People do things because they want things. This is the first key to understanding almost any human drama, from the course of a love affair to the unfolding of a treasonous plot: they happen because someone hopes to gain by them.
Now, people may be quite catastrophically mistaken about how to get the thing they want: for instance, they might try to increase prosperity by raising taxes, which, as Winston Churchill famously said, “is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.” Human beings can be fantastically stubborn. Rather alarmingly, they are often more devoted to their ideas about how to get what they want, than to actually getting what they want. Hence the definition of insanity and, not incidentally, of socialism: doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.
Still, misguided as they may be about how to achieve their aims, people have aims, and that is why they do things. It follows that the first way to understand anything in human affairs is to ask: why? The question that reveals the essence of a political system is: why is it there? What benefits did its founders hope to secure by putting it into place? Likewise, the question that reveals the essence of a political action within that system on the part of one or more politicians is: why are they taking said action? What are they hoping to get out of it?
Former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment—the first second impeachment in America’s history—has been accompanied by a predictable outpouring of froth and rage from the usual sources. This rage-froth comes in the customary flavors: Republican-flavored rage that a now-former president is being impeached; Democrat-flavored rage that such a treasonous scoundrel as Donald Trump should ever have been raised to the nation’s highest office in the first place.
Cynical grandstanding is now effectively the default setting of our political classes. So it can be very difficult to know how much of their rage-froth is justified, and how much of it has been confected out of nothing for the sake of virtue signaling, on the basis of no principle other than the career prospects of the people doing the frothing.
The difficulty is compounded if you have a dog in the fight, or if you have your own sources of quite justified rage: the decadent self-indulgence of our elites, for example, who in the face of authoritarian lockdowns and widespread rioting have found it impossible to do anything other than froth away as per usual. There is no chance, or almost none, of impartially judging the merits of an impeachment case in such a context.
There could hardly be a better time to return to basics, and to ask again the fundamental question: why? Why is this impeachment happening now? What do the people doing the impeaching hope to get out of it? And, at a still more foundational level, why is there such a thing as impeachment at all?
The deepest of these questions is in some sense easier to answer than all the others, because our founders left us a record of their reasoning. Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution reads: “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Why?
We know, first, that the framers of the Constitution got this idea from the English Parliament, which for centuries before 1776 had been locked in a series of desperate power struggles with the crown. Kings like John in the 13th century, and Charles I in the 17th, offended the British royalty by ignoring their wishes and governing without regard for the property or wellbeing of the English people. Parliament had impeached ministers of the royal court before. The American Founders—who were wary of monarchic power for obvious reasons, and who had to defend the mere existence of a presidency before a populace scared half to death of abuse—offered the possibility of impeachment as “a bridle in the hands of the legislative body upon the executive servants of the government.”
Alexander Hamilton wrote those words in Federalist #65, a 1788 essay defending our Constitution. In that Constitution, impeachment is the last line of defense against the abuse of executive power. Essentially, therefore, it is a mechanism for settling disputes “between an INDIVIDUAL accused, and the REPRESENTATIVES OF THE PEOPLE, HIS ACCUSERS.”
Between an individual accused, and the representatives of the people, his accusers. That is why the House of Representatives is the body that presents the article or articles of impeachment: they are hypothetically the legislators that represent the public most directly, and it’s their job to bring the public’s concerns to bear against the politician in question.
Why This Impeachment?
This leads us to the next “why”: why did this House of Representatives bring this article of impeachment against Donald Trump? Was it to act as “representatives of the people”? The accusation they made is that Trump incited an insurrection on January 6, when rioters wreaked havoc in the Capitol building, with fatal consequences. The House argues that by claiming to have “won this election” by “a landslide,” Trump “made statements that, in context, encouraged—and foreseeably resulted in—lawless action at the capitol.” Such statements included, in the House’s example, “if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
It’s highly dubious that “the people” would charge Trump with “treason” for these words if given the chance. Plenty of people—even Trump’s supporters—have their grievances with the man. Personally, I think he was increasingly reckless in the lead-up to January 6. I think his claims to have won the election gave people false hope and contributed to a sense of despair as the post-election court cases fell apart.
But to say that calling for people to “fight” was what “foreseeably resulted in” the riot at the Capitol is to implicate practically every politician who has ever lived in seditious conduct. Who out there right now, Republican or Democrat, doesn’t believe the country will be lost unless we fight like hell? On January 22 Kamala Harris tweeted, “women, people of color, and all Americans will not retreat when being attacked. We will stand up and we will fight.” Harris has repeatedly voiced support for the rioters who tore through American cities in summer of 2020—she is at least as guilty of encouraging violence as Trump, if not more. Should this quote, which is now available for purchase on coffee mugs, be considered “in context” as incitement of race riots?
