A joke from the old USSR reported an exchange during a Politburo discussion about a ten-year plan that almost all those present thought was progressing satisfactorily.
“Yes,” grunts a dissenter steeped in Marxist theology, “it’s very, very successful in practice, but the theory is all wrong.”
In the Western world, the cleft between theory and reality is rarely wider than when the United States Congress debates the merits or otherwise of impeaching and possibly convicting — and thereby removing — a president.
A study of impeachment attempts might help us to understand why Mr Trump is more than sanguine about the now almost certain prospect of a trial in the US Senate — not that Mr Trump needs, or takes, lessons from history; he is by temperament a man loutishly convinced of his innate ability to win.
There have been only four serious attempts since 1843 to eject a president by impeachment.
None of them were successful. In the most recent, Richard Nixon bowed to the court of public opinion by resigning before the House of Representatives voted for a Senate trial, and Bill Clinton was found not guilty of perjury and obstructing justice.
Under the rules written in Philadelphia in 1787, a two-thirds guilty vote of the Senate was needed to convict and unseat Clinton. The chamber was 50-50, leaving him wounded but still president.
That vote highlighted a reality the 18th century constitution framers could not have foreseen.
They knew that impeachment as a last resort was necessary, as Alexander Hamilton — architect of the nation’s financial system — argued in a warning that might well have had rogues such as Nixon and Trump in mind: “When a man unprincipled in private life … bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, despotic in his ordinary demeanour … known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty … when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity to take every opportunity of embarrassing the general government and bring it under suspicion to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day … it may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”
With this very much in mind, the constitution requires the Senate when trying a president on impeachment charges to sit as a court of law overseen by the Supreme Court’s chief justice, who might or might not, as it happens, have been nominated by the president in the dock.
The impartiality of the chief justice who presided over the Clinton trial has never been doubted, but the verdict highlighted the extent to which impeachment had over the centuries become a party political process, not a legal one enabling senators to determine impartially innocence or guilt.
The case against Nixon was driven by Democrats, while Republicans led the demand for Clinton’s head.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who wants to see Trump tried, was reading from quite a different script in 1998, when the Republican majority in the House of Representatives voted to send Clinton to the Senate for trial.“Today,” she said, “the Republican majority is not judging the president with fairness, but impeaching him with a vengeance … We are here today because the Republicans in the House are paralysed with hatred of President Clinton.” In the event, the Senate voted on largely partisan lines, thus saving Clinton’s bacon.
That the Senate’s Republican majority, holding its collective nose, will save Trump’s is likely.
If he goes on to win the Republican nomination for the 2020 election, which is also possible, the final verdict on whether his ill-advised Ukrainian adventure amounts to high crimes and misdemeanors — the benchmarks for impeachment set in 1787 — will rest with the American people.
They might decide that with the bullying and vulgar Trump, it’s just down-and-dirty politics as usual.