In July of 2019, the people of Puerto Rico showed that you can remove a corrupt chief executive without recourse to impeachment. Governor Ricardo A. Rosselló, already unpopular thanks to his administration’s incompetent response to Hurricane Maria, became the target of a mass movement pushing for his ouster after the leak of text messages demonstrating that he and his cronies were engaged in sleazy backroom deals and used crude, misogynistic language. Over the course of two weeks, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans flooded the streets in raucous, disruptive protests. There was talk of impeaching Rosselló—but that proved unnecessary once he resigned in the face of the public’s revolt.
Unleashing the power of mass protest to force resignation is rare in America but common elsewhere. Indeed, we seem to be living in an age when it’s not unusual for street protesters to topple governments. From South Korea to Spain to Iceland to Finland, street protests have played a key role in bringing down despised heads of government.
As the impeachment of Donald Trump winds its way through Congress, can mass protest play the same role in the United States as a whole as it did in Puerto Rico? Some pundits, notably Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times and Matthew Yglesias of Vox, have called for mass protests to bolster the cause of impeachment.
It’s a compelling idea but one that would involve transforming the existing impeachment, which under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been a cautious centrist project. Her main goal has been to frame an impeachment acceptable to the most conservative members of her caucus—one that is so carefully confined to issues of national security that it might even win over some moderate Republicans.
The articles of impeachment she introduced on December 10 are in keeping with her cautious approach: They narrowly focus on abuse of power and obstructing Congress. That they were introduced the same day House Democrats pushed forward with ratifying Trump’s revision to NAFTA only underscored the message of a fundamentally conservative impeachment that would not hinder business as usual.
Yale history professor Samuel Moyn is skeptical that Pelosi’s version of impeachment offers any basis for energizing mass politics. “Why the narrow charge, and why the parade of figures who basically represent Cold War foreign policy business as usual?” he asks. “The pageant in Washington lately has been playing on expected outrage that the president didn’t follow hostility to Russia as the rational course. It doesn’t seem like it’s been organized in Washington as a larger grassroots strategy. Just the reverse.” Impeachment, he worries, will be a way for moderate Democrats to join forces with never-Trump Republicans for a “centrist restoration.”
Centrists are using impeachment to cast the Trump years as a regrettable detour in American history, one that is soundly rebuked by Washington professionals who uphold a Cold War consensus that will again become the norm after he is out of office. Absent in this centrist impeachment is any acknowledgment of the systemic dangers Trump’s racism and corruption pose to American democracy—or the complicity of large swaths of the GOP in his regime. Like the funerals of John McCain and George H.W. Bush, impeachment has a largely theatrical function. It’s a way of upholding the values of the ancien regime, a foreign policy consensus currently under threat, and preparing the ground for a return to normality restoration after the vulgar demagogue is out of office.
Pelosi’s centrist impeachment, confined to the halls of power, is the very opposite of the rowdy street protests of Puerto Rico. Is it really possible to transform this centrist impeachment into something more ambitious and far-reaching—a people’s impeachment? And can such an impeachment hope to achieve the success of the mass actions seen in Puerto Rico and elsewhere?
The raw material for a people’s impeachment already exists in the infrastructure of protest built over the last three years. One of Trump’s undoubted achievements is provoking the greatest surge of mass protest America has experienced since the 1960s. A wave of mass politics was gathering strength even before Trump announced his candidacy in 2015. Barack Obama’s presidency saw the birth of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, as well as a newly energized gun control movement in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre of 2012. But these disparate movements, while important for elevating issues, were ambiguously connected to electoral politics.
Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 ignited the kindling of existing discontent, turning sparks into a forest fire. As an openly racist president with a long public record of misogyny and the habit of referring to climate change as a hoax, he is the very embodiment of everything progressives hate. As Dana Fisher observes in her 2019 book American Resistance, his election created a “moral shock” that turned many previously disengaged “nonjoiners” into activists, leading to a resistance movement that is intentional about targeting elected officials with its demands.
The day after Trump’s inauguration, his presidency was greeted by the Women’s March, which drew as many as 5.2 million protesters across the country, making it one of the largest single-day protests in American history. That was soon followed by spontaneous protests against his administration’s first Muslim ban, the March for Science, People’s Climate March, demonstrations in support of the Affordable Care Act and against Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, among many other manifestations of insurgent politics. Organized by groups like Indivisible and MoveOn, these protests had a measurable real-world impact: They helped preserve the ACA and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program as well as revitalize the Democratic Party.
