No, Impeachment Did Not Liberate Trump

His acting like a raving tyrant since his acquittal doesn’t mean he’s unleashed. It means he’s vindictive.

It is becoming conventional wisdom in certain centrist and leftist circles that impeaching Trump was a mistake. The leftist argument goes that Democrats wasted time on non-material-needs issues like presidential abuse of power, extorting a foreign government for help with an election and undermining democracy and rule of law, instead of spending even more time talking about healthcare. The centrist argument goes that impeaching Trump was divisive and never a good idea to begin with because it didn’t play well in frontline districts.

This is all hogwash: there are certain principles that are worth defending far more than the politics of a a few weeks’ news cycles. Healthcare gets plenty of time in the press and public eye, and no frontline Democrats are going to lose their seats just because they supported impeaching Trump for extortion. Trump is obliterating the guardrails of democracy that separate a wobbly yet accountable system of government from a dictatorship with only the window dressing of democracy and liberal constitutional government. That is a far bigger issue than any policy platform this side of climate change.

But there’s another line of argument against impeachment that is cropping up more often: that Trump’s acquittal in the Senate is giving him unbridled free rein to behave like a dictator:

Trump appears emboldened by his acquittal in the Republican-controlled Senate, ousting individuals from his White House and administration whom he believes crossed him during impeachment. This includes Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who the Army secretary said Friday, was not under investigation after Trump hinted he may face further disciplinary action after he was dismissed from his White House post and sent back to the Pentagon early.

While some Republicans hoped the president would be chastened by the impeachment proceedings, the opposite has proven true.

He has expressed no remorse over his actions, instead seeking to strengthen his hold over the executive branch.

It’s certainly true that the president has been attempting to purge all who crossed him during the impeachment proceeding. But he has also desperately tried to do likewise against all who crossed him during the Mueller inquiry, too. That’s who he is and what he does. He’s a shameless bully whose response to being caught in wrongdoing is to double down on his bad conduct and attempt to punish those who held him accountable.

What these narratives leave unspoken is the contrafactual: what sort of lesson would Trump have taken from not being impeached? If it had come out that the president had attempted to bribe and extort a foreign leader by withholding crucial aid unless he announced a fraudulent investigation into the president’s chief (at the time) political opponent and Democrats had failed to take the utmost action, what would Trump have done then?

Sure, Lt. Col. Vindman and his brother would still have their jobs, as would Ambassador Sondland. But Trump would have been triply emboldened by the fact that not only would his own political party shamelessly run interference for him, but even the opposition party would be so cowed that it wouldn’t even bother to place the stain of impeachment on his presidency. Could there be any doubt that he would do the same thing again and in even larger fashion?

Trump now knows that if he attempts to solicit foreign interference in an election, the Democratic House will impeach him for it, even in an election year. He knows that if he is caught doing it again, the House may well impeach him again, laying out the evidence for weeks in front of the American people. He knows that he is on notice and that the opposition party will, in fact, take the maximum action it can without actively instigating a Constitutional crisis.

The fact that Trump has been behaving like a raving tyrant since his corrupted acquittal by Senate Republicans does not mean he is unleashed. It simply means he is vindictive. But he is vindictive precisely because the House has dared to constrain him, even if ever so slightly, and Trump cannot stand being told what to do.

Which is why it’s incredibly important to keep telling him what to do, mocking his narcissistic ego and belittling his sense of impunity as often as possible with whatever tools exist in the Democratic arsenal. Let the blowhard explode like a furious teakettle. His furious rages are a show of weakness, not of power. They are the actions of a spoiled child unexpectedly chastened, not a confident adult in control of his destiny.

Pushing him to this point was not a mistake. It was what Democrats were capable of doing under the circumstances. And it was the right thing to do.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.