WASHINGTON — Many people who would rejoice to see the last of President Donald Trump nonetheless fear that impeaching him is a bad idea. The country, after all, is headed into an election year, and voters will soon have the opportunity to sort this matter out for themselves. If Trump survives impeachment, then the 2020 election will be focused on Trump’s flexible-to-the-point-of-dislocation moral standards rather than on policy, where the president is especially weak. And any attempt to impeach him is all too likely to damage former vice president Joe Biden, his most viable opponent. Trying to remove Trump may perversely make him more likely to be reelected.
For centrist conservatives who might be impeachment-friendly, it poses another, special danger: that conservative voters will rally to his side, cementing the man’s control of the rubble-strewn territory where they’d hoped to rebuild their beloved movement. The fear is reinforced by the sense among many of them that impeachment cannot work, that this will end with Republican senators professing even more slavishly loyalty to His Mighty Orangeness.
But even among conservative politicians, most of Trump’s support comes from people who are afraid of him, but not enamored.
Which means that if public opinion turns in favor of impeachment, the Republican senators currently muttering “Nothing to see here, move along” may easily find their “questions” about his “troubling” behavior easily ripening into a firm belief that the president needs to go. Trump will have no party loyalty or longstanding relationships to fall back on; if voters are on board, Republicans will defenestrate Trump with great speed and greater joy.
For that to happen, though, a clear majority of the public must back impeachment. Not a mere plurality, or even a slim majority, but somewhere north of 60% of Americans saying they want the president removed. That would spare GOP senators the difficult choice between conscience and political expedience: A pro-impeachment majority that large would mean losing not only the presidency but also the seats of many senators who voted to keep Trump in office.
The polls are already moving in that direction, though not by anywhere near enough to budge Senate Republicans. Mostly it’s still Democrats who always wanted to impeach Trump — though only if their party could get away with it. But a growing number of independents and even some Republicans are leaning that way.
Now that a previously stable consensus is changing, it may change fast. We like to think that we form our beliefs based purely on facts and reason, but in truth they are shaped by what it is acceptable for “people like me” to believe. If a few bellwether “people like me” change their minds, the unthinkable can quickly become the inevitable.
That outcome isn’t necessarily the most likely one. Pro-impeachment public opinion is still a long way from polling in the 60s, and may never get there. Even if it does, legitimate questions would remain about whether it’s best for the country to let an election year be dominated by an impeachment, especially when Democrats’ determination to impeach the president was clear long before the pretext for doing so arrived.
Those questions will be especially difficult for Republicans because, as writer Jonathan V. Last has pointed out, Trump won’t slink off like President Richard Nixon if the party says it’s time to go. Trump couldn’t care less about the GOP, except as a vehicle for his own aggrandizement. Moreover, the high point of his presidency, which won him genuine plaudits even from conservatives who openly revile him, was his decision to stick with Brett Kavanaugh when everyone else was saying it was obvious his Supreme Court nomination would have to be withdrawn. You can be sure that Trump took a lesson from that: Don’t listen to the political strategists, and definitely don’t surrender, no matter how bad it looks.
For Trump to be removed, then, it won’t be enough for his party’s leaders to decide that they’d be better off without him. A large majority of the public will have to decide that they can’t stand another minute of him — and then GOP leaders will have to go to war with their own president, who will hunker down in the Oval Office with his shrinking band of supporters.
Contra the naysayers, I think it’s possible this will happen. I think it might be better for the country, and even the Republican Party, if it did. But I do agree with them on one point: It sure won’t be easy.
Distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group. Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter: @asymmetricinfo.