People, Politics & society, Research

Impeachment puts GOP’s divisive tactics center-stage, says Berkeley expert

Thomas Mann is a resident scholar at UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies

trump and hannity on stage
President Donald Trump listens to Fox News' Sean Hannity speak during a rally in 2018. (AP Photo by Carolyn Kaster)
Mann smiles at the camera

Thomas Mann is a resident scholar at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. In an interview with Berkeley News, Mann said President Donald Trump, “is not the cause of our dysfunctional politics, but a symptom and consequence of long-term developments.” (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

Congressional Republicans evaluating the impeachment of President Donald Trump are ignoring evidence and “enabling the despot,” despite their role as members of the U.S. Congress, to hold the president accountable, says UC Berkeley political scientist Thomas Mann.

As the impeachment moves toward a vote before the full House of Representatives, Mann said the actions of the GOP raise risks for democracy and the Republican Party itself. In an interview with Berkeley News, he warned that, even if Trump is ousted, the threats to U.S. democracy extend far beyond the president.

“Even if he were removed from office or decisively defeated for re-election, the problem of the mismatch between our current hyperpolarized parties and our constitutional order would not soon abate,” Mann said. “Trump is not the cause of our dysfunctional politics, but a symptom and consequence of long-term developments.”

Despite tensions in the Democratic Party, he suggested that the party could make transformative gains without moving sharply left or matching the “constitutional hardball” practiced by today’s conservatives.

Mann spoke with Berkeley News about impeachment, congressional motivations and what happens after Trump.

You’ve famously written of “the unexpected and rapid nature of the decline in American national politics, and how one-sided its cause.” Does the current impeachment debate reflect that decline?

The current impeachment debate is both a sign of vitality in the American constitutional system and a reflection of its weaknesses in the face of extreme partisan polarization. The demagogue in the White House that the framers (of the Constitution) feared might slip through the guardrails of an Electoral College, separate institutions sharing power, and the channeled ambitions of those serving in public office materialized with the election of Donald Trump. His autocratic behavior in office over the past three years has threatened the stability of our democratic republic.

The good news is that the framers included the impeachment clause in the Constitution and vested its power solely with the House and Senate. With record turnout in the 2018 midterm election, the public produced a House Democratic majority, a prerequisite to any credible oversight of the executive branch. It has taken its responsibility seriously and produced two focused and well-supported articles of impeachment, in spite of concern in their ranks that such an action could backfire on them politically.

The bad news is that House Republicans put party loyalty before institutional responsibility by refusing even to engage the charges against the president and consider the evidence presented by a parade of compelling civil servants. And Senate Republican Majority Mitch McConnell announced he is working closely with the White House to choreograph a short trial in the Senate and unified party support for acquittal. The Republican Party continues to define its principle role as enabling the despot, not holding him to account.

It’s been reported that dozens of Republicans in the Senate would vote to remove Trump from office, if they could vote in private among Republicans in the U.S. Senate. But is the characterization believable? If so, how can so many senators be so cautious, when they seem to have so many concerns?

It’s a damning commentary on their fealty to their oath of office. I think they worry about direct attacks from the president and his chorus of right-wing media, potential primary opponents and losing their majority in the Senate. I suspect some also fear being a target of deranged Trump supporters who, with the president’s not-so-tacit approval, threaten physical violence.

Top administration officials have acknowledged that Trump sought to pressure the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky by withholding congressionally-approved military funding and by blocking a Zelensky-Trump meeting at the White House. Why do most of the 53 Republicans in the U.S. Senate seem to resist these facts, or to reject them outright?

Facts aren’t in fashion these days in conservative circles. Think climate change. Super-strong partisan identities, a Manichaean view of parties as good or evil, confirmation bias, reinforcement by powerful Republican coalition partners and fear of the costs of party disloyalty contribute to these senators’ rejection of evidence, reason and truth.

trump and hannity on stage

President Donald Trump listens to Fox News’ Sean Hannity speak during a rally in 2018. (AP Photo by Carolyn Kaster)

It’s assumed that the collective behavior in Congress, or in one political party, reflects the values, attitudes and psychology of voters. If this is true, what does the impeachment process tell us about the mindset of voters who support Trump?

