Impeachment bid splits America: Polarisation is a trap we must avoid

Stormont, despite positive post-election noises, remains mothballed. Tribalism is re-energised.

Impeachment bid splits America: Polarisation is a trap we must avoid

Even were he to establish the Jeffrey Epstein Chair of Gender and Equality Studies at a university in one of America’s deep-red states, and appoint Harvey Weinstein the founding professor, US president Donald Trump would not face the sentence imposed on Pakistan’s former military ruler Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, who seized power in 1999, has been sentenced to death for high treason.

As he anticipated the black-cap judgment he no longer lives in Pakistan, so the sentence is hollow and largely symbolic.

Though the Democratic-controlled American House of Representatives is expected to impeach Mr Trump today, it may be premature to regard that process as anything much more than evolving symbolism, especially as he would be replaced by Mike Pence should he, ultimately, be forced from office.

Any decision taken this week must be consolidated by subsequent, far more challenging obligations before Pence might be elevated. Little enough beyond process is certain. America’s founding fathers understood that impeachment is a Pandora’s Box so designed a double-lock that partially opens with today’s House vote, a kind of indictment that can be progressed after a simple majority vote.

Should that transpire, a Senate trial will begin. This is the process that would decide a president’s fate, but only if two-thirds of senators vote to convict and remove him from office. At the moment, that prospect seems as improbable as Musharraf’s execution and may explain why the option has been used only three times.

Sadly, this process has exacerbated the polarisation of America and undermined its credibility. A denouement confirmed by America’s Council on Foreign Relations end-of-year survey of hundreds of officials or foreign-policy experts.

They were asked to rank security crises that might threaten America next year. Respondents usually focused on international conflict but this year they pointed to what they saw as America’s greatest destabilising force. “The policies of the Trump administration,” said poll organiser Paul Stares.

Yet that sobering realisation is balanced by the behaviour of some Republicans at the impeachment hearings, interventions clearly designed to intimidate witnesses. This attitude is, unsurprisingly, reflected in Trump’s more ardent supporters who back him in almost any circumstances.

That kind of absolutism gave Boris Johnson a huge majority last week which will inevitably deepen division in the UK. It is not necessary to go even that far to see the consequences of intransigence. Stormont, despite positive post-election noises, remains mothballed. Tribalism is re-energised.

In an effort to square this circle, The New York Times said: “Republicans and Democrats ought to ask themselves the same question: Would they put up with a Democratic president using the power of the White House this way?”

The answer seems obvious but the equally obvious lesson may be even more important. Polarisation is a trap, one that diminishes democracy, but only until an inevitable compromise is reached. We are not at that point yet but is increasingly easy to argue that we are sleepwalking towards it.

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