The Socialist Case for Impeachment
“We’re going to impeach the motherf***er,” vowed Democratic Socialist Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib just hours after taking office in January. Her call expressed the rage of millions at Predator-in-Chief Donald Trump.
Tlaib’s battle cry also gave voice to activists’ accumulated frustration with the Democratic leadership’s refusal to act decisively against Trump’s blatant racism, barbaric caging of children and separation of families, destruction of the environment, trampling on women’s and LGBTQ rights, and attacks on the healthcare of millions.
Yet in late September, Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership suddenly reversed course and launched an impeachment inquiry in response to Trump’s demand that Ukraine investigate Joe and Hunter Biden in exchange for US aid.
Over half of the House Democrats had already publicly declared they supported starting an impeachment inquiry before Pelosi’s U-turn. This reflected the pressure of the progressive Democratic base, as well as growing alarm among sections of the ruling class that Trump was damaging and destabilizing their system. With calls for impeachment surging after the Ukraine scandal erupted, Pelosi was faced with losing control over the process if she continued to stonewall.
Previously the foremost advocates for impeachment had been progressive Democrats, but now Pelosi and the establishment have firmly put themselves in the driver's seat.
Impeachment, like all political questions, is a contested terrain. The Democratic establishment aims to frame it in a nationalistic fashion which furthers a hawkish foreign policy. They attack Trump on the grounds of defending “national security,” in other words, the interests of US imperialism.
The foreign policy establishment is outraged that Trump's personal Ukraine agenda would undermine the ability of US imperialism to defend its interests against Russia. US military, diplomatic, and foreign policy elites were driven further into a frenzy when Trump recklessly withdrew US forces from Syria, betraying the Kurds and handing a victory to Iran, Russia, and the Assad regime.
Behind this is the larger agenda of the political establishment to return to the “normal” political order that persisted for decades before Trump. The fact that this so-called order triggered the disorder of Trump’s 2016 victory does not seem to enter into their calculations.
Ambivalence on the Left
This conservative agenda has led many on the radical left to adopt a deeply ambivalent attitude toward the current impeachment effort. The Democratic Socialists of America’s elected leadership, the National Political Committee (NPC), took a negative stance on impeachment on October 8, arguing:
the impeachment process will [not] do anything to bring working class people into the political process. ...
…As the Democrats push for an impeachment, we believe it’s essential that DSA continues to fight as and with the working class for demands that will shift power away from the 1%. We know that both Nancy Pelosi and Trump are a part of this ruling elite. Though they might find themselves at odds now, in the end they will both be against the demands of the working class and any platform that unites them. ...We will continue to fight against the whole capitalist class by campaigning for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, improved public education for all ages, and Bernie Sanders.
It is absolutely correct to analyze the politics of impeachment in class terms. However, the NPC statement misses the forest for the trees.
Standing on the sidelines during the impeachment process only leaves the field to be dominated by the pro-capitalist forces in the Democratic Party. And it is this field to which tens of millions of working-class and middle-class people, desperate to see Trump gone, are turning.
The socialist left needs to engage in this struggle from an independent socialist standpoint, striving to extend its political influence by linking the discussions around impeachment to a working-class agenda.
The DSA NPC stated, “Democrats holding power only responded to Trump’s actions because [he] attempted to impact others in the capitalist class, particularly Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic front-runner for 2020.”
There is more than a grain of truth in this analysis. The same dynamic was at play in the impeachment of Richard Nixon over his illegal surveillance of the Democratic Party. Nixon and previous presidents from both parties carried out far worse repression against the civil rights movement, anti-war movements, and socialist organizations like the Black Panthers. But Nixon crossed a line by targeting another ruling-class party.
However, our political revolution against the billionaire class should use every opportunity to mobilize working-class power and exploit divisions within the ruling elite. A left campaign should link impeachment with opposition to the policies that created Trump in the first place.
This can open the doors for much deeper changes such as Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, canceling student debt, tuition-free higher education, dismantling the racist mass incarceration system, and ending US wars and occupations.
We agree with the DSA NPC that we will not win these demands merely by impeaching Donald Trump, but impeachment can be an important stepping stone.
Is Impeachment a Distraction?
Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin, laid out the left case against impeachment in an article, “Impeachment is the wrong way to beat Trump”:
I find everything about Trump, from his demeanor to the human costs of his policies, to be reprehensible. But I fear squandering a historic opening to advocate for social reforms in exchange for some political theater.
However, getting rid of Trump as fast as possible is the most immediate, pressing need facing working people and the oppressed. In fact, it is the communities most under attack from Trump’s administration who most strongly support impeachment.
According to a Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted from October 1-6, 2019, 65% of women support the impeachment inquiry compared to 51% of men. The difference between white and non-white recipients was even starker, with 71% of non-white recipients supporting impeachment compared to 51% of white respondents.
Moreover, impeachment is now happening and is unavoidably dominating the political landscape. Either the left will intervene on the actual terrain that exists to fight to extend its influence, or it will be marginalized as long as impeachment dominates politics.
Max Sawicky hit the nail on the head in his October 3 response to Sunkara in In These Times: “If you’re trying to build a mass political organization while ignoring the political issue everybody in the country is talking about, you’re doing it wrong.” He continues, “a failure of the Left to take up impeachment leaves the field to lowest-common-denominator neocon/neoliberal politics, with which after all we are competing.”
In the debate in DSA earlier this year over endorsing Bernie Sanders, some activists similarly argued in an abstract manner to turn away from the real development of the Sanders campaign, instead mechanically focusing on their preferred forms of struggle. At that time we wrote:
the left-wing instinct that ‘the election is a distraction’ and that ‘the key is to build DSA instead’ is mistaken. No matter what DSA or the rest of the radical left does, we are not going to be able to alter the reality that US politics over the next two years will be dominated by the presidential election… Given these objective conditions, the question facing socialists is ‘not should this happen,’ but ‘what can we do to have an impact on how this is expressed?’ ...
…DSA should actively engage on the field of Bernie’s campaign with the aim of building support for socialist politics. Abstaining from this battle does not strengthen the support for radical politics—it means isolating ourselves from this critical site of struggle and radicalization.
Restoration or Rebellion?
In contrast to the establishment’s agenda to restore the pre-Trump status quo, the left should fight for impeachment to open the doors to radical change. We should combine the struggle to remove Trump with the positive alternative of electing Bernie Sanders to carry through a political revolution against the billionaire class.
The Democratic Party leadership wants to narrowly focus impeachment on the Ukraine affair. From a left-wing standpoint, Trump should be impeached for this brazen breach of democracy—and for a plethora of other abuses of power.
Many on the left will be frustrated that Congress does not also impeach Trump for his many other crimes against working-class and oppressed people. But when the gangster Al Capone was brought down on tax evasion, few of his victims quibbled over the details of the charges. We too should welcome any opportunity to drive out the contemptible reactionary Donald Trump.
However, it is vital that the left does not trail behind the Democratic Party leadership and echo their conservative narrative. Instead, we need to forcefully make our own working-class, consistently democratic, socialist case for impeachment.
Left-wing representatives in Congress like the Squad (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley) and Bernie should use the impeachment process to skillfully expose the billionaires’ agenda and promote working-class policies.
The left can put the whole system on trial by pointing out that Trump’s self-dealing and corruption are only more brazen forms of the day-to-day nepotism of a rigged economic and political system. In contrast to the hypocrisy of the establishment, DSA, the Squad, and Bernie should call out the perfectly legal corruption of Hunter Biden profiting from his father’s office and Joe Biden’s failure to recuse himself from responsibilities that overlapped with his son’s business deals in Ukraine and China.
The left should also point out that Trump’s assertions of legal impunity, while unusually crude, are all too common in our two-tier legal system where Wall Street CEOs routinely escape any legal consequences for criminal conduct, while millions of people of color and poor people are over-policed and caught up in a brutal criminal justice system.
Defending Democracy from Trump
“Against the centrist narrative of national security misconduct, the left should be arguing that [the Ukraine affair] is a perfect example of how the imperial presidency endangers democracy,” Jeet Heer argued in The Nation.
“Trump is treating the presidency as his personal fiefdom, using his office to punish his political enemies. He has been able to get away with it because Congress has, since the early days of the Cold War, abandoned its oversight powers over foreign policy.”
