will probably require two things – public conviction that the President has done something really heinous, and the general sense that he isn’t doing a good job for the public.
Public opinion turned against Nixon, his approval rating falling to 24% in the general public and 50% or less among Republicans. This was partly because his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General resigned rather than fire the Special Prosecutor, something that telegraphed to the general public that his actions were truly heinous. The fact that oil prices were soaring, lines were forming at gas stations, inflation was surging while the economy was soft, and crime rates were rising probably didn’t help.
Bill Clinton, by contrast, concealed evidence of an extra-marital affair. The American public generally saw this as an offence properly punished by laughter and ridicule, but hardly grounds for impeachment. The fact the economy was growing at a rate not seen in 30 years, unemployment and inflation were at a 30 year low, real wages were rising faster than they had in 30 years, and crime rates were falling (and that the stock market was the best since 1928, as the Onion commented) probably contributed to this impression. Under those conditions, it would be hard to be impeached for anything short of being caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.
So, Donald Trump. Granted, the man is unpopular with the general public, but he remains highly popular with the party faithful. And in today’s polarized environment, Republicans in Congress don’t care about public opinion in general. Only Republican opinion matters. That is because what the general public thinks makes no difference to a Republican incumbent if he or she does not survive a primary challenge. And besides, residential segregation of partisan opinion has become so extreme that most Republicans represent districts where no Democrat would have a chance anyhow. What that means is that right now Donald Trump could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and Congressional Republicans would not dare to impeach for fear of a primary challenge.
Could anything change that? The only think that might turn the party faithful against Trump appears to be if he harmed them personally. It is possible to imagine such a thing. Trumpcare could strip millions of Trump supporters of their health insurance or price essential care out of their reach. Republican cuts to social programs could devastate a poor state like West Virginia. Republican infighting could lead to a debt ceiling breach with unknown fallout and completely self-inflicted economic damage. Or Trump could mismanage a crisis so egregiously that even the party faithful could not defend his actions. But then again, in today’s polarized environment Trump will have the whole right-wing propaganda machine pulling for him in such a case and a lot of faithful followers prepared to accept just about anything so long as it pisses off the liberals. So it may be that even if Trump strips millions of their health insurance, needlessly crashes the economy with a debt ceiling breach, stumbles into a pointless ground war in Syria, and then shoots someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, all the while spewing deranged tweets that call his sanity into question, the party faithful will still stick with him.
Oh, yes, and there is one other reason Republicans are unlikely to impeach him, even if he does lose support with the party faithful. They have an agenda to pass. Essentially, they want to roll back as much of the New Deal as possible, in order to restore top tax rates as near as possible to pre-New Deal rates. This agenda has next to no support outside the economic royalists of the Republican donor class, including among the party faithful.*** Republicans in Congress have a choice. They can either pass their wildly unpopular economic royalist agenda, or they can engage in fratricidal strife. But there is no way they can find time and energy to do both. And if they do attempt both, the unprincipled and vindictive Trump will probably set out to improve his standing with the public by denouncing and vetoing their economic royalist agenda. Given the options, it should hardly be a surprise that Republicans prefer to pass their wildly unpopular agenda to engaging in fratricidal strife. Neither will do them any good at the polls. But at least passing their agenda will give them something to show for it.
*It is true that Stalin is purported to have said that he would rather people follow him out of fear than conviction because conviction depends on the other person and fear on himself. This is just another version of Machiavelli’s comment that it is better for a ruler to be feared by his subjects than loved because love depends on his subjects and fear on the ruler. But people who obey out of fear are not reliable; they are always eager to look for ways to slip loose. Real loyalty comes from conviction, and from real respect.
**And not just by people who voted for him. Bill Clinton won by less than a majority in 1996, but his approval rating rose to 80% when Republicans were bringing impeachment proceedings against him. Apparently a significant number of people who did not vote for Clinton nonetheless believed the Republicans should have respected the people’s choice.
***My guess is it will have the support of the right-wing propaganda apparatus, which is basically run by economic royalists who are merely exploiting the party faithful. But I could be wrong here.