Unlike earlier protest waves, the anti-Trump resistance movement was plugged into electoral politics from the start. Beyond the battles over the ACA and DACA, its goal was to use the ballot box to end unified Republican control of the government. Fisher credits these protests with helping Democrats win back the House of Representatives in 2018. But that victory also led to a tapering off of protest politics. Anti-Trump passion remains high, but the energy once displayed in street chants is now more likely to be channeled into intramural debates about the direction of the Democratic Party and the choice of a 2020 presidential nominee.
Yet impeachment could give protest politics a second wind. “The energy is there for impeachment,” says Meagan Hatcher-Mays, the director of democracy policy for the Indivisible Project, a group fighting Trump’s agenda. Working with partners like MoveOn, Indivisible plans to launch Impeachment Eve rallies in 48 states the night before the House votes on impeachment.
Lucy Flores, a Women’s March board member, says impeachment will figure heavily in the next march, scheduled for January 18, 2020. “If you can imagine potentially hundreds of thousands of women and people marching in DC, having that kind of crowd in front of Congress all demanding impeachment, that’s a very powerful thing,” she says.
But the existing protest infrastructure will get you only so far if the passion for impeachment is missing. After all, there have already been impeachment rallies, and they were not enormous successes. The Impeachment March, held in several dozen cities July 2 to 4, 2017, focused on Trump’s violation of the emoluments clauses and his firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates and FBI Director James Comey. These attracted crowds of just a few hundred people each—a smattering compared with the massive Women’s March and other anti-Trump protests. There were similarly small rallies on October 13, 2019. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Democrats support impeachment, but there has been scant evidence that it is an issue that can move bodies.
Mass protests tend to work best when they galvanize around visceral issues that spark outrage—misogyny, climate change, immigration roundups, police brutality. The existing centrist impeachment undercuts such outrage by focusing on Trump’s violation of national security norms, an issue that inflames few passions among ordinary people. A crucial problem is determining how impeachment can be framed in a way that excites activism rather than simply passive approval.
Pro-impeachment progressives have to fight a war on two fronts: against moderates in their own party and against Republicans. A people’s impeachment can’t rely on the leadership of congressional Democrats. Rather, it has to work to take the narrative away from them.
This might be easier than it looks. Pelosi’s embrace of impeachment, however belated and in a constricted form, is itself a victory of protest politics. Representative Rashida Tlaib’s famous rallying cry “Impeach the motherfucker” was followed by agitation inside the Democratic Party. Pelosi initially dismissed Tlaib and other progressives but eventually came to accept the necessity of impeachment. As Bernie Sanders adviser Winnie Wong says, “I think the fact that we’re in impeachment proceedings now should be attributed to rolling protests organized by groups like By the People, Demand Justice, CPD Action, CREDO, NARAL, and Indivisible, to name just a few. These groups and their members, in my opinion, have sent a message that is very clear to politicians: Political apathy and inaction are unacceptable. Do something now or pay a price at the ballot box later.”
Now that the Democratic Party is finally on board with impeachment, the goal of popular protest should be to force a wholesale indictment of Trump. His use of the office for selfish political ends in Ukrainegate is certainly impeachment-worthy, but it hardly exhausts his sins. Indeed, it might be one of his lesser infractions.
A people’s impeachment doesn’t need to be bound by what is discovered by congressional investigators. In the halls of Congress, there was a tension between crafting a narrow impeachment with the goal of winning over GOP legislators and making the most comprehensive case against Trump. But there’s no reason for those outside Congress to be so tight-lipped in talking about his crimes.
An impeachment hearing has a legal form; a popular protest doesn’t. While the articles of impeachment are narrow, impeachment rallies will need to be organized around the broader theme of Trump’s corruption.
Before the impeachment articles were unveiled, Hatcher-Mays said she hoped they would be broadly based. “There are a lot of things Donald Trump has done that have brought people to this resistance fight, from keeping kids in cages to credible accusations of sexual assault. He’s a racist. He employs white nationalists in his White House. All these things are horrific and form the basis for why a lot of people joined this fight in the first place,” she said.
A people’s impeachment can also be more explicitly political than the official effort. Pelosi is trying to win over Republicans with high-minded invocations of constitutional duty. “Politics has nothing to do with impeachment, in my view,” she told The New Yorker in September. Explicating this comment, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik argued, “Impeachment in this sense is anti-politics; it presumes that there exists a constitutional principle that overrules the politics of popularity.”
