The House of Representatives has embarked upon the process of impeaching a racist, unpopular president, who has nothing but contempt for the House majority, a progressive group elected to move the country forward. After an impeachment trial in the Senate, the President narrowly escapes removal from office. The year is . . .1868.
Or is it 2019?
Impeachment itself is an investigatory process and the start of the procedure for removing a president or other official from office as detailed in the Constitution. The House committees investigate the allegations to determine whether charges should be approved. If they are, then the process moves to the Senate where there is a trial with the Senators sitting as the jury. If the Senate does not vote to convict, as has happened in all prior impeachment trials, then the president is not removed from office and nothing more happens. In some respects, it is a slap on the wrist.
There’s that old saying about those who don’t learn from history being doomed to repeat it. In this case, it is certainly worth looking to history to help divine the possible outcomes of our current political debacle. Considering that Trump is likely to be impeached, but he might not be removed from office, it is worth looking at our prior two presidential impeachments.
Consider the Clinton impeachment process in 1998. After all, many political activists, myself included, remember that era. Joe Lockhart, Clinton’s Press Secretary at the time, was quoted in a tweet arguing that the Trump White House is ill-prepared for the challenge it is about to face. He could be right.
Back in 1998, most Americans were generally happy with the recently re-elected Bill Clinton, the economy was enjoying historic growth, and as a result, he was very popular. The House’s partisan decision to impeach Clinton over a consensual affair seemed a gross abuse of power to most Americans. The result was that Clinton became even more popular, leaving office with the highest Gallup approval rating of any postwar President, one point ahead of Reagan. In the 1998 midterm election following Clinton’s impeachment, Republicans had a disappointing showing. This was the first midterm election since 1822 in which the non-presidential party lost seats during a president’s second term.
The concern that many Democrats have looking back on the Clinton impeachment is that the House majority will overreach and Trump will enjoy similar sympathy as he faces what is being painted by his allies as another “partisan witch-hunt.” For their part, Republicans are doing everything they can to create that impression in voters’ minds, deriding the impeachment inquiry as “without substance,” according to Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal, “destroying our country,” as Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) argued, and “failing to follow the same basic procedures that it has followed for every other President in our history” contended Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
This fear is not without basis. Indeed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) likely resisted calls for impeachment for so long due to Liberal fears of a backlash. And the Democrats’ aggressive opposition to Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court actually energized formerly demoralized Republicans, likely saving the Senate from a Democratic takeover in 2018.
But Trump is not Clinton. While Clinton took office just as the economy was starting to recover from a brief recession, by 1997, the economy was experiencing historic growth rates: 4.49 percent in 1997, 4.88 percent in 1998. By contrast, Trump came into office with a recovery already well underway thanks, in part, to the aggressive efforts of his predecessor. Recently, his presidency has been characterized by slowing growth, a trade war with no end in sight, and yawning inequality. Despite Trump’s deepest hopes, it does not appear that the economy will be a political asset to him.
On the other hand, Johnson was Abraham Lincoln’s vice president. Upon Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson took office, much to the consternation of many of Lincoln’s supporters. Johnson, after all, was no progressive on racial issues. He was the only Southern senator to refuse to resign his position upon his state’s secession. Lincoln invited him to join the 1864 ticket as a means of balancing the party’s offering: the racially-liberal Northern Republican Lincoln would have the racist Southern Democrat Johnson as his running mate. Lincoln’s supporters only endorsed the ticket based upon the expectation that it would help Lincoln stay in office for another four years, during which time he would oversee Reconstruction and the emancipation of Black Americans.
Lincoln and Johnson could not have been more different. While both came from humble beginnings, Lincoln was known for his oratorical skills. Johnson, on the other hand, was so criticized after his inauguration speech that he refused to give any other public speeches for the rest of the year. Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, who proposed the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery — the subject of the movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Johnson, for his part, opposed the Fourteenth Amendment that guaranteed Black Americans citizenship and other basic rights.
It is true that Lincoln favored a compassionate policy aimed at reintegrating Southern states into the Union. But Johnson went too far. A Southern Democrat himself, he worked to help the Southern states return former Confederate leaders to Congress. The prospect of Confederate leaders going unpunished, and in fact being promoted to national leadership outraged Northerners who had sacrificed so dearly.
Like Johnson, Trump’s assumption of the presidency is tainted with illegitimacy. There is a reason he continually denies the fact that he lost the popular vote by over three million votes. Johnson was at least elected vice president with a majority vote.
Both Johnson and Trump are deeply unpopular except among certain White, regional populations who are unfriendly to racial equality. Both Johnson and Trump have been rated as among the worst presidents in our nation’s history. Both came into office following racially progressive, relatively well-respected Presidents. Johnson was impeached near the end his first term as most likely Trump will be. Remember that Clinton’s impeachment came during the first half of his second term. As in Johnson’s case, Trump is likely to be spared conviction and removal from office due to partisan affiliation in the Senate.
So what happened in the long term? Johnson was soundly defeated later that year, failing even to win his party’s nomination. The Democrats were chased out of office, with progressive Republican and former Union general Ulysses S. Grant elected for two terms.
That could happen again. The fear has been that Trump supporters will become outraged by the impeachment proceedings, as they did with the Kavanaugh hearings, prompting them to vote in larger numbers. Remember, what matters is not just who has the most supporters, but who has the most supporters turn out to vote on election day. But in fact, Republican venom might be satiated by a Senate vote retaining Trump in office should the House vote to impeach him. If that happens, the more aggrieved partisans might be the Democrats, who would be even more motivated to turn out to vote in 2020.
If the Democrats succeed in turning out Trump in 2020 and taking the Senate, we could expect to see a progressive agenda pursued into the foreseeable future as Grant was elected president after Johnson, going on to destroy the Ku Klux Klan, and protect the voting rights of newly freed enslaved people. My hope is that the better analogy for Trump’s pending impeachment is not Clinton’s farcical process, but instead Johnson’s impeachment and near removal which led, at least in part, to the election of progressive leadership that moved the country in a positive direction for a number of years.