Richard Cohen’s latest column is sillier than usual, which is really saying something. (Hat tip to Jason Kuznicki, who sums up Cohen’s argument as “Trump is SO bad that we must not impeach him.”)
In purple, paid‐by‐the‐metaphor prose, Cohen calls our 45th president “a dust storm of lies and diversions with the bellows of a bully and the greasy ethics of a street‐corner hustler,” someone whose “possible crimes line up like boxcars being assembled for a freight train.” And yet, “we would impeach Trump at our peril.”
Why? Because the president’s hardcore supporters would view impeachment and removal as the reversal of a democratic election. Worse, some of them—possibly with Trump’s encouragement—might resort to violence. We could see “a lot of angry people causing a lot of mayhem” if Trump is impeached and removed for an offense falling “short of a triple ax murder,” Cohen warns.
Put aside the notion—itself anti-democratic—that a violent minority should enjoy a sort of heckler’s veto on a legitimate constitutional process: Cohen’s vision of Weimar‐era street brawls is almost certainly overblown. The political science blog hosted by Cohen’s own paper recently poured some cold water on the Trumpist‐insurrection scenario here.
Still, Cohen’s trepidation about any impeachment effort—even against a president he believes wholly corrupt and dangerous—is all too common. What other constitutional provision is considered so near‐blasphemous to merit its own sanitized euphemism? Treason’s a big deal, but you don’t hear people calling it the “’T’-word.”
Yet on the rare occasions that the “‘I’-word” becomes a live issue—once a generation at best—the commentariat adopts a funereal tone, insisting that such a dire remedy should only be approached in fear and trembling. We can be almost certain that something horrible will happen.
It’s not just workaday columnists, but leading constitutional scholars who hyperbolize about impeachment. Charles Black, in his classic 1973 primer Impeachment: A Handbook, writes of the “the dreadfulness of the step of removal… the deep wounding such a step must inflict on the country.” It should, Black wrote, be looked on as “high‐risk major surgery.” Actually, it’s a “constitutional nuclear weapon,” legal scholar Ronald Dworkin argued during the Clinton affair, to be used only in the “gravest emergencies,” lest it “shatter the most fundamental principles of our constitutional structure.”
More recently, Lawfare’s Jane Chong wrote a valuable essay on impeachment’s scope, in which she warns that “when the president has proven himself unfit for the office,” shrinking from removal “is no less a partisan dereliction of duty than unduly clamoring for [it].” But, she insists, impeachment is “nothing to celebrate and no better than a crime against our collective vessel, an act of barratry, when pursued for the wrong reasons…. It also involves a measure of violence from which our constitutional democracy can only slowly and by no means inevitably recover.”
Is impeachment really as grave as all that?