Introduction: Thinking impeachment outside the Mueller box
If ever a U.S. president deserved impeachment, it’s Donald Trump. Right after Trump’s inauguration, even before Robert Mueller launched his investigation, Free Speech for People and Roots Action had launched a petition campaign demanding Trump be impeached on the very solid legal ground of his violations of the U.S. Constitution’s domestic and foreign emoluments clauses.
Considering how the prohibitive cost of national election campaigns makes billionaires likelier than ever to run for president, dusting off the Constitution’s wise if forgotten emoluments provisions seems crucial to ensuring future billionaire presidents (if we’re foolish enough to elect any) don’t let personal business interests “trump” their loyalty to the nation’s good. Given Trump’s notorious corruption—he even used his grasp of political corruption as a campaign selling point—impeaching Trump over emoluments seemed a prudent way to make presumptuous political neophyte billionaires think twice about ever running again, given the high personal cost of divestment from business interests our Constitution pretty clearly demands.
Wise and constitutionally solid as an emoluments-based impeachment seems, Congress—and most to the point, Congressional Democrats—never were the least bit interested in that sound anti-corruption approach. Not that it was the only publicly supported basis for impeaching Trump available. To date, Free Speech for People and RootsAction have complied almost 1.5 million signatures on their joint Impeach Trump Now petition, which now lists a host of solid grounds for impeachment beyond Trump’s blatant violations of the Constitution’s domestic and foreign emoluments clauses.
Seeking to spread the widest net for public support in their grounds for impeachment, Impeach Trump Now’s initiators have included reasons stemming from the Mueller report in their list. While some of those grounds may be legally sound, including them strikes me as politically imprudent and potentially self-defeating for the cause of impeachment. Why? Because the Democratic Party establishment and their servile corporate media reprehensibly warped the Mueller investigation into an obsessive “Russian collusion” witch hunt, thereby grievously harming Democrats’ public image, their prospects of impeaching Trump, and even their chances of winning the 2020 election. If establishment Democrats gain control of the impeachment narrative, their self-serving, voter-wearying Russiagate tale will likely crowd out far more compelling reasons for impeaching Trump—more dramatic, groundbreaking reasons that could inflict irreparable electoral harm on Republicans in 2020 and beyond.
By far the most dramatic and easy-to-establish reason—one that won’t mire Congress in endless, tedious months of beating the Russian dead horse (or bear)—is Trump’s beyond-criminal climate policy. And Democrats can easily enhance the riveting, newsmaking drama of that impeachment basis by proper charge framing: there are compelling, intellectually solid reasons to stigmatize Trump’s most grievous misdeed as climate terrorism.
By boldly framing Trump’s most destructive policy as “climate terrorism,” Democrats could reverse the impression given by their failed witch hunt for Russian collusion that they’re focused on grievances as low-priority to voters as Trump’s navel lint while he inflicts unprecedented, irreparable harm on human civilization in plain sight.
By focusing on climate terrorism—by far the most radical way of “thinking outside the Mueller box”—Democrats could prove to voters that they care more about the common good than self-serving partisan priorities like the Russiagate narrative. Given the extremely short timetable for climate action, the entire future of civilization probably depends on Democrats convincing voters that climate-denying Republicans are intolerably bad news. Given how horribly Democrats have botched this urgent task of persuasion to date, a fresh, dramatic messaging strategy—like the one I propose here—will surely be required.
Exploiting Republicans’ most suicidal gamble
As journalist Allan Nairn brilliantly explained nearly a year before Mueller released his report, Democrats made an insanely risky gamble in pinning virtually their entire anti-Trump case on Russian collusion. For our purposes, I’ll quote a whole prescient passage from Nairn’s Intercept interview here (emphasis mine):
Look, Trump is a guy who’s guilty of almost everything, in a meaningful sense. Yet, here, the Democrats have pinned the political future of the world on nailing him for the one thing of which he may in fact be innocent: Russia collusion. I mean, he’s guilty of just about everything else. But maybe there is no hard proof of Russia collusion. And my God, what a bitter, disgusting irony that would be if the whole edifice of opposition to Trump comes crashing down, if that speculative bet that that can be proven fails to pay off. It’s irresponsible to devote the majority of your political resources to that when so many other things are more substantively important, and also beyond debate.
