President Donald Trump was scolded for tweeting a comment by Southern Baptist preacher Robert Jeffress last Sunday suggesting that removing Trump from office before his term ended would cause “a Civil War like fracture” in the United States. Invoking that momentous conflict in relation to today’s politics should be as avoided as other incendiary declarations, such as comparing Trump to Hitler.
Still, just a few days earlier — shortly after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the start of a formal impeachment inquiry — I lunched with a longtime Republican operative and dedicated Never Trumper who leaned over the table and asked in a somber tone: “Are we headed for another Civil War?”
The suggestion makes me laugh. For most people, left and right, life in modern America is way too cushy to go to war with each other. We would have to leave our recliners. But to play along, the theory goes that if Trump was forcibly removed by conviction in the Senate, his rabid base of supporters would rise up.
First, the vast majority of Trump supporters are not the vicious, ignorant rednecks caricatured in some quarters. Second, it would require at least 20 GOP senators to ignore Trump’s base and join Democrats to reach the two-thirds necessary to convict, an unimaginable scenario. If evidence of wrongdoing becomes so undeniable that even the base abandons Trump, who is left to march? As Ramesh Ponnuru, writing on the subject in Bloomberg, put it, for the president to be removed, “Trump’s supporters would need to have dwindled to a hard core, and even some of them would be able to see how badly outnumbered they had become.” Whatever happens, the threat of some widespread violent uprising is nil.
One wonders, though, how cavernous our national rift can grow and still allow us to lay claim to being one indivisible nation, as we repeat by rote with hands over hearts. What has currently exacerbated our great divide is the suspicion, based on substantial evidence, that Democrats are settling on the Trump/Ukraine issue as simply the most justifiable reason so far to carry out the remedy they have long pursued.
Compared with the past two presidential impeachment efforts, this one feels much more like Bill Clinton than Richard Nixon — frivolous and political, not solemn and historic. Nixon’s downfall was brought about after roughly two years of investigations and, finally, the damning White House tapes, which turned enough grass-roots supporters and Senate Republicans against the president to guarantee a bipartisan conviction had he not resigned. By contrast, Clinton was protected by his base and Senate Democrats against what they called a partisan witch hunt.
Nixon was approving hush money to keep witnesses quiet as part of a coverup he was directing. Clinton lied under oath about having sex with an intern. Nixon deserved expulsion. Clinton deserved a slap on the wrist. It took Nixon’s party several months to acknowledge his wrongdoing and line up against him. It took Clinton’s party two decades and the #MeToo movement to concede that what Clinton did was serious after all — not the lying part, but what he lied about.
With Trump and impeachment, Democrats have been so disjointed that it’s hard to pinpoint just one complaint, especially since “Russian collusion” collapsed. But the accusation seems now to be that he leveraged the powers of his office to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival. To many of us, that’s not what the transcript of Trump’s call with the new Ukrainian president shows, but that’s the primary contention.
What Trump clearly did not do in that call, by any reading, is threaten to withhold military aid until Ukraine delivered dirt on the Bidens. The awkward mafia analogy “parodied” by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, is belied by Trump actually releasing the financial aid to Ukraine in exchange for, at most, nothing but an empty promise. “Sure, Mr. President, we’ll get right on that investigation, and thanks for the dough!” Don Corleone would be spinning in his grave.
The good news is, everyone can relax. There will be no civil war, because there’s always something good on TV. Trump will be impeached in the House, making Democrats ecstatic. He will be acquitted in the Senate, and Republicans can rejoice. Our rhetoric will remain overheated, and our hyperbole will reach new heights of absurdity — perfect grist for Sunday morning news shows and late-night comedians. There is truly something for everyone on the horizon.
And before we know it, the election will roll around, where Trump’s fate will be decided by the voters — a proper resolution, anticlimactic though it might seem.
Gary Abernathy, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, is a freelance writer based in Hillsboro, Ohio.