This roundtable-style conversation grew out of discussions between myself and my colleagues at The Activist History Review over the last month. What began as a hypothetical exchange about emoluments, corruption, and obstruction quickly evolved into something much more pressing as each successive scandal eclipsed its predecessors. What we have now is not a president with scandals, but a scandalous presidency. We do not wonder that the president is now personally under investigation, but only how it could have taken so long.
Although President Trump’s actions are not without precedent—Reagan’s final year in office and Nixon’s second term come to mind—these prior (and notorious) iterations of executive misbehavior are dwarfed by Trump’s astonishing incompetence, vitriol, and disregard for democratic norms. As Tom Foley notes below, impeachment can be costly and painful, but there comes a point where “patriotism take[s] precedence over party.” Indeed, if the shooting in Alexandria on Wednesday of Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Republican staffers, and Capitol Police (all of whom we hope make speedy recoveries) has any silver lining, we can only hope it is Foley’s vision of bipartisan, patriotic union of Americans against the politics of self-destruction.
We don’t mean to offer the definitive analysis of impeachment, past or present. I’m skeptical such a thing exists to begin with, but if it did, it would certainly be the purview of scholars more senior than ourselves. However, I also believe that, regarding historical inquiry, each of us brings unique and valuable experiences and questions to bear on our periods of study and the events of our day. What follows is our exploration of impeachment within the context of Trump, our responsibility as scholars to communicate our research and its implications broadly, and our concerns about the state of our country, which I lightly edited with an eye to clarity and brevity.
I think those of us here, and likely many folks reading this, understand that Trump’s career, campaign, and presidency have differed from those of his predecessors in important ways. Still, understanding these differences requires that we examine the history from which they stem. What are our obligations as scholars, particularly of American history, to weigh in on presidential expectations and potential misconduct?
Cory James Young: It can be difficult as a historian of the United States observing the news cycle not to see patterns everywhere. Our task is to distinguish between meaningful and shallow connections in order to suggest directions for further analysis. This distinction is key. We can only “learn from the past” by examining relevant events; the units we choose to compare must merit the comparison.
Historians have an obligation to contextualize scandal. This includes evoking the past (Watergate, anyone?), but more crucially it requires combatting bad historical comparisons. It is only useful to compare the hostile tone of the 2016 presidential campaign to vicious early nineteenth-century politicking if one understands that norms and expectations shifted in the intervening 200 years. John Quincy Adams didn’t have Twitter.
WH: You raise an interesting point, because social media has really changed the game in three important ways. First, it has amplified the power of already-powerful people like President Trump to communicate their message to much larger audiences than before. Second, it has altered, for better or for worse, the way we consume information by diminishing the editing and processing of knowledge by professionals and by pulling each of us into the market of evaluating and disseminating information. And third, it presents historians and academics with new modes of social engagement. Prior generations of historians could take solace in knowing that they made a difference by challenging paradigms as compelling instructors. I wonder if that’s no longer the case.
Tom Foley: I think you make a great point, Bill, in that we are witness to something historic: a presidency that limits itself to 140 characters, which may be the attention span of many Americans today. The President uses Twitter as means of bypassing the press, or as he says, taking his message directly to the American people. To many of us, the equivalent would be publication without peer review.
This activity, combined with branding the mainstream press as “fake news,” serves to intentionally undermine it as a trustworthy arbiter of facts by the public. It seems almost an intentional strategy of the White House at this point.
CJY: There is a great irony here. I joked above that John Quincy Adams didn’t have Twitter, but more pressingly, he lived in a time with substantially greater barriers to communication than our own. Whereas the “fake news” in the early nineteenth century could result from hurried communication across great distances, the “fake news” of the present reeks of deliberate misdirection.
Nathan Wuertenberg: The rise of social media and instantaneous global communication has certainly dramatically changed the nature of American politics. Concepts of expertise and knowledge have become increasingly democratized, leaving many people seemingly less reliant upon experts in any given field when the knowledge they offer can be easily Googled in a matter of seconds. In many ways, this process is a good thing, making it potentially more difficult for state authorities and others in power to limit access to knowledge as a means of control and opening educational opportunities to those who might lack the resources and social privilege to pursue those opportunities along more traditional lines. In other ways, however, it has done much to weaken the foundation of democratic processes, most ironically undercutting the informed electorate and the ability to engage in civil discourse. With the rise of “fake news” and the apparently dwindling desire for expertise, American citizens seem less and less interested in listening to or believing scholars regarding the most pressing and difficult issues we face as a nation. This makes our efforts all the more important, and requires that we adapt to emerging technologies and mediums.
