Are there benefits and pitfalls in removing United States President Donald Trump in the final few days of his term in office?
Subsequent to his 6 January rally that ended in a mob storming Congress, Democrat leaders-including House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer-have called upon the Vice President and Cabinet to enact the 25th Amendment to remove Mr Trump or they will consider a second impeachment. A substantial number of parties, including United States and global news outlets, comedians, lobby groups, international editors and ambassadors, have likewise called for Trump's immediate removal from office. Several of Trump's own staff, including a cabinet member, have resigned. A number of sources have suggested Trump's incitement of violence at the exact moment of Congress' formalisation of the election results alongside his disproven claims of electoral fraud is akin to an attempted coup.
In many ways, preventing Trump from completing his term is prudent - his increasingly unsteadying rhetoric, use of disinformation, refusal to concede his election loss (until the aftermath of a riot he caused over those results), promotion of false conspiracy theories and endorsement of sedition and distrust in recognised constitutional processes are creating a destabilising effect on the ordinary democratic and governmental processes at the important time of an administrative transition amidst a catastrophic pandemic.
Removal by the 25th Amendment is unlikely and perhaps undesirable. Although seen as the quickest method for removing an untenable president, the provisions of Section 4 of the amendment have never previously been invoked. They allow for the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet todeclare the president "unable to discharge the powers and duties" of their office. The amendment allows the president to rebut the claim, requiring the Vice President to enact a second Cabinet vote-we can imagine a daily back-and-forth clouded by media commentary, law suits and Trumpian disinformation that confuses the public and results in further violence.
Removal by impeachment is more complex but more clear. Impeachment can only occur in the House of Representatives. Once impeached, a president can only be convicted by a two-third Senate majority, and the judgment can only extend as far as removal from office(although this does not prevent a court from trying an impeached and convicted president for a crime). Three presidents have previously been impeached (Andrew Johnson in 1868; Bill Clinton in 1998 and Donald Trump in 2019). From a social perspective, impeachment has the added benefit of involving a judgment conducted by elected representatives of the people as opposed to the appointed colleagues of the president.
A second impeachment of Trump would send a clear message that the representatives of the people do condemn the incitement to violence and use of disinformation by a sitting president. More importantly, an impeachment that ends in a Senate conviction - the first president to be removed from office - will help re-establish limits for the future of democracy.
There are three good, further reasons for impeaching the president (and voting to remove him from office) beyond the needs of the immediate next fourteen days. There are also three potential negatives that need to be navigated if impeachment is to be a remedy to America's damaged democracy.
1. A reckoning and punishment
Punishment for anti-constitutional acts is not new (protesters, rioters, and anti-establishment figures are regularly charged with crimes in all parts of the world, including the United States of America). However, a figure who is in a position of substantial influence who encourages the violent disregard for constitutional processes is doing something a little worse. Among everyday writers in the past twenty-four hours, punishing Trump for inciting violence has become a theme.
From an ethical perspective, punishing a President for openly inciting sedition and rioting-regardless of any subsequent, staid condemnation of violence and claims he supports democratic processes-involves what is sometimes called a 'Power Transfer' approach. It takes into account that the unfettered power of a public figure, a president, a celebrity, or a wealthy businessman, is greater than the capacity of ordinary people to make a difference or have a counter-argument recognised. It accounts for the fact that there they have a capacity to influence others . Punishing the mis-use of that influence is a necessary remedy to prevent further mis-use by future presidents. In that sense, the punishment aspect is educational.
2. Curtailing Trump's future ambitions
It is widely recognised that Trump will not simply disappear on 20 January. There are rumours he plans to start his own digital or TV network to further spread his brand of disinformation and chaos while maintaining a base of populist believers; likewise it is assumed he will try to win the primaries for a 2024 tilt at the White House. It is thought members of his family will attempt to enter politics-a familiar pattern among right-wing leaders, for example, far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen in France and the Porter and Downer families in Australia, among many others.
Obviously, there are good grounds for doing everything possible to curtail Donald Trump's reach and influence and, after the disastrous past four years and the catastrophic deaths caused by his inaction on COVID-19 (among many examples) preventing him, his family and his ilk from ever returning to office. Or, indeed, using their wealth and power from outside politics to drive the kind of unthinking frenzies that mark this new, dangerous and exclusionary populism.
Impeachment is not a magic bullet to make Trump and Trumpism go away, although any work to reduce the reach or credibility of his claims is valuable. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has (finally) recognised the danger a Trump cult-like populism creates for democracy and stability in the United States, banning him indefinitely from posting on Facebook and Instagram.
Importantly, there is discussion that formalising public outrage at Trump's role in the Capitol Hill violence would encourage right-wing populists and those buying into conspiracy theories to rethink their support for Trump. Shaming a single representative publicly can, indeed, have the desired effect of making affiliation, support and thoughts of repetition feel shameful among others-while undesirable, shame is a powerful tool for cementing progressive social norms as we have seen around racial inclusivity over the past few decades.
In this sense, impeachment is desirable. Using the 25th Amendment provisions to remove Trump demonstrates only that a small number of appointees no longer wish to work with him. Successful impeachment by the representatives of the people formalises and institutionalises the public condemnation and shaming of Trump that presently circulates through media and social networks.
3. Republican disinvestment
Regardless of what we may think of the Republican party, US political stability has been partly credited to their version of a two-party system, and the extensive freedom to debate and cross-the-floor in US legislative chambers.
There have been numerous calls since the beginning of Trump's administration for Republicans to distance themselves from Trump, primarily for fear that the party will be re-shaped in his image, much as it was earlier re-shaped by the policies and style of Ronald Reagan's neoliberalism in the 1980s, and then the Tea Party in the 2010s (both of which lead to setting the scene for Trumpist extremism and the culture of political anger). Mitt Romney and, before his death, John McCain were perhaps the two most outspoken senators and former presidential candidates to reject Trump's style and policies and bemoan the potential impact on their party.