Trump’s claim that he can ignore congressional oversight by refusing to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry would establish a precedent and consolidate even more expansive, unchecked power in the executive branch. Trump's lawyer even suggested that the president is above the law, claiming they could literally shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without facing charges.
This is part and parcel of Trump’s authoritarian appetite. Trump has unilaterally seized funding to build his border wall without any congressional authorization, brutally clamped down on immigrant rights, encouraged racial profiling and police brutality, and threatened journalists and whistleblowers.
Trump’s assertion of new and sweeping powers reinforces the ongoing process of the US state increasingly trampling on civil liberties with mass surveillance, the “War on Terror,” and the enormous growth of police, military, and intelligence agencies. This immense, repressive power, concentrated in the executive branch, has been and will be used to repress the left and social movements that threaten the ruling elite.
Heer argues that “the question the left needs to highlight is whether Americans want to continue vesting the presidency with all the terrible powers of surveillance and death when the office could easily fall into the hands of a deranged figure like Trump.”
Impeaching Trump would be a powerful check, restraining the power of future presidents. From a working-class point of view, this is about democratic rights, in other words, the conditions we face when we fight back against the billionaire class.
John Yoo, an advocate of executive power and an infamous apologist for torture in the George W. Bush administration, opposes impeachment for exactly this reason. In a New York Times editorial, he warned that impeachment would “do long-term harm to the presidency and our national security.”
If Mike Pence becomes president in such a scenario of impeachment and popular resistance, he would be a weak and highly constrained president. Working-class and left-wing movements will face much better conditions and be able to deal with him from a stronger position.
What About the Republican Senate?
Given the Republican majority in the Senate, Trump will most likely not be convicted and removed from office (which requires two-thirds to pass in the Senate). Nevertheless, impeachment is having a positive political impact.
If Congress were to ignore Trump’s outrageous abuse of office, it would mean a de facto acceptance of a dangerous expansion of presidential powers, establishing a precedent to be abused by future presidents. Impeachment in the House, even if voted down in the Senate, still sends a powerful signal.
The House’s impeachment inquiry has thrown the White House into disarray and forced Trump to focus on combating it. Such a defensive posture, where Trump and congressional Republicans are hamstrung rather than pushing forward their reactionary agenda, can only be welcomed by the left.
Given the hypocrisy of the Democratic establishment and how they alienate key sections of working- and middle-class people, there are risks that impeachment could rebound in Trump’s favor. Trump will no doubt exploit the Democratic establishment’s weaknesses by pointing to the corruption of Biden and other Democratic luminaries, as well as making populist appeals against a political elite trying to “overturn” the 2016 election.
However, the spotlight on Trump’s corruption and misconduct has so far resulted in a swing of public opinion against Trump and toward impeachment. This has opened cracks in congressional Republicans’ support for Trump. It appears likely that, on balance, impeachment will politically weaken Trump and force a number of Senate Republicans to take a politically difficult vote that could undermine their electoral prospects.
Furthermore, it can not be ruled out that the Senate will vote to remove Trump or that Trump will resign (like Nixon did). Opposition to Trump has been growing among key sections of the ruling class. A combination of popular anger and elite opposition could see the Senate vote to convict Trump, though this appears unlikely.
The Democrats’ narrow parliamentary and public relations strategy will only be able to exert so much pressure on Republican senators. It would be more effective to make a working-class political appeal against Trump, along with a strategy of mass struggle outside Congress.
Mass protests, occupations of senators’ offices, civil disobedience, and working towards strike action would all greatly increase the pressure on the ruling class. We should remember that as recently as this January the threat of a strike by Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, sent Republican lawmakers scurrying to end the government shutdown.
Even if such an approach is unable to get the necessary 67 votes in the Senate, it would help to raise working people’s fighting spirit and strengthen left-wing organizations, thus creating a more favorable terrain for Bernie Sanders’ campaign and the fight for demands such as Medicare for All, taxing the rich, a Green New Deal, abolishing ICE, and ending sexual harassment.
Philip Locker is a DSA activist, a member of the Seattle Education Association, and the editor of Reform & Revolution.