Can newspapers and news networks salivate? To judge by the coverage of the rapidly accelerating impeachment process, one might think so.
In every corner of the prestigious media, print or electronic (Fox News always excepted), a palpable sense of anticipation is evident: A greatly feared and much-loathed predator, now badly wounded, is being run to ground. After a long and frustrating chase, his pursuers are closing in for the kill.
The end is approaching, or at least it appears to be. This describes the hopes of many millions of our fellow citizens, whose love of country I would not presume to question. More than a few of them see President Trump’s removal from office as necessary to save America and preserve our democracy. They may be right.
Yet assume success — assume Trump’s ouster. Then what?
Under the terms of our Constitution, Vice President Mike Pence will succeed to the presidency. Optimists might hope that our present crisis will thereby pass, Americans setting aside their differences to rally around their new commander in chief.
For at least three reasons, this is not likely to happen. First, as Trump’s most loyal — make that supine — lieutenant, Pence will command little legitimacy outside the ranks of the Republican Party. He will lack real authority to govern — and from day one will be the lamest of lame ducks. Don’t expect a replay of 1974 when Gerald Ford’s ascent to the presidency, replacing the disgraced Richard Nixon, elicited a collective sigh of relief. For all who despise Trump, President Pence will become an instant target of contempt.
Second, the relentless approach of another presidential election less than a year away will pour yet more fuel on the flames of partisanship. Send Trump packing, and the aftermath won’t be reconciliation. The political war that began at Trump’s 2017 inauguration will continue, with gloves off and no prisoners taken. The most extreme elements of both the right and the left will command center stage, with moderates marginalized.
And God save the Republic, Trump himself just might take another ride down the escalator and declare himself a candidate. If you think that’s unthinkable, think again.
Third and most important, Trump’s removal may well impart new energy to Trumpism. The aggrieved who voted him into office won’t quietly accommodate themselves to what the president’s defenders are already loudly and defiantly insisting amounts to little more than an attempted coup. Rather than preserving the Constitution, impeachment followed by conviction in the Senate will subject the Constitution to stress not seen since the Civil War.
So we are indeed entering dangerous waters. The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago this month, offers a timely reminder of how suddenly a seemingly stable political order can come apart. Allow me to make two modest suggestions that might reduce the likelihood of the United States suffering the fate of East Germany, the Soviet Union, and the entire Soviet empire.
First, serious journalists should recover a modicum of balance. To succumb to “Trump derangement syndrome” only validates the tabloid-style sensationalism of those publications lower down on the journalistic food chain. Everywhere today there is hyperbole, a tendency furthered by the virtual collapse of any distinction between reportage and commentary.
Trump’s charges of “fake news” are manifestly self-serving. What citizens are actually offered today is Manichean news, with the lines between right and wrong, good and evil, bright and definitive. Yet truth is almost always complicated, as will the truth of what the nation is experiencing today eventually prove to be. So reporters and editors should take a deep breath and return to their calling: reporting the news, rather than presuming to expound on its significance. They owe it to their country in its time of need.
Second, members of Congress should think about the day after — the wreckage that Trump’s removal from office will leave in its wake. Would that our political system allowed for some equivalent of ancient Sparta’s Council of Elders — a group of wise and mature citizens able to rise about the controversies of the moment and chart a way forward. We have no such body to which we can turn.
Somehow, now, when the loudest and most impassioned voices are those coming from the far right and far left, what little remains of a political center needs to recover its gumption. The center, not the extremes, must find a way to restore civility and, by extension the possibility of restoring actual governance after Trump. That way lies the possibility of salvation.
Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory” is due out in January.