In the words of Pelosi and Gopnik, we once again hear the yearning for a centrist restoration. Trump, in this worldview, is a horrific anomaly in an otherwise well-functioning system. After you get rid of him—or even just give him a symbolic rebuke in the form of impeachment—the system will return to normal. The hope is that once Trump is gone, the old order will rise again, with Democrats and Republicans joining hands in bipartisan comity.
Pelosi and Gopnik radically misunderstand the crisis of our time. The current impeachment crisis is inextricable from partisan politics. Trump is able to violate constitutional principles precisely because of the overwhelming partisan support he has from Republicans, who will overlook any misdeed. The only solution for this political standoff is a political one: to make the Republican Party pay the price for its support of Trump. The goal of impeachment rallies has to be to make clear to Republicans that if they cast their lot with him, they will be held accountable.
Republican complicity in Trump’s crimes is at the core of the crisis and explains why we need a people’s impeachment to both bolster and go beyond the congressional impeachment. His corruption of American democracy isn’t confined to the acts of a lawless president and his inner circle of cronies. The Ukraine affair implicates members of his cabinet, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and outgoing Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. It also implicates some members of Congress, like Representative Devin Nunes. As Greg Sargent of The Washington Post notes, “A crucial aspect of the House Intelligence Committee impeachment report is that it paints a picture of a corrupt extortion plot that involved multiple cabinet officials and large swaths of the government.”
Given the complicity of the Republicans in Trump’s crimes, along with the existence of a right-wing media infrastructure that shields Republican voters from evidence of his wrongdoing, it’s virtually impossible to have a repeat of Watergate. We’re not going to see a large number of Republican lawmakers abandon Trump unless there is a radical new element in the equation.
Protests are perhaps the only way to break the political stalemate. The key is to raise the political cost to Republicans of supporting Trump. The short-term goal would be to try to turn a few Republicans against him. Hatcher-Mays says the fierce protests against Republicans who supported Brett Kavanaugh offer a model for impeachment mobilization. “The fact that we flipped a Republican, the fact Lisa Murkowski said, ‘I’m not going to vote for this guy,’ is a huge victory,” Hatcher-Mays says. “The other lesson we learned is that the unpopularity of Kavanaugh can be of political consequence. Susan Collins and Cory Gardner are in the fight of their lives. We can make any vote to acquit Donald Trump one of the most consequential votes of their career.”
There are three types of Republicans who could be targeted for distinct forms of protest. One would be the potentially flippable lawmakers who can be met with chants reminding them of their constitutional duty, senators like Murkowski, Mitt Romney, and Ben Sasse.
Another would be Republicans who are likely to stick with Trump but whose support is embarrassing on a personal level. He, after all, insulted Ted Cruz’s wife and referred to Marco Rubio as “Little Marco.” Protests that went after these senators would have the goal of highlighting how they are humiliating themselves, with the hope that self-respect might cause them to abandon Trump.
Finally, members of the House and Senate facing tight races, like Collins, could be targeted with the aim of strengthening opposition to them.
If popular protests pry three or four Republican senators loose, that could profoundly shape how the impeachment plays out in their chamber. The Senate gets to set its own rules for an impeachment trial, voted on by a simple majority. It wouldn’t take more than a handful of GOP defections for the Democrats to control the way the trial is conducted and what evidence gets presented.
Could a people’s impeachment achieve the level of success of the Puerto Rico protests? This is unlikely, given that removal by the Senate would require 67 votes. Further, the anti-Trump resistance isn’t yet as radicalized as Puerto Rico was in the summer of 2017.
Puerto Rico should be treated as a benchmark for the best possible outcome. But even if a people’s impeachment falls short of forcing Trump’s resignation, it still has a crucial role to play in mobilizing the population to defend democracy.
Fisher says the hallmark of the resistance to date is a commitment to peaceful protest. But she adds that this could change, given that a younger cohort of protesters is being radicalized. She speculates that if Trump is reelected, we could see a wave of truly disruptive protests.
There’s another possibility that might call for direct action. Imagine that Trump loses in November but refuses to give up power. In that eventuality, Americans would have to follow the path of protesters in Hong Kong and Chile. One reason to have a people’s impeachment is to make sure that Trump knows people are willing to take to the streets—peacefully for now but in strong enough numbers that they could disrupt the country.