TF: I think that means historians and other scholars whose profession is rooted in evidence, analysis, and argument need to communicate our work as effectively as possible for the public good. But, as we’ve seen from Ted Cruz’s recent Twitter attack on “lefty academic” and Harvard historian Joyce Chaplin, anyone who challenges an extreme and unnuanced conservative version of American history is a target. So engagement, while valuable, comes at a price: people may reject information that they don’t want to believe.
NW: This is a good point Tom, and a strong reminder that we ought to think carefully about how and when we should intervene in public discourse. Historians often seem to feel an obligation in times of political unrest to more forcefully insert themselves into public debates. The famed historian George Bancroft (one of the first professionally trained historians in the United States), for example, offered his counsel to Andrew Johnson in the wake of his predecessor’s assassination, even going so far as to author the newly minted President’s first message to Congress. During the Watergate scandal, C. Vann Woodward penned an op-ed for The New York Times comparing Richard Nixon’s actions to those of Johnson prior to his impeachment in 1868. In more recent years, hundreds of scholars led by Sean Wilentz signed a letter published in The New York Times in 1998 protesting the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton.
In each of these cases, there was considerable public interest in what historians had to say about the course of events. Johnson welcomed Bancroft’s advice, and rewarded his service with an ambassadorship to Prussia. Woodward’s editorial sprung from a larger inquiry into the history of scandal in American politics that was originally solicited by members of Congress themselves as they deliberated on the question of whether or not to impeach Nixon for his part in covering up the Watergate break-in. Wilentz and other signatories to the 1998 letter became brief fixtures on the political media circuit as the impeachment hearings continued.
American citizens, for much of their nation’s history, have searched desperately for precedents upon which to rely when facing perceived threats to that nation’s well-being, and in that search they have turned more often than not to professionally trained scholars.
Part of what we offer as historians, and what we search for as citizens engaging, is context and precedent, which sometimes seem at odds as context can diminish claims to precedent. What are the limits in applying precedent to the present, to differentiating between executive behavior that is merely unsavory and that which we deem totally unacceptable?
NW: For me the answer to this question is relatively straightforward. If precedents like the impeachment proceedings like those faced by Bill Clinton are any indication, presidential actions perceived as simply immoral are not impeachable offenses. Morality is itself a relative concept, one that different people and different cultures define in varying terms. Our government should no more impose or favor one moral code than it should a single religion, especially in a nation with as much political, religious, and cultural variance as that of the United States, and where moral codes seem so frequently to apply only to our political opponents. Rather than focus on morality, then, American citizens and their representatives in Congress should focus on actions that threaten or significantly impede democratic processes. In the case of Donald Trump, this means that impeachment should not be founded on moral evaluations of his policies. Such evaluations can and should serve as the foundation of resistance to his administration. If he is to be impeached, on the other hand, it must rest on the numerous actions he has already taken to subvert and undermine our democratic processes.
WH: I agree, Nathan, with the premise of your argument—that morality is socially constructed and unstable—but I’d like to challenge your conclusions somewhat. Writing (and reading) history often involves making claims about the morality, or more often, the immorality of prior generations of leaders and historical figures. Engaging in politics requires much of the same. I have no qualms in stating that resisting President Trump’s proposed cuts to food stamps, healthcare, education, and various worker and consumer protections is a moral imperative. They would devastate the poorest among us for no purpose other than to line the pockets of the already-wealthy in a way deeply reminiscent of Gilded Age politics. We simply can’t return to the tenement way of living.
And this is where precedent, for me, is so important.
TF: But precedent alone can lead us down a perilous path; some moral foundation or set of civic principles are necessary so as to determine those precedents that are not worth lifting. I’m thinking of the Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld the constitutionality of FDR’s Executive Order 9066 which ordered the internment of Japanese Americans regardless of their citizenship status. That decision is still on the books, and though it is widely condemned, it still exists as a potential legal precedent for a case today.
CJY: One interesting limit is the extent to which mainstream media outlets find historical comparison compelling. There is an absolutely fascinating case from Fall 1998 when Nature, a leading scientific journal, published a study revealing the DNA connection between the Jefferson and Hemings families during the midst of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Some conservative pundits argued that this was an attempt by liberal historians to improve Clinton’s public standing by tying his sexual indiscretions to Jefferson’s, labeling the whole conspiracy the “October surprise.”
