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Corey Robin: What Trump’s Impeachment Could Mean

Impeachment could, in theory, turn Donald Trump into an even bigger symbol of a rotten political and social order. It could help bury the Reagan order once and for all. But establishment Democrats would never be interested in the type of impeachment that fundamentally challenged the status quo.

US president Donald Trump waves as he walks along the West Wing Colonnade before departing from the White House on January 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson / Getty

Over the last four years, I’ve argued that this is a potential moment of realignment, where the Reagan regime we’ve been living under could be shattered and repudiated, and replaced by a new political regime.

One of the reasons I’ve pressed so hard on the Trump/Carter comparison is to point out that the Reagan regime, like the New Deal regime in the 1970s, is more vulnerable than we realize. I continue to maintain that Trump’s inability to rule—most spectacularly put on display this past week—reflects the crumbling power of that regime.

That doesn’t mean the regime can’t do damage on its way out. The last sentence of my book, The Reactionary Mind, makes a point of saying “how much it [the Reagan regime] will take with it on its way out, remains to be seen.” But that regime is far weaker than at any point since its inception.

Now we come to the question of impeachment.

The last impeachment of Trump focused on an issue that did not go to the heart of the Reagan regime but was much more about the perfidy of Trump himself. In this respect, it was not unlike the impeachment of Clinton, which was also about the man (and perhaps more loosely about the cultural changes in the country), and quite different from the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and almost-impeachment of Richard Nixon, which were focused on those men as symbols of a larger regime-type problem.

The possible promise of the impeachment of Trump now (I say possible promise deliberately, so please keep reading) is that it could, in theory, turn Trump into a much larger symbol of something more rotten. Wednesday’s mob was attacking the legislature and the results of a democratic election, in which the forces of a reactionary party suffered a blow. Not a lethal blow, but a blow. The mob’s attack was a white supremacist spasm against not a multiracial democracy but the possibility of a multiracial democracy.

And here we come to the issue of a realignment and the real stumbling block to a realignment and an impeachment that could be about something much more. If the Democrats were a party genuinely interested in realignment, they would be doing a few things. Not only would they want to win elections, but they’d want to shatter the Republican Party. More than that, they’d want to take over the state apparatus and turn it to far different ends: to genuinely empower black people (not just in terms of symbolic representation but in terms of housing, education, jobs, and criminal justice); to genuinely empower a broader working class, which includes high percentages of African Americans and people of color; and to transform all the anti-democratic vestiges of our sclerotic, ancient constitutional order (the role of the filibuster in the Senate, the non-representation of Puerto Rico, DC, and other colonies/territories, the role of the Supreme Court, and more).

If the Democrats were to pursue that political, social, economic, and cultural agenda, it would be fulfilling the promise of the Nevada primaries, where we saw a genuinely multiracial coalition striving toward a more perfect social democracy.

The impeachment and conviction of Trump by that Democratic Party could be a genuine moment of beginning. It wouldn’t shatter the Republican regime, but it would be the opening shot. It would put the GOP on notice, and it would put more hidebound forces in the Democratic Party on notice.

I have no idea whether the existing Democratic Party will in fact impeach Trump. (For the record, I think it has to; I don’t see how Wednesday’s violent storming of Congress can go unpunished, and if the impeachment should reach the Senate, the conviction has to include, as a punishment, the permanent barring of Trump from future office and, if possible, the declaration of his inability to pardon himself and his cronies. But I doubt the impeachment will get that far.)

But what I do know is that the Democratic Party as it is currently constituted is not prepared to use an impeachment to launch the kind of realignment I’m talking about. There are a lot of references today to Reconstruction, the Lost Cause, and all that, but whether or not today’s Republican Party is like the white supremacist cadre of former slaveholders and their allies, it’s very clear that today’s Democratic Party is nothing like the Republican Party that smashed the slaveocracy and then sought, through a multiracial coalition of Jacobins and proto-comrades, to reconstruct the South, to completely transform the society in which formerly enslaved and newly subjugated peoples could sit as equals in the temple of democracy.

Where does that leave us? Where we were before: in a moment of extended suspension, an interregnum between an old world and a new. I see real possibilities, in theory, for the kind of confrontation with the Reagan order, and could imagine an impeachment battle leading to the kind of confrontation within the Democratic Party that we need for a realignment. Whether it will come, I don’t know.

I don’t quite see the political forces necessary to turn these political battles of impeachment into a larger question of the social standing of citizens. But sometimes those necessary forces are summoned, to our surprise, through the very fact of struggle or limited political battle.

If it comes to impeachment, that would be my hope.