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Democrats sought to impeach conservative populism instead of Trump

Democrats sought to impeach conservative populism instead of Trump
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Even though the Senate just acquitted President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' MORE again, Democrats likely will not quit trying him because they cannot — he unites them, while dividing everyone else. More importantly, tying conservative populism to Trump is Democrats’ best chance of stopping a potent political force.

The Senate acquitted Trump for a second time, but not before a strange reversal.  

First, the Senate unexpectedly voted for a Democratic motion to allow witnesses to be called.  This looked to extend the impeachment trial indefinitely then, in a twist as surprising as the first, an agreement was reached to forego witnesses and vote. What promised to be a lengthy presidential impeachment trial actually became history’s shortest

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The trial’s strangeness was a perfect microcosm of the left’s four-year impeachment pursuit.  There was never any chance of Trump's Senate conviction. Never. Not four years ago, when the left first called for it, not when Democrats’ new majority first allowed it in 2019 and not now in 2021 when Trump was out of office. 

This begs the question: Why were Democrats so determined to pursue what could not succeed? 

First, Trump is hard to relinquish because he has solved Democrats’ problems for four years. 

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton brings up 'Freedom Fries' to mock 'cancel culture' Edie Falco to play Hillary Clinton in Clinton impeachment series White House defends Biden's 'Neanderthal thinking' remark on masks MORE and Trump dangerously divided Democrats in 2016. Clinton and Sanders were bitter nomination rivals and surrogates for a deep party split between their establishment and their left. Trump then split off seemingly safe, blue Midwestern states to win a huge upset. Once Democrats recovered from their shock, they came together against Trump to repair their divisions.

Trump became Democrats’ gift that kept on giving. He gave them the House in 2018, then he gave them the nomination contest in 2020.  

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As hard as 2016 was with the two Democrats candidates, 2020 was easy with a big pool of contenders. Democrats miraculously united around the only prominent establishment Democrat amidst a sea of left candidates. Yet, the twice-beaten Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot FireEye finds evidence Chinese hackers exploited Microsoft email app flaw since January Biden officials to travel to border amid influx of young migrants MORE was their best shot at beating Trump — Democrats got him thanks to his ability to unite them.

Second, while Trump united Democrats, he divided others. Though Republicans were more united behind Trump in 2020 than in 2016, their split — and enough other voters’ — tipped 2020 to Biden.

This division was crucial for Democrats. In the election’s tumultuous aftermath, many forget its closeness. Yes, Biden won a big popular vote majority; so did Clinton. If Trump had gained an additional 160,000 votes in five states he would have won an additional 63 electoral votes and a 295 to 243 electoral vote victory.

Self-unity and opponent division are not lightly discarded under any circumstance. Parties invest great effort seeking either. Getting both is rare and worth great effort — even if it appears nominally ineffective.  

These two political assets are particularly vital for Democrats now. With Trump gone from office, their old establishment-left division can resurface without Trump’s binding glue. 

Yet Democrats’ biggest reason for willingly pursuing the unwinnable is not the past, or even the present, but the future —  specifically their future. There is no greater threat to it than conservative populism.

Democrats must have conservative populism end with Trump; the best way to ensure it does is discredit it by linking it exclusively to him. To understand the threat, look again at the last two presidential contests. 

In 2016, Trump pried key states out of Democrats’ Midwestern blue wall, allowing him to overcome a significant popular vote deficit. In 2020, Trump came close to doing so again despite impeachment, a pandemic, an economic crash worthy of the Depression and being seen by many as unacceptably divisive. Even facing those obstacles, Trump increased his vote percentage (from 45.9 to 46.9) and his vote total by over 11 million (from 63 million to 74.2 million) — the second highest on record

If this admittedly flawed messenger accomplished this with a conservative populist message in 2020’s terrible political environment, what could a better messenger do under better political circumstances? Understandably, Democrats do not want to find out. They know that 2020’s circumstances can only deteriorate. 

For this reason, they must try to hold the messenger constant — at least figuratively — discredit Trump as much as possible and try to tie conservative populism to him in the future. This is why Democrats took such lengths to impeach Trump twice, despite an obvious inability to succeed.  Their real goal is future success. Rather than seeking to remove Trump from office in the present, they were seeking to bar conservative populism from office in the future.

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.