Why skeptics on the left should care about impeachment

Ryan Cooper

Since the impeachment inquiry started, portions of the American left have been less than unenthusiastic about the process. It "isn't the answer to America's political crisis," writes Samuel Moyn at The Guardian. "Is it politically wise? I frankly doubt it," says Noam Chomsky in an interview with The Intercept's Mehdi Hasan.

This is an understandable sentiment — it is the feckless Democratic Party conducting the process, after all, and they appear to be trying to rush through the process as fast as possible, when they aren't inexplicably trying to give President Trump a big win on trade policy.

But this attitude is misguided. Impeachment is not a magic bullet that will stop Trump, but is an important tool to check his careening and unprecedented corruption. He cannot be allowed to turn the U.S. government into an arm of right-wing oligarchy.

To start with, President Trump's attempt to corrupt the foreign policy apparatus to directly serve his own personal political interests really is terribly dangerous. Leftists often respond to points like this by referencing previous awful conduct from American politicians, like how Nixon secretly sabotaged negotiations with North Vietnam in 1968 to keep the war going and thus boost his chances at election, or how Barack Obama used drone strikes all over the world to summarily execute alleged terrorists, killing more than 1,000 civilians in the process. The implication is that anybody who doesn't already think U.S. foreign policy is as bad as it gets is naive.

Leftists are correct to argue that the history of American foreign policy is full to bursting with moral atrocities (and I have done so on many occasions). And Nixon's action, for instance, really was far worse than anything Trump has done with Ukraine. But it can definitely get worse.

Trump is committing his corrupt acts out in the open, with the full backing of his party. For all the crimes and wars of aggression, American foreign policy has never become completely at the service of the president's political and business needs. Nixon's interference was secret for a reason (indeed, it took decades for the evidence to come to light): the strong norm that it would be wildly improper to do something like that. American foreign policy is often stunningly hypocritical, but even that hypocrisy has served as an at least partial safeguard. As George Orwell once wrote, "An illusion can become a half-truth, a mask can alter the expression of a face."

If Trump were to completely corrupt the vast foreign policy apparatus to serve his own narrow self-interest, all the actually decent things the U.S. state does overseas — like PEPFAR, $1.6 billion in funding for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the moderating influence it has served in Western Europe — would go straight out the window. Wars, drone strikes, arms sales, trade deals, and aid packages would cease to have even the slightest humanitarian or democratic justification, and would become mere levers to serve the whims of an impetuous and cruel idiot.

A gangster imperialism at the sole service of the Trump Organization and the Trump 2020 campaign would be far worse than the current (again, already quite terrible) status quo. President Clinton may have tried to soak AIDS-stricken African countries to protect the profits of American drug companies, but at least when that inspired a storm of protest, he backed off. A fully unaccountable Trump would never do that — he would just demand a cut of the proceeds.

It would also undermine American democracy. The Ukraine scandal is a struggle for many leftists because it seems to require defending Joe Biden and his son Hunter's flagrantly unethical profiting off his father's name and position. This is not true of course, one can correctly savage Hunter for corruption (and vote against his father in the primary) while noting that Trump's accusation that Joe Biden used his influence as vice president to protect his son is totally unsupported by the facts.

More importantly, the identity of Trump's target is beside the point. The problem is the president using foreign aid to blackmail another country into falsely smearing his top political opponent. Trump has already implied he would do it to Elizabeth Warren, and there is every chance he would try the same with Bernie Sanders, should he rise to the top of the pack. The man is just totally unscrupulous, and ginning up fraudulent prosecutions of political opponents is a classic way right-wing autocrats maintain their power — it's how Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency in Brazil, for instance.

Even the more obnoxious aspects of the impeachment proceedings provide a chance to shine a light on American imperialism. The professional foreign policy bureaucrats who have testified so far evince a deep faith in America's good intentions that is not only unwarranted, but also verges on anti-democratic in sentiment. As New York's Eric Levitz writes, in his testimony Alexander Vindman suggested "that one of his objectives, as an active military officer, was to safeguard 'bipartisan support' for existing U.S. policy in Ukraine ... a forthright assertion that U.S. policy in the region should not be subject to democratic dispute."

Seldom do we get to hear this perspective out in the open — but criticizing it requires at least paying attention to the impeachment hearings to suss out the good and bad arguments. Failing to do so enables liberal imperialists to portray Trump's action as not just an abuse of power, but a sin against seemingly nonpartisan national security interests — that is, the American empire.

At any rate, none of this means the left has to abandon its support of Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal, or anything else. As Bernie Sanders said at the recent presidential debate in support of the impeachment hearings, "The Congress can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time." And while impeachment will almost certainly not result in Trump being removed from office (though in this age we should not be too confident about any political predictions), it is quite clearly driving Trump up the wall, keeping him and his party on the back foot, and demonstrating to the American people that Trump has committed outrageous abuses of power. It's a valuable way of checking a cancerous, corrupt authoritarianism on the American right.

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