Trump’s support among strong Republicans is rock solid and unlikely to change, however compelling the evidence that he is unfit for and dangerous in the office he holds. The failure of any Republicans in the House or Senate to express public disapproval of his behavior reinforces the view among Republican voters to stick with your team, because the other party is worse.

That said, his support base is a minority of the electorate and always has been. Structural factors such as the absence of a direct popular vote for the president, an unrepresentative Senate, single-member plurality House districts that disadvantage voters concentrated in large metropolitan areas and a Supreme Court that now and well into the future is likely to be dominated by conservatives all contribute to counter-majoritarianism that makes minority rule possible.

Eventually, Trump will leave office. How can we expect these dynamics to evolve after his departure?

It depends, in part, on how soon he leaves. The longer he remains in office, the greater the possibility of democratic backsliding. A second Trump term with Republican majorities in Congress is frightening to contemplate. More power would shift to the executive and its strongman. Norms that helped our constitutional system work would further erode. The legitimacy of political opposition and the peaceful transfer of power might be

Even if he were removed from office or decisively defeated for re-election, the problem of the mismatch between our current hyperpolarized parties and our constitutional order would not soon abate. Trump is not the cause of our dysfunctional politics, but a symptom and consequence of long-term developments.

You’ve argued that the polarization of American politics is driven not by both parties, but by the radicalization of Republicans, while Democrats have remained more or less steady center-left. How should Democrats respond to this shift? What are the implications of a move to the left, as some in the party advocate?

The argument that Norm Ornstein and I made in 2012 about asymmetric polarization was not limited to the relative ideological positions of the two parties in government. We also emphasized the anti-system nature of the modern Republican Party – now often referred to as “constitutional hardball.” The GOP is scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its opposition. They weaponize the regular elements of lawmaking and governing to foster widespread public distrust of our democracy and destroy their political adversaries.

The modern Republican Party has developed a coalitional base by nurturing and inflaming the resentment of groups — religious traditionalists, residents of rural communities and small towns battered by technology and globalization, those opposed to any regulation of guns, non-college-educated whites and those harboring some degree of racial resentment — who see themselves on the losing side in a country with a growing share of nonwhites, liberalizing laws and norms governing social behavior, and greater life chances for well-educated, well-connected professionals and big city dwellers. With the help of a good number of plutocrats, Republicans have found a way in the short term to govern by minority rule. But their long-term prospects are more problematic.

Democrats have moved a bit to the left, on economic as well as social issues as the county as a whole has liberalized. But they are highly unlikely to embrace democratic socialism. Over the long haul, they are in a good position to capitalize on demographic changes that presently favor groups — racial and ethnic minorities, younger cohorts, the college-educated, professional women — already in the Democratic camp (especially if Republicans fail to adapt to these changes). The short term is more problematic for them. But their belief in the possibilities of government and their more electorally diverse makeup should keep them from imitating the Republicans by moving far to the left on policy or constitutional hardball.

How can Congress get back on track? Wouldn’t this require a fundamental shift in the voting public?

Getting Congress back on track will first require shocks that incentivize the Republicans to once again become a governing party of the center-right.

Nothing less than a string of Democratic electoral victories — in 2018, 2020 and 2022 — is likely to succeed. That’s a tall order, but essential if enough Republicans are to believe they will become a permanent minority without changing or replacing the current party. Democrats would have their work cut out, even with these victories.

Electoral and procedural reform is an essential beginning. The second half of One Nation After Trump sketches out an agenda to improve the economic prospects of those left behind and to build a new patriotism that encompasses every segment of American society. Republicans and Democrats, with contrasting means, but more unified ends, will be needed to keep American democracy alive.

Thomas Mann is a resident scholar at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution. He is the co-author with Norman Ornstein of The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track (2006), and It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (2012). He joined with Ornstein and E.J. Dionne on the 2017 volume, One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported (2017).