One thing that’s far more substantively important—and beyond debate in the face of humanity’s climate emergency—is the criminal insanity of Trump’s climate policy. Which is essentially everyday Republican climate policy on steroids. Again, Nairn gives us a crystalline intellectual lens for grasping Trump’s exacerbation of normally extremist Republican tendencies. Nairn’s Intercept interview is fittingly titled “Allan Nairn on How Trump Dragged a Rightist Revolution to Power.”
Nairn’s word dragged, when combined with his phrase rightist revolution, couldn’t possibly be more insightful. As Nairn points out, Republicans’ agenda—an extremist oligarch agenda put into play roughly around 1980—is so contrary to the interests of ordinary voters and therefore so unpopular it couldn’t possibly win democratic elections on its own merits. So in part, Republicans have had to rely on an antiquated, anti-democratic Electoral College and Senate (which radically overrepresents small rural states), red-state voter suppression laws, district gerrymandering, and democracy-crushing court appointees to maintain any grip on power.
But they’ve also had to rely on demagogues who pander to the worst tendencies in their non-oligarch base. Trump is by far the most dangerous and despicable of such demagogues, exploiting every yahoo tendency in average people that democracy’s elitist critics go spasmodic over. While Nairn rightly emphasizes racism, he fails to mention a dangerous, resentful anti-intellectualism that castrates every worthwhile impulse in democracy. If democracy is about developing human potential to its fullest (and electing capable leaders), average people need to admire the intellectual quest for truth and cultivate the budding intellectual in themselves.
Trump’s unrelenting attack on climate science is yahoo anti-intellectualism at its worst and most dangerous. In its unprecedented potential for apocalyptic global harm, and its roots—like all terrorism—in irrational, extremist ideologies, Trump’s catastrophic environmental policy fully deserves the name of climate terrorism. Trump’s policies flow directly from extremist Republican market fundamentalism and yahoo science denial, elevated to that status of a fanatical religious cult. In the case of Trump’s vice-president Mike Pence, the fanaticism is literally religious.
By making an extremist bet against science itself—and therefore against reality—Republicans have unwittingly staked their future on a gamble even more suicidal than Democrats’ self-destructive Russiagate obsession. Since science is humanity’s most provably reliable tool for grasping the nature of reality itself, reality itself will gradually, inevitably avenge the suicidal folly of betting against science. While average people regrettably harbor yahoo anti-intellectual tendencies, those tendencies can’t overthrow the direct evidence of their senses—especially when that evidence is accompanied by real physical danger and pain. Nature itself, via unprecedented wildfires, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes, is now making far more convincing climatology arguments to average people than any “lab-coated egghead” ever could. By denying verifiable reality, Republicans have—wittingly or unwittingly—chosen political suicide. What’s at stake in 2020 is either suicide for a criminally insane party—led by a Climate-Terrorist-in-Chief—or for civilization as we know it.
By denying what’s really at stake in 2020, Democrats are practicing their own form of climate crisis denial. By impeaching Trump for his obvious worst crime—climate terrorism—Democrats could place our climate emergency where it belongs: squarely at the center of 2020 presidential debate. Thereby both undoing the self-inflicted political harm of Democrats’ own crazy Russiagate gamble and guaranteeing Republicans’ even crazier gamble against reality itself has appropriate suicidal effect. Unless Democrats step up and assist the GOP’s long-overdue political suicide, they’re almost certainly assisting humanity’s.
Needless to say, a Republican-controlled Senate won’t convict Trump on charges of climate terrorism, even if House Democrats miraculously find the guts to impeach him on the charge. (Only relentless climate movement pressure—recommended here—can force them to do so.) But the whole point is to crucify Republicans in the 2020 election for colluding with Trump’s climate terrorism, as their voting to acquit him will prove.
