America’s Principles

The American president’s prospects for reelection are not suffering under the impeachment proceedings. But the Democrats are rendering an important service to their country.

One could judge the impeachment proceedings that were formally set into motion against President Donald Trump this week based on purely electoral strategy. Many commentators are doing so. The story goes as follows: The Democrats have lost the battle. Namely, they have not succeeded in convincing large portions of the American public that Trump’s behavior in the Ukraine affair would justify his removal from the White House. And because many voters are not convinced, the Republicans can use their majority in the Senate to shoot down the proceedings with a clear conscience. After all, they do not have to fear being punished for it in the congressional elections in November – quite the contrary.

Thus, the Democrats stand there as a hysterical mob that does in fact appear to behave just as Trump has been describing for a while. Because they could not beat him at the ballot box, they’re trying impeachment. This stain will cling not only to the representatives who voted for the proceedings, but also to Trump’s challenger, regardless of whether that turns out to be Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren or someone else. All Democratic candidates have supported impeachment. In short, the Democrats have shot themselves in the foot. Trump’s prospects are not being worsened by the process; they may actually be improving.

This perspective is realistic. But does it get to the core of the issue? Are the third impeachment proceedings in the history of the United States really just about how to defeat Trump?

No, the procedure has much greater significance. That is clear from looking at the facts that can no longer be seriously challenged after the hearings in the House of Representatives. Trump pressured Ukraine to get material against Biden. For a long time, he has considered Biden the only Democrat who could seriously threaten him in next year’s election. The president thus used his political office to gain personal advantage. That is indeed abuse of his authority, even in the juridical sense. And it was committed not by some corrupt sheriff, but by the head of state, who in the U.S. is also the head of government.

What would it demonstrate to the world if the House of Representatives had not acted? That would have established the principle that a president can do as he pleases. Even if he were caught behaving inappropriately, he would not have to face the consequences. It is doubtful whether the procedure set forth in the U.S. Constitution is designed to clarify the issue as persuasively as it would be in court. But if Congress had, at the outset, resisted making the president accountable, then democracy in America would truly be in danger. The value of the proceedings against Trump is that they are taking place at all, even if he is eventually acquitted, as will most likely be the case. Because whenever the idea that no one is above the law is no longer part of the political discussion, then the rule of law finds itself in truly rough waters.

There are people like Trump in many Western countries today. They try quite shamelessly to ignore or circumvent democratic rules. They cannot always be stopped. But when we do not even try, we find ourselves on the path to a society that is no longer free.

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