Graduate Center Historians and Political Scientists Put President Trump’s Second Impeachment in Context

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We invited Graduate Center historians and political scientists to provide context for the historic second impeachment of President Trump. They shared their reactions and discussed what this moment means for  U.S. democracy. Their comments are excerpted here.
David Nasaw“The news from D.C. is bittersweet,” said Professor Emeritus David Nasaw, an American historian and winner of the Bancroft Prize for his biography of William Randolph Hearst. “While 10 Republicans voted for impeachment, 197 voted 'no,' and this at a time when Deutsche Bank, Signature Bank, the PGA, Facebook, Twitter, the Chamber of Commerce, and so many others, right, left, and center are repudiating the president.”
Nasaw called the American electoral system “badly broken” as evidenced by the recent discrepancies between the Electoral College the popular vote.
“The harsh reality is that a very large minority of our population, one that because of a broken electoral system, wields more political power than it should (and perhaps less cultural), is committed to a president and a politics built on racism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories, and a celebration of guns and violence.”    
Charles TienPolitical Science Professor Charles Tien, who studies Congressional politics, agreed that “It is extremely disappointing that only 10 Republican House members voted to impeach a president who incited insurrection against the U.S. government.”

He expressed cautious optimism, though, for the future of democracy in the U.S. “I see Trump as an extreme stress test for American democracy. When Biden is inaugurated on January 20 it will be an indication that we passed the stress test. Every state conducted its election in a timely manner; the Electoral College process played out as prescribed by the Constitution and law; Congress in a bipartisan vote impeached a president for inciting insurrection; and public opinion has turned against Trump."
Gunja SenGuptaProfessor Gunja SenGupta, who has written extensively about slavery and abolition, compared Trump’s impeachment to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868.
“Both actions occurred in contexts of polarizing contests over the nature of freedom and the future of a multiracial democracy,” she said. “On the face of it, Johnson’s impeachment stemmed from his alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act, which required Senate approval of the dismissal of cabinet appointees.  But the real source of the crisis between the executive and legislative branches of government in the late 1860s lay in their starkly different visions of Reconstruction, especially as it related to the federal government’s role in protecting the rights of the freed people.”

She noted Johnson’s vetoes of bills intended to secure the future of emancipation and civil rights for Black Southerners.
“Similarly, Trump has attempted to disfranchise voters of color, urging the courts and local officials to throw out the vote counts of major cities where these populations live by falsely alleging fraud. His words lit the fuse of violent resistance to the idea of an inclusive democracy that has simmered in some quarters of our society for ages. The violent mob that stormed Capitol Hill bearing guns and Confederate flags were trying to turn the clock back on history. The impeachment of Trump for inciting insurrection against the government, whether it leads to conviction or not, carries great meaning as an affirmation that we the people — the whole people, not just a subsection of us — will march ahead toward a more inclusive vision of democracy.” 

Submitted on: JAN 14, 2021

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