This is, of course, nonsense. Sometimes evoking the past makes a scandal more complex than it needs to be. It’s not that Clinton should not have been impeached because Jefferson was not impeached, it’s that Clinton’s actions did not constitute an impeachable offense. It remains to be seen whether or not Trump’s obstruction of justice does.
TF: I think to answer your question more directly, Bill, the limits to applying precedent to the present are how they fit within our shared civic principles. One might argue that we are currently engaged in a national debate over what exactly those principles are, particularly given the number of voting laws that courts have found unconstitutional in the wake of the Shelby County decision that gutted Section V of the Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and voter disenfranchisement to submit their voting laws to the U.S. Department of Justice for preclearance. Is voting a right or a privilege? Is equality—social, racial, economic, environmental—sewn into our national fabric, or is it purchased with wealth, sexual orientation, or skin color? Do we believe in justice for all or justice for those able to afford private attorneys and garner favorable tabloid coverage?
Historians often get tied up in abstractions, but at our core, we are storytellers. We need to tell stories that animate our national past and give listeners—from the public to the President—a hook, a ledge, something they can grab onto and see the past in a relatable light. Politics is about the art of persuasion, whether it be by fear or inspiration. We have the stories—let’s inspire.
In liberal circles since the election, we’ve heard a great deal about the problems that impeachment might solve such as insulating executive powers from President Trump’s erratic behavior. I wonder, however, what problems impeachment might generate. Why might we be wary of impeachment?
TF: I think we are at a perilous time if only because faith in our public institutions—governmental, religious, the press—is so low. Impeachment could very well make that worse, particularly if it damages the institution of the presidency beyond the 45th occupant of the office. I think Richard Nixon realized that possibility—that the pain of impeachment would linger long after him—when he decided to resign. The current occupant of the Oval Office has not demonstrated a similar commitment to the institutions on which democracy rests. It may be useful to think of impeachment for what it actually is—a vote that because of the threshold in the Senate, requires bipartisan support. Does impeachment become the darkest day or the finest hour for our elected bodies? Does patriotism take precedence over party? It did in the Watergate era, if with a lugubriousness that is now remembered as thoroughness.
WH: Tom makes a great point here. One thing of which we should be wary is that public trust, according to the Pew Research Center, “remains near historic lows.” So while in some ways, impeachment might represent a remedy—a way of saying that overt corruption and incompetence won’t be tolerated—there’s a very real risk that it could poison an already toxic environment. When Andrew Johnson was impeached for undermining Reconstruction and refusing to protect the most basic rights of African Americans (though the technicality was violating the Tenure of Office Act), impeachment nonetheless carried a partisan tinge. Perhaps this is inevitable, but it strikes me as a significant risk in an era defined by conspiracy-laden fake news that continues to bleed into mainstream discourse.
TF: Impeachment does provide an opportunity to punish executive misbehavior and restore faith in politics and institutions broadly. It also allows Americans and elected officials to ask and answer important questions about the identity of what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” The Republican Party needs to excise its white supremacist wing that festers more each day (as do Evangelical Christians, for that matter). The dog whistle politics on which Republicans rode wave after wave in 1994 and 2010 is now a low-enough pitch that everyone can hear it. Is white supremacy, voter suppression, and religious bigotry the overt political platform of a modern political party, or shall it be permanently relegated to histories of Confederate paramilitaries, the Ku Klux Klan, and Jim Crow? Many in Washington shrug this off as an unserious question that offends delicate sensibilities and decorum, but I can’t think of a KKK newspaper or a neo-Nazi rally that supported Hillary Clinton.
Historians are always conscious of the history we live through, but rarely is that moment as momentous as this choice about national identity, civic belief, historical interpretation, and future direction. It is a choice between rededication—to a government of, by, and for the People regardless of their gender identity, creed, color, origin, or direction in life—and retrogression to an unspecified “Again” when, whether 1850, 1950, or 2010, some were not equal and thus all were not free.
WH: And the good news here is that recent polling suggests that Trump’s base is eroding as he continues to defy basic norms of ethics and decency. If we view Reconstruction as a Jekyll-and-Hyde example of possible Americas—of white supremacist violence and equal rights—we can certainly hope for the latter while resisting the former. Both are possible Americas.
