Why trying to impeach Trump and oust Johnson may end in tears

With the recent U.K. Supreme Court ruling against Prime Minister Boris Johnson's suspension of Parliament and congressional Democrats’ initiation of a formal impeachment inquiry of President Trump, political establishments on both sides of the Atlantic are celebrating. Finally, they have found a way to strike back against the reckless forces that undermine liberal democracy. But playing the victim is a dangerous gambit. Both establishments may end up regretting using institutional maneuvers — instead of the ballot box — to oust their opponents.

That Trump pressured the Ukrainian president to uncover dirt on former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Conservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' Democrat representing Pennsylvania district Trump carried plans to vote to impeach  MORE's son should come as no surprise. His notion of "America First" has always meant putting his own gain above everything else.

He condemned voices critical of his administration as anti-American, called well-established news outlets the "enemy of the people" and joked with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Russia's election meddling. But to win the argument and strip Trump of his powers, Democrats will have to do more than pass impeachment legislation. Their strategy is a dangerous all-or-nothing approach and might well end in tears. If removing the president from his office fails, Democrats will hand Trump even more ammunition to establish his outsider narrative and inflame his populist base.

ADVERTISEMENT

What is true for the United States also applies to Britain: Many celebrated the paralysis of Johnson's government as the country's Supreme Court made history earlier this week. But polling shows that the decision might prove to be a Pyrrhic victory, given the outrage that it has caused among hardcore Brexiteers and Johnson's exploitation of the populist narrative that leaving the European Union is a battle between Parliament and the people.

He has turned the country's decision to leave the European Union into a cultural debate, where being for Europe means supporting Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement efforts with Nazi Germany. It sounds laughable, but divisions are so deep that the never-ending Brexit debate is now being cast as a primeval struggle for the soul of England. Just like Trump, Johnson has been a mastermind in playing on the deep rooted resentments of those feeling left behind and making patriots out of those who battle the "corrupt system."

He has portrayed those arguing for a soft Brexit as being Remainers underneath, even though many voted "leave" in the first place. Unfortunately, the only solution may be for Britain to taste what it means to leave the EU without a deal. Then and only then will Boris Johnson be defeated.

Scenarios for Trump's opponents are grim too: It may be too late for second thoughts, but Democrats must burnish their arguments about why Trump is not the people's’ champion — not how many times he broke the law as president. Populists care little about legalities and revel in their outsider status. For many of their supporters, scandals during the campaign and while in office are proof of their success in battling the status quo.

Without ironclad proof that Trump withheld military assistance to put pressure on the new Ukrainian president for an investigation into Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden, Republican senators are unlikely to be swayed. And even then it might not be enough to convince those up for reelection to face the fury of the Republican base.

ADVERTISEMENT

At the end of an impeachment process, Democrats may succeed in showing they can stand up against Trump the bully, but they will also reveal their impotence in removing him from office. Just as former President Clinton largely turned the tables on his accusers in the 1990s, Trump can show his populist base how persecuted he is by the "deep state," deflecting attention away from slowing wage growth and a sputtering economy that he has brought about with his tariff war. If Democrats fight the campaign as an extension of the impeachment effort, they will repeat the same mistakes that cost Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden hires Clinton, O'Rourke alum as campaign's digital director Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Wisconsin: poll Clinton tweets impeachment website, encourages voters to 'see the evidence for themselves' MORE the election in 2016.

Trump loses only when his empty promises are exposed and it becomes evident that he hasn’t delivered on creating a better life for his supporters. As the midterm elections showed, even when the economy is thriving, the president is vulnerable given his failure to act on health care, rising college tuition, slowing wage growth, rising inequality and a crumbling infrastructure — all of which Trump promised to repair. It's the bread-and-butter issues on which Trump has laid himself open to attack and not his dubious relationship with the law.

At some point, the establishments need to take responsibility for their past failures and draw respective lessons from them. Populist supporters are neither Hillary Clinton’s "basket of deplorables" nor an exclusive club of homophobic racists. They are rather disillusioned victims of economic disruptions that are beyond their control. As long as there is no accounting for all the establishment gushing about how technological innovation and globalization were supposed to raise all boats and then didn't, many voters will distrust existing institutions and support political arsonists.

If mainstream politicians are to combat the disease of populism, they need to take away the reasons for public frustration and widespread disappointment. A winning strategy requires difficult trade-offs and structural changes that Democrats, to their credit, have started to explore in their campaigns. It would therefore be a real tragedy if impeachment derails these incipient efforts at economic reform.   

Mathew Burrows is director of the Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Julian Mueller-Kaler is a non-resident fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) and works at the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative.