What to worry about when you worry about impeachment

Sep 28 2019

This impeachment thing worries me. But don’t worry—I’m a worrier, so my worries are probably unwarranted.  

Still, if only for therapeutic reasons, I’d like to enumerate them, after which I’ll see if, upon reflection, I can dispel them.

I have three basic nightmare scenarios: 

1. Impeachment helps Trump get re-elected. In this scenario, impeachment fails to remove Trump from office (since, after all, the Republican Senate gets the final say), but it succeeds in firing up his base by reinforcing one of his key narratives: his persecution at the hands of the deep state, the crooked media, and other elites. So in November of 2020, swing-state polling stations are awash in MAGA hats, and before you know it we’re in for another four years. Bonus bummer: We have to endure Trump’s declaring vindication when the Senate doesn’t convict.

2. Impeachment leads to a five-year or even nine-year Pence presidency. In this scenario, Trump gets convicted in the Senate. Though unlikely, this isn’t impossible. If the impeachment inquiry yields damning new revelations and Trump is so damaged by the fallout that re-election looks hopeless, a critical mass of Republican Senators who occupy safe seats or aren’t up for immediate re-election might desert him in hopes of maintaining Republican control of the White House. 
Mike Pence would then become president and, compared with Trump, might strike swing voters as presidential. (For starters, he isn’t orange and he sometimes finishes his sentences.) In which case he could then be returned to office once or even twice. By and large Pence’s policies would probably be Trumpist, as Trump’s base would have to be mollified in the wake of his Republican-abetted ouster. But Pence would likely abandon Trump’s refreshing if erratically expressed skepticism about military intervention. (Indeed, the GOP’s neocon foreign policy establishment would in this scenario have enthusiastically supported the Dump-Trump-for-Pence movement.) From my ideological perspective, at least, this is pretty much the worst of all worlds.

3. The impeachment process so intensifies America’s political polarization that for years to come, aspiring populist demagogues will have fertile ground to exploit. Of the three nightmare scenarios, this may be the most likely (and, unfortunately, it’s compatible with either of the other two). In fact, some deepening of America’s tribal divide seems pretty much unavoidable as impeachment proceeds.

OK, so those are my three big worries. Do they amount to an argument against impeachment? Not really. How impeachment plays out politically is too unpredictable for me to put huge stock in the first two scenarios, and as for the third: A modest increase in polarization might be a fair price to pay if impeachment did, one way or another, succeed in ushering Trump offstage in favor of a benign successor. 

And I guess I can imagine that happening. Let me try.

If the impeachment process is to leave Trump on balance less electable, it needs to move a fair number of voters into the anti-Trump camp (since, after all, you need to more than compensate for the galvanizing effect impeachment will have on his base). I’m far from sure that this scandal, as it stands, will do that. Though I consider the quid pro quo that Trump implicitly offered Ukraine to be a grave betrayal of his constitutional duties, I don’t think the story, so far, has the grassroots narrative power of things like flatout bribery or embezzlement or for that matter such dramatic interventions in elections as email hacking. 

But the night is young. I would direct your attention, in particular, to the three appearances of ellipses—presumably indicating excised passages—in the now-famous Ukraine phone call memo. One of them appears in the Biden part of the discussion—and note that the whistleblower’s own lawyer seems to affirm the significance of that ellipsis via a retweet. 

If the Democrats get ahold of the complete version of that memo (the one that White House lawyers have consigned to the cyber-equivalent of Fort Knox), and it turns out that any of those ellipses conceal something explosive—like, for example, an explicit quid-pro-quo—that could move the needle of public opinion. Not just because of what was excised, but because the fact of such consequential excising would so intensify the air of coverup. 

This is just one example—maybe the most promising one, for now—of future developments that could move us into what I consider the sweet spot: so damaging to Trump that re-election gets harder, but not so damaging as to trigger a mutiny among Republican senators that could lead to a Pence presidency.

So cheer up! 

OK, that’s enough cheer. Here’s the final thing that worries me: 

I haven’t seen many advocates of impeachment lay out scenarios like this, in which impeachment leads to a happy ending. In fact, it seems to me the most full-throated impeachment advocates have been short on scenarios, period. (And attempts on Twitter to elicit such scenarios—attempts by me, for example, or by noted author and activist Tim Wu—have yielded little.) Instead of outlining likely consequences of impeachment, these advocates often argue either that impeachment would be constitutionally justified (I agree) or that it’s morally compelled. 

And the moral compulsion arguments often assume this form: “Sometimes you just have to stand up for what’s right, whatever the consequences!” Which sounds appealing, until you drill down on the “whatever the consequences” part. I mean, if the consequences included, say, the destruction of the planet, that would give you pause, right? 

I’m not saying four more years of Trump is as bad as the destruction of the planet. But it’s up there. So, I’m sorry, I can’t entirely abandon my concern about the actual consequences of impeachment, especially if one of those consequences is more Trump. 

All of which bring us to…mindful resistance! Which, in addition to being the former name of this newsletter, is also a cause I remain devoted to.

You may think I’ve got a funny way of showing it. After all, doesn’t mindfulness mean, for example, not getting bogged down in anxieties and worries? 

Yes, kind of. At least, it means being sufficiently aware of the affective layer of my worries—the feeling of worrying—that I’m not unduly influenced by that, and can see clearly which worrisome scenarios are likely enough and momentous enough to be worth focusing on. In other words: it means being aware that I’m a worrier and filtering my worrisome thoughts accordingly. Which, as you can see, I’m trying to do, if with less than complete success.    

By the same token, mindfulness can help you be aware—as broadly and objectively aware as possible—of the consequences of your actions. Including the consequences of impeachment. 

Needless to say, if you strongly favor impeachment, mindfulness means trying to be aware of feelings that may be driving that. For example: Is there a retributive feeling—Let’s give Trump what he deserves!—so powerful that it could get in the way of assessing whether impeachment will or won’t work to his detriment? 

I’m just asking, not accusing. There certainly are people who strongly favor impeachment and are being reflective about it. And as time passes, more and more of them are laying out their arguments in writing (as in this recent piece by Ezra Klein arguing that, whether or not impeachment drives Trump out of office, it will have other worthwhile consequences). 

In general, I’d say that Buddhist ethics has a consequentialist leaning. It emphasizes pursuing humane outcomes through skillful action more than serving moral ideals regardless of the consequences. And mindfulness, when it’s working well, is integral to skillful action. 

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