An impeachment joined by large numbers of Republicans is one-among many-opportunities to begin the process of distancing the party from Trump, albeit at risk of dividing their own membership between old-school Republicans and cultish Trump populists. It may be unnecessary-Trump's own criticism of the Republicans for what he perceived as their failure to support his electoral fraud claims. Nevertheless, an impeachment that is joined by Republicans sends a clear message of a desire to restore a particular standard and decorum in political debate.
In three areas, an impeachment-rather than a removal using the 25th Amendment-will play an important role in shaping the next decade of politics in the United States and those countries which model themselves on North American culture. It may, indeed, be more important to take advantage of the opportunity to impeach now than to leave this necessary work to the Biden administration or to use legal measures after the inauguration which will keep Trump in the spotlight for much longer than necessary.
On the other hand, it is important to ask if there is a downside to removing Trump from office (other than the bureaucratic labour involved, the likely dominance of news cycles for the period, and what might appear to some as a silliness in removing from the White House a man whose days are numbered).
1. Cement his cultist base
Humiliating Trump may be counter-productive in that it may re-figure Trump as a martyr, thereby further enflaming his adherents and sustaining a wavering populist base. Defeating Trump as a person may create a symbol available to be utilised by the next Trump (Donald Jr? Ivanka?) and a further embedding of one of the central tenets many Trump cultists believe: that he is a warrior against the dark forces of a hidden Deep State who discredit truth and ruin the good. While such conspiracy theories are, of course, nonsense, the idea of an establishment culture that ruins Trump exacerbates some of the more way out ideas, and sets up the next populist to use Trump's downfall as an example.
Populist leadership rests often on a false claim of persecution (outsiderness from an establishment) and similarity (over-simplified suggests the disenfranchisement of an underclass are the same as his persecution). In that context, there may be more value in leaving Trump to prove his own downfall narrative, becoming an aged, boring figure in the background of USA politics that exacerbating his own claim to outsiderness and persecution.
2. Denigrating mental health issues
While the state of Donald Trump's mental health is unknown, the fact he has spent the past few weeks pursuing legal remedies, personal pressure on state officials, public persuasion of the Vice President to intervene in the senate, and other methods to overturn the election results in his favour indicate a highly delusional person. His belief in electoral fraud despite any evidence, and his statements that his administration has been one of the best in the union's history are likewise delusions. His denial of electoral facts indicates a severe inability to deal with or recognise empirical reality.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM III and IV) defines delusions as "false beliefs due to incorrect inference about external reality", with the DSM's fifth edition noting that delusions experienced in some psychiatric conditions are beliefs that are "clearly implausible, not understandable to same-culture peers and not derived from ordinary life experiences." Although it is actually difficult to apply a psychiatric assessment to evidence drawn mainly from tweets, there have been a number of psychologists and psychiatrists who have given pre-emptive diagnoses that Trump suffers from a severe personality disorder, including delusional behaviour. Some opinion writers have called outhis inability to concede as delusional and pointed to the dangers of his remaining in office, even for a few days.
Picking fun at a politician's mental health is an easy target; it is also easy to put poor governance and bad policies down to a mental health disorder. In the extreme case of Trump, however, we may well be looking at a serious mental health issue that warrants treatment rather than punishment, and care rather than beratement and shaming.
One of the problems of being a public figure is, of course, that one may not have the luxury of care when mental health issues emerge, and may not be able to avoid the unfortunate consequences of statements derived from delusional thinking.
Nevertheless, the present is not the time to step away from the advances in putting mental health care on the agenda by denigrating the mental health of a clearly troubled man.
For impeachment to be both successful and ethical, it would be important to ensure that Trump's delusional behaviour and erratic personality disorder are kept separate from the charges that his claims to electoral fraud incited a violent insurrection-even if this means ignoring the role that his mental health played.
3. Avoiding pettiness
Finally, while the punishment factor may be important in restoring democracy's framework in the US, an impeachment will backfire if it looks like petty revenge. This is particularly important given the petty, childish and hurtful insults Trump has delivered against many of his opponents over the past few years, in many cases making himself the figure of nasty bullying.
Whatever happens, rising above any pettiness or insult-as President-elect Biden has clearly been careful to do-is vital to the project of restoring democracy. The valid reasons for an impeachment will therefore need to be clearly communicated to the public to avoid any perception that it is petty. This is particularly significant given the goal of removal with only a few days to go is not as easily understood as the impeachment of a president much earlier in their term.
History will not be written favourably about Donald Trump and not only will his presidency be remembered as a chaotic mess driven by an ego-maniac, but he will also be a footnote in a history that sees him not as an agent of change but the unfortunate effect of a cultural populism that came about due to social inequalities, massive discrepancies in wealth, huge problems in education, the role of fantasy entertainment in providing ways of making sense of the world (as always having hidden agendas) while other forms of guidance on current affairs (that point to just how mundane most everyday politics is) wane, and the role of sensation, feeling and outrage in place of rational and calm thinking. It will also draw similarities between Trump's base rhetoric and rallies and those of past reviled historical figures.
That long-term view of history is not, however, a reason to ignore the benefits of impeachment. What is important is the mid-term future of the 2020s in which doing everything possible to smash Trump's brand of exclusionary populism, the white supremacism he has promoted, the power of QAnon conspiracies, and the illogical, non-factual and wholly misinformed thinking of many of his supporters. Undoing these, even at the risk of appearing petty or mean, will be vital to maintaining the kind of democracy that promotes progressive, inclusive approaches to the real issues of the world: equality, health, welfare, climate and peace.