I don’t think so—for the obvious reason that I don’t believe calling people to “fight” amounts to demanding they overthrow the government. I don’t think the people—whose support for impeachment has always been lukewarm at best—believe it does either. I suspect most who want him impeached simply want him punished for his conduct in general, while most who want him acquitted think that, despite his flaws and sometimes egregious missteps, he did a pretty good job.
Above all, I don’t think the House of Representatives truly believes Trump’s behavior was treasonous. If they did, they’d have to convict themselves on the same charge.
What’s it All About?
What do they want? Not, apparently, to represent the concerns of the people. Not even to remove Trump from office, which was the point of the first impeachment—this time, he’s already out. To some extent they want to make sure Trump can never run for office again—but if they succeed in this, which I doubt they will, they’ll find it a mixed blessing. Without Trump to kick around, their perilously fragile coalition will have to turn inward for its enemies.
Still, I do think they want Trump banished from politics, for one reason only: to send a message. This is, to be perfectly fair, an implicit purpose of impeachment to begin with: checks on executive power exist in part because those who see them applied to others will think twice before abusing their own offices. What the Democrats want more than anything, I think, is to send a message that no one may defy them as Trump did without facing consequences.
Yet what is the behavior of Trump’s that this impeachment is meant to deter? Betrayal of the people’s trust? Not really—some 74 million people considered Trump, warts and all, the most appropriate bearer of their trust. That hasn’t much changed. The true punishment is not for treason but for defiance. From the beginning of his presidency, the ruling classes whom Trump opposed wanted to depict not just his various excesses but his whole program—his patriotism as well as his protectionism, his defense of Western civilization as well as his emphasis on border control—as outlandish, un-American, beyond the pale.
The fact that uncountable numbers of Americans agree with Trump on those core points—on the greatness of America, on the sovereignty of our nation, on the need to defend Western values against enemies within and without—doesn’t make Trump’s opponents any less keen to push those beliefs absolutely outside the Overton window at all costs. To the contrary: the fact that so many Americans of all colors and backgrounds do love their country, the fact that we do want to see it protected against borderless technocrats and neo-Marxian revolutionaries, is precisely the reason why Democrats must hold the champion of those views very publicly to account.
This impeachment, then, turns out to be yet another effort to intimidate people out of loving and defending America. It is not a court case on behalf of the people but in spite of them—some might even say, against them. It is an effort to close the book not just on Trump but on Trumpism once and for all: to ensure that the whole sordid affair goes down in history as just a misguided detour on our glorious road to progress.
Thankfully, it probably won’t succeed—most Republicans in the Senate have joined Rand Paul in voting to declare the whole show trial unconstitutional. It seems unlikely that this impeachment will carry conviction in any sense of the word. The Senate, after all, gets the final say.
Why the Senate?
And that is the final “why” of this impeachment: why the Senate? Hamilton says: they are the best of the bad options. Impeachment trials, by their nature, are almost certain “to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused.” A country as diverse and fractious as ours can hardly hope to be impartial in the execution of such procedures. And so “a well-constituted court for the trial of impeachments is an object not more to be desired than difficult to be obtained in a government wholly elective.” The Supreme Court can’t do it, because then they will be tasked with judging both the impeachment trial and any ordinary suits that will subsequently be brought against the accused. The Senate, Hamilton hoped, would be “unawed and uninfluenced”—because, at the time, they were not directly elected but chosen by their state legislatures.
We’ve come a long way since then, and it’s hard not to feel Hamilton would weep to see us. It’s hard to even consider singling out today’s Senate as uniquely impartial with a straight face.
And yet in another way, we are exactly where Hamilton thought we might be: locked in a partisan battle, each fighting his corner according to the team he finds himself on. Impeachment, Hamilton wrote, will “connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other.”
Well, that is exactly what has happened. In such cases there is the highest possible need for virtuous statesmen to do their duty in spite of everything, as I believe Mike Pence did when he proceeded with the Electoral count despite the enormous cost to his reputation with his base. But such statesmen are few and far between, which is why we are in danger.
Still, we are not yet destroyed—and neither, for all that, is our Constitution. It remains in place by the wisdom of those founders who saw what we are, and who hoped we might from time to time rise above ourselves. It remains to be seen whether we will.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.