NW: I think the potential impeachment of Donald Trump is a classic example of things getting worse before they can get better. This also seems to have been true of the scandals under Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon. In the wake of Johnson’s impeachment, Republicans sought to unite the nation once more under Ulysses Grant, who was almost universally beloved in the North for playing a large part in winning the Civil War. Instead, the frequent incompetence of the Grant administration served as the precursor to decades of political corruption, producing resentments that boiled over into the rise of populist and Progressive movements that did much to hold political leaders in the United States more accountable to their constituents. The ineffectiveness of the Ford and Carter administrations after Watergate, the revelations of the Iran-Contra affair under Reagan, the lasciviousness of the Lewinsky scandal under Clinton, and the war-weariness of the Bush era sent the American public desperately searching for inspiration and change, a search that led to overwhelming support for Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008. If Trump were to be impeached successfully, it would undoubtedly lead to an even lower level of faith in our public institutions. But, if history is any guide, it could also eventually produce dramatic change for the better.
What, if anything, do you think is missing from conversations about impeachment, both historically and regarding our current president?
CJY: What’s missing in my mind is a proper sense of the politics of it all. Both Johnson and Clinton were impeached not for the crimes they committed but for going against the party that controlled Congress (the Republicans in both cases, but don’t get me started on that false historical continuity). Grant and Harding were involved in greater scandals, but scandals aren’t crimes, and even crimes do not lead to action if it would be inexpedient for the ruling party.
WH: I think one thing we forget in conversations about abuse of power are the ways that power, as it’s normally applied, can be abusive. Grover Cleveland, for example, famously sent in the U.S. Army to break up a strike of railroad workers that left 30 strikers dead and more than 50 wounded. These were folks who were fighting to put food on the table. But this is the logic of power: we criticize Nixon for Watergate, Reagan (to a lesser extent) for Iran-Contra, and Clinton for the Lewinski scandal, but all three men pursued policies that significantly expanded incarceration rates, particularly in communities of color, with little evidence that these policies achieved any public good.
Nixon’s domestic policy chief recently explained the origin of the drug war as an attempt to “vilify” and “disrupt” Nixon’s political opponents. These are the normal applications of power that act like a cancer on the body politic.
A good example of the problem here with respect to Trump (though there are many) lies in one of his least contested actions: his decision to strike a Syrian airbase in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Never mind that the administration (and Trump himself) had repeatedly signaled that it wouldn’t intervene in the conflict, which might have contributed to Assad’s more brazen use of sarin gas. In President Trump, then, there resides the normalized violence vested in the executive that, when combined with his policy ignorance and inexperience, can be more dangerous than the issues of corruption, obstruction, and subversion that appear to be the grounds upon which he might be impeached.
TF: I think what you both have gotten at is the context of the actions and the importance of the politics. As candidate Trump said of his popularity with his base, he could shoot someone of Fifth Avenue in New York City and he wouldn’t lose a vote. The question is less “was the president’s action illegal” and more “will Republicans consider the action 1) illegal and 2) so odious that their policies and the reputation of their political party should be sacrificed?” Impeachment, for better or worse, is as much if not more about the character of the Congress than the conduct of the President. It is too difficult to imagine a situation in which Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell abandon the President after staking their own and their party’s reputations on him.
NW: Tom raises a very good point. I think more than anything what is missing from discussions of impeachment is how unlikely it is. As Cory pointed out, two out of the three impeachment events in our history arose out of party politics. The third, as Tom mentioned earlier, managed to rise above party affiliation, but perhaps only because the offenses were so unequivocally illegal and undeniable. In an era where nothing seems unequivocal, anything can be denied, and a single party controls every branch of government, there seems little hope that impeachment is a real possibility. Almost every day, Trump’s critics draw a new line in the sand. Surely X action, they write, will be the tipping point that makes his impeachability something Congressional Republicans can no longer ignore. What they don’t seem willing to acknowledge is that Trump hasn’t shown any signs that he will discontinue any of this misbehavior.
Should President Trump be impeached?
NW: Should it happen? Yes. Will it happen? No.
WH: Maintaining a pluralist democracy means upholding social and political norms that ensure the good of the whole. Donald Trump has repeatedly violated many of these norms for personal and political gain. I believe he should be impeached.
TF: Is there sufficient evidence to introduce articles of impeachment? I think so. Given all the news about the President’s ties to Russia in the campaign, in the Oval Office, and financially over the years, by the end of the investigation we might see “Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, AND other high Crimes and Misdemeanors!” But I don’t see it happening with a Republican-controlled Congress, even if Vladimir Putin is found living in the Lincoln bedroom. The nature of the party itself would have to change.