But Trump’s climate policy isn’t a crime …
Probably the lamest argument offered against impeaching Trump for his terroristic climate policy is that such policy isn’t a statutory crime. At the risk of provoking twits who get fanatically silly over “Godwin’s law,” I’ll simply point out that neither, under German law, were most of Hitler’s and Nazis’ egregious crimes against humanity. The worse one’s government, the more likely existing law has a very tenuous relationship to the common good; the raison d’être for most of Trump’s high court appointees is to guarantee that the common good plays no role whatsoever in how U.S. law gets interpreted and takes effect. For the best of reasons, folk wisdom has forever embraced the slogan “there ought to be a law.”
In urging Trump’s impeachment for climate terrorism, I readily acknowledge that I’m thinking outside the box—not just the Mueller investigation box, but the box of conventional thinking about grounds for impeachment. It strikes me that a crisis as grave as humanity’s climate emergency fully justifies doing so. Faced with that crisis, Trump’s climate policy is by far the most reckless, dangerous, reprehensible thing he’s done. Noam Chomsky is worth quoting here (emphasis mine):
It is hard to find words to describe the fact that the most powerful country in world history is not only withdrawing from global efforts to address a truly existential threat, but is also dedicating itself to accelerating the race to disaster, all to put more dollars in overstuffed pockets. No less astounding is the limited attention paid to the phenomenon.
For human societies, composed of rational animals who reason via language, dealing with unnamed, unprecedented evils is precisely a matter of finding words, of stigmatizing those grievous misdeeds in morally outraged language that sooner or later becomes the substance of law. My proposed language here is “climate terrorism,” to emphasize both the insane wanton destruction caused by Trump’s climate policies and those policies roots’ in extremist, irrational ideology—virtually an anti-science religious cult. This language harmonizes well with Allan Nairn’s perceptive realization that Trump has dragged a rightist revolution into power; destroying the planet based on cult-like right-wing ideology is exactly what we’d expect of such a revolution. Just as we’d expect garden-variety terrorists to strap on suicide vests.
Besides harmonizing well with Nairn’s framework of a rightist revolution, my scheme of impeaching Trump for climate terrorism harmonizes well with the British legal tradition behind the Constitution’s stated impeachment basis of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” James Madison specifically suggested this language because his fellow Framers, many deeply versed in British law, were familiar with it. But even in British usage, the exact meaning of the phrase was vague, probably deliberately so. The Framers were, if anything, more conscious in opting for vagueness; legendary Supreme Court Justice John Marshall explained why. Marshall wrote, “[the] constitution [is] intended to endure for ages to come and, consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.” If anything is a “crisis of human affairs,” it’s got to be the existential crisis of humanity’s climate emergency.
An argument from another reputable Constitutional source only strengthens my case. Jon Roland of the Constitution Society more specifically glosses the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” as follows (emphasis mine):
Under the English common law tradition, crimes were defined through a legacy of court proceedings and decisions that punished offenses not because they were prohibited by statutes, but because they offended the sense of justice of the people and the court. Whether an offense could qualify as punishable depended largely on the obligations of the offender, and the obligations of a person holding a high position meant that some actions, or inactions, could be punishable if he did them, even though they would not be if done by an ordinary person.
As president of the world’s most powerful nation, Trump certainly bears no ordinary obligations and, independently of statutes, his fanatically reckless trampling of climate science grievously offends the sense of justice of all informed, rational people—and would offend Congress if Congress represented us. Why should mere statutes matter when the extinction-menacing injustice of Trump’s climate policy reeks to high heaven?
In short, there are potent Constitutional grounds to impeach Trump for climate terrorism, and doing so would forcefully deter any Republican “rightist revolutionary” (say, Armageddon lover Mike Pence) from pursuing similar ecocidal policies. To defeat dangerous global terrorists, we must first publicly identify them. Though I speak only for myself here, I strongly urge my own Bernie or Bust 2.0 movement, along with other climate-concerned grassroots movements like Sunrise and the Extinction Rebellion, to clamor for Trump’s impeachment on climate-terrorist grounds.