Why the impeachment process is Trump’s greatest weapon in the 2020 election
The only thing more surprising than the findings of the Mueller Report a month ago has been the behavior of the President since. It was stunning to have no clear verdicts of criminal activity, obstruction of justice, or conspiracy with the Russians in the initial summaries of the report. But it has been surreal to see the level of vindictiveness, obstinance, and explicit obstruction of Congress that Trump has engaged in since theoretically being “exonerated of all wrongdoing”. In fact, many including those who have resisted calls for impeachment in the past have viewed the president’s behavior over the last four weeks as a new wave of potentially criminal behavior. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said half-jokingly following a volatile meeting with Trump this week at the White House, “he wants to be impeached.”
Only to Trump it is not a joke. He does not want to be impeached, but he may want the House to begin the impeachment process. This is because it solidifies his ability to play the role of the victim regardless of how much his own behaviors are to blame. From the perspective of the 2020 election Trump can take a defensive position in relation to the various narratives he has created or nurtured. From ‘the Deep State’ to jealous and vindictive Democrats still upset about losing in 2016, a concerted impeachment effort by the House of Representatives would only further his ability to offer conspiracy theories as the rationale for his often-irrational behavior. But the greatest value of an impeachment process to Trump would be his ability to manipulate the concept of victimization itself.
One of the most perplexing aspects of the Trump phenomenon is the unwavering support he receives from his base across a wide variety of issues. More directly, his growing list of incomplete initiatives, shortsighted decisions, and misguided policies have often affected his supporters more than his detractors. From mismanaging disaster relief and national debt to relationships with authoritarian leaders and misguided trade wars, there have been numerous actions on the part of the President that should have resulted in a measurable shift in his core support. Yet, over the incredible ups and downs of the last two years there has been no change at all. The reason for this is that as much as his supporters hope he gets policy right, they will never abandon him because he consistently portrays himself in the same light as they see themselves, as victims.
Christian values, free trade, the gun lobby, immigration, race in America, and politics in general. Trump does not know or care enough about any one of these critical topics to be able to consistently deliver policy wins for issue-driven conservatives or Republicans. But what he has always understood is the degree to which a sense of victimization ties all of them together. Except for the pro-life position, every major conservative policy perspective begins with an argument that they are under attack, being taken advantage of, being persecuted, or in some other way a victim. ‘They want to take our guns’, “they’re sending rapists and drug dealers”, and ‘enough of white male shaming’ are just some of the narratives pushed by the right to position themselves as the victims. The philosophies, policy needs, and strategies used for each of these issues can be quite different and even contradictory at times. But if Trump can continue convincing them all that their individual concerns, insecurities, and indignation are the result of a monolithic enemy on the left they will remain united. And it is in the impeachment process that he has the perfect tool to do this.
There is every reason for Trump to worry about the impact of his policy record during the last two and half years on his ability be reelected in 2020. The way he started and has prosecuted the trade war with China has led to significant disruption in the American economy. His core supporters from owners of major American corporations to the small farmer have all been hurt, a pain which is increasingly being passed on to the American consumer. The traditional hardliners and hawks within the Republican Party are confused and even alarmed by our approaches to national threats such as Iran and North Korea. And law and order conservatives must continue to grit their teeth as the president accuses the FBI, parts of the American judicial system, and most American media as corrupt or un-American.
But it is their sense of victimization at the hands of a corrupt Washington DC government, minority special interests, and the liberal Northeastern establishment that serves as the foundation for their more specific issue driven concerns. And it was Trump’s ability to harness this emotional sentiment that allowed him to overcome the lack of political, economic, or diplomatic skills necessary to deal with the more specific issues. By establishing Hillary Clinton as the symbol of the source of victimization for these groups he was able to stun everyone including himself and win the White House. The key is that he still has not developed any of those essential skill sets. The only tool available for him to win in 2020 is the same one that helped him win in 2016: a general disdain for the left that is purposely broad and vague yet charged with threat. Just as it has done for the last three years, this will allow his core supporters to choose their own rationale for continuing to support him while ignoring all his other behaviors that are contrary to their own political, religious, and intellectual principles.
The value of the impeachment process to Trump’s election chances in 2020 is exactly why the Democratic leadership has tried to avoid “the ‘I’ word” for months. Nancy Pelosi and others understand that if he is forced to run on what he has accomplished during his first term that he has little chance of winning. But if he can harness the same sentiments in 2020 that he did in 2016 than Democrats and America in general could once again find themselves asking the question, “how did this happen?” It could be the case that an impeachment process that concludes by next spring produces a significant deathblow to Trump’s chances of being elected in 2020. But given the political and legal fights currently surrounding just the idea of impeachment one must assume that it would linger and potentially not be finished before next November. And the political value of playing the role of the victim throughout the process and in the middle of a reelection campaign is exactly why Trump wants Congress to try to impeach him.
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.