14th January 2021
Yesterday the president of the United States was impeached.
That is a sentence that should be neither typed nor read very often, as an impeachment is – and should be – an extraordinary thing.
The power of impeachment exists in a constitution when ordinary political processes are unable to address a particular problem.
This is only the fourth impeachment in the history of the United States, though the second time it has happened to President Donald Trump.
Any impeachment is extraordinary and rare – but what, if any, significance did yesterday’s vote of the house of representatives have?
Did the vote signify either the start or the finish of some thing?
Or was it more an illustration of something already in existence and not likely to go away soon?
Or does it not have any real significance or even illustrative value – and so was just another extraordinary political event to join the clutter of other extraordinary political events of the last four or five years?
An impeachment vote, of course, is only one step in the constitutional process of removing a president.
There still needs to be a trial before the senate, and the senate will then either convict or acquit.
A conviction would, of course, be significant.
It would be the first conviction of a president, the previous three impeachments each having ended with an acquittal.
And if the conviction happened before the end of this presidential term then it would also be the first removal of a siting president.
Such an outcome would have a profound significance, being the first and only example in the history of the United States of the constitution being exerted so as to expel the holder of the presidential office.
A conviction by the senate would be the first time the deeper magic of the constitution has been used to crack the stone table of the presidency.
For such an outcome there are two further conditions: (1) the senate has to vote to convict and (2) that vote has to happen in the next six days.
Both of these conditions are capable of being fulfilled, but both currently seem unlikely.
Of course, a senate that recently was able to confirm the appointment of a supreme court judge at speed should be able to deal just as urgently with an impeachment trial.
The indications, however, are that the senate will not commence any trial until 19th January 2021, and that would mean any trial would go beyond the inauguration of the new president, Joseph Biden.
And, unless the senate is back in session sooner than the 19th January 2021, the significance of yesterday’s vote will not be that it lead to the removal of a sitting president.
The stone table of the presidency will remain uncracked.
But what of a conviction after Trump leaves office?
That could still happen even though his term of office would be unaffected.
Such a conviction would (or could) result in Trump’s disqualification from holding and enjoying ‘any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States’.
And this would have the practical consequence of preventing Trump from being elected ever again as president.
(Though similar outcome could be achieved perhaps by a formal holding of some kind – legislative or judicial – that Trump had engaged in insurrection and was thereby barred under section 3 of the fourteenth amendment.)
Such a conviction would be significant – as it would show that constitutionalism still prevailed over the abuse of presidential power.
It would signify that what Trump did (and did not) do on 6th January 2021 was constitutionally unacceptable, and that there should be serious consequences of that constitutionally unacceptable conduct.
But even this profound outcome still depends on a conviction after a senate trial.
For both the possibilities set out above, the significance of the impeachment vote is that it has started a process that may, or may not, have a profound outcome.
But what was the significance, if any, of the impeachment vote in and of itself?
What was certainly notable about the vote was that it demonstrated both Democratic unity and Republican division.
Most of the speeches of those on favour of impeachment, and the statements of the ten Republican representatives who voted in favour, matched the gravity of what happened on 6th January 2021.
And that the vote was bipartisan – so bipartisan that Republican support reached double-figures – showed that the president’s misconduct was so serious that it transcended normal partisanship.
This signifies that Trump’s unconstitutional behaviour no longer has the solid support of the Republican party bloc.
At least as significant, if not far more so, was that so many Republican congressmen and congresswomen were steadfast in opposing impeachment, despite the events of last week.
The impression one formed watching the speeches of Republican representatives was that there was nothing – nothing at all – that Trump could do that would be so wrong that it would lead to his impeachment.
That whatever Trump did or not do would always be beyond the reach of constitutional mechanisms.
That when Trump and constitutionalism conflicted, then Trump would prevail.
A number of Republicans expressly dismissed the impeachment as merely an exercise of Democrat partisanship.
And by doing so, they flipped from partisanship within a constitutional framework to the hyper-partisanship which disregards and denies the primacy of constitutional norms.
This means that rather than the vote signifying either the beginning of a process or the end of a presidency (or of a political career) it was more of a stark illustration of an ongoing problem.
The problem of hyper-partisanship, which is as much a threat to constitutionalism as the storming of the Capitol.
This hyper-partisanship is, in turn, in the service of populist authoritarian nationalism – the very politics that is perhaps most in need of being constrained by constitutional norms.
And so the ultimate significance of yesterday’s vote to impeach the president may therefore be not so much that there was bipartisan support, but that there were so many in opposition and on what basis.
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