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Like many Americans, I have been fantasizing since Jan. 20, 2017, about Donald Trump’s presidency coming to a quick and dirty halt, ideally of his own doing. At best, Trump has been a global embarrassment, at worst, a purveyor of deadly ideas and policies. Never before has a president been so unpopular at just 100 days into his tenure. Now the “i-word” has even started to appear on the lips of Republican members of Congress, an odd reaction has emerged from some sectors of the progressive left. It goes something like this: Don’t back impeachment—unless you’re ready for President Mike Pence.
To be sure, when one examines Vice President Pence’s political past as Indiana governor, one finds that he symbolizes a horrific combination of misogyny and racism, as well as anti-immigrant, anti-working class and anti-environmental ideologies. But the tens of million voters who picked Trump did not necessarily care about Trump’s less flamboyant sidekick. Videos have emerged since last year in which angry racists air their abusive attitudes toward people of color. These videos feature people who cite only Trump, never Pence. Trump is the bogeyman that white supremacists invoke to justify their racism. It is Trump who has unleashed the most terrifying attacks on immigrants, Muslims and others, with Pence standing by his side.
Donald Trump is “the devil you know” in the scenario in which progressives oppose impeachment for fear of Pence. But we are dealing with two “devils” in the White House, as well as with a “devilish” party that has closed ranks around the Trump-Pence team for nearly a year now. So, opposing impeachment amounts to a win for Trump and the entire Republican Party. Trump’s belligerence has united Americans of many stripes since his election, some of whom have marched and protested for the first time ever, and hopefully have adopted a commitment to social justice as part of their lives.
The Trump presidency has prompted many Americans to realize that they are the ones they have been waiting for; they have the power to hold their elected officials responsible. Town hall meetings with elected officials are now well-attended affairs, as they should be. Petitions opposing the Trump-Republican agenda have quickly reached their goal numbers. People are calling their representatives, showing up at marches in large numbers to speak out, defending immigrants as best they can, welcoming refugees at airports, and, in general, are more aware of injustices perpetrated by their government.
When Trump is impeached, Pence can and will be the next target of this empowered group of Americans. Progressives need to fight tooth and nail against every assault on our democracy. If that means first Trump and then Pence, so be it.
The opposition to Trump’s impeachment reminds me of the opposition during primary season to Bernie Sanders among some sectors of the left whose members worried that Sanders’ stated loyalty to socialism would become a liability for him during the general election. The logic was that Hillary Clinton had dealt with all the public scrutiny any politician could ever expect and had survived, and because of that she would also be able to survive the coming onslaught of Republican attacks.
She didn’t. And all progressives lost because some among us did not have the courage to stick to our ideals and instead opted for the “pragmatic solution” of backing “Clinton over Sanders.” In our current scenario, sticking with Trump because Pence might be worse is a similarly pragmatic approach—and just as morally bankrupt.
There are a few ideals we should hold dear as we back impeachment, however. Just before Trump’s inauguration, I warned that if the new, emergent progressive movement “is focused simply on disgust over Trump, then it is as doomed as Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was.” As activists fighting for social justice in the age of Trump, we need to be clear that Trump is carrying out the GOP’s wish list of cruel policies—from the attacks on women’s reproductive rights, the racial profiling of Muslims and immigrants, to the attacks on voting rights, the empowerment of police to continue to abuse poor people of color with impunity, the rewards to the military-industrial complex and more. He is pushing forward on the GOP’s agenda with bluster and with no regard for consequences.
Our opposition to him ought to be rooted in our broad opposition to the Republican Party’s increasing reliance on white supremacy and military supremacy as a framework for its political power. If the impeachment of Donald Trump leads to a President Mike Pence, it is simply the next challenge for progressives to face and overcome. A President Pence should be effectively tainted by the Trump name and wholly dismissed and opposed with the same enthusiasm as Trump has been. That is why the movement to back Trump’s impeachment is grounded in a general opposition to all his policies.
That said, our support for impeachment should not be grounded in conspiracy theories reviving Cold War-era rhetoric against Russia. Trump is not in Russia’s pocket, although Trump might wish he were. Arguments over Trump’s fitness for office should not rest on possible collusion with Russian sources and a misplaced faith in intelligence agencies such as the FBI to do the right thing; the FBI has a long and sordid history of undermining democracy and human rights. What is playing out is an internal battle between various branches of government over a brazen and unpredictable spoiled child with too much power. We need a clear-eyed analysis (such as this one) of the mess Trump has made for himself, and we need to understand that the wheels of government will likely play out to Trump’s detriment.
President Trump deserves to be impeached for his horrific demonization of people of color and the unleashing of white supremacy. He deserves to be impeached for his vile attacks on vulnerable immigrants and his racist attorney general’s decision to undo America’s minimal progress on police brutality. He deserves to be impeached for his attempted defunding of Planned Parenthood and the vile statements he has made about women. He deserves to be impeached for fueling unfounded paranoia over voting fraud and enabling the Republican Party’s attacks on voting rights. He deserves to be impeached for his flippant decisions to bomb countries and kill civilians. He deserves to be impeached for wanting to fleece the American public and reward his billionaire buddies through his proposed budget cuts and revised tax code while reaping benefits such as tax-funded security details for his golf outings. He deserves to be impeached for the blatant lies that flow freely from his mouth and tweeting thumbs.
But there are no procedures to impeach for these far graver offenses, so let his intelligence-sharing with Russia be his downfall, let the alleged obstruction of justice with regard to the Flynn investigation be the concrete issue on which his presidential authority fails. Congress knows that his impeachment has strong grass-roots support, as a new poll and strong street actions since January show. At this point it is a matter of finding which transgression sticks in legal terms. Trump’s inevitable fall will be welcomed. And if we are left with President Pence, he’d better watch out, too, for we’re coming for him and his ilk.
If the left desires pragmatism then let it be this: The scandal over possible collusion with Russia is a gift horse that will pave the way for a repudiation of everything Trump and his party stands for. We need to ideologically “impeach” not just Trump, but Trumpism, and the general cruelty of conservatism. Let the upcoming impeachment marches see the Russia inquiry as a means to a crucial end—the end of the horrific era that Trump’s election began, and the beginning of a population that is more aware of its democratic rights and civic duties and less tolerant of the violence of conservatism.