Impeachment succeeds best when coupled with mass protests

Only much louder.
Only much louder.
Image: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
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The House Judiciary Committee has approved two articles of impeachment against US president Donald Trump: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The decision sets the stage for a possible House-wide impeachment vote next week. If a majority of the House votes to impeach, the next step will be a trial in the Senate that will culminate in a vote to remove the president from office.

But for those who would like to see Trump ultimately ejected, they will likely be disappointed—two-thirds of the Senate needs to find the president guilty for that to happen and, with Senators expected to vote along partisan lines, the numbers just aren’t there.

The numbers aren’t missing just from the Senate, however, they are also conspicuously missing in another venue that, especially in recent years, has played a major role in driving impeachment processes around the world: the street.

An impeachment process is not a criminal one, it’s a political one. So although members of Congress are supposed to be voting whether or not the evidence is there to convince them the president did something wrong, in actuality they will likely be voting on whether or not it’s politically expedient for them. Will a vote to remove Trump hurt their political standing? Or their reelection chances? Even some moderate Democrats are thinking hard about this.

It’s why large-scale protests can have an impact on impeachments. If politicians think the public is behind the removal of a head of state, they are more likely to vote for removal. There is no shortage of examples among presidential democracies in the last few decades where protests drove impeachment processes. The United States is the notable exception.

The South Korean government impeached president Park Geun-hye in 2017 for abuse of power, but only in the face of relentless protests, known as “candlelight rallies,” which brought millions of Koreans into the streets for 20 weekends between 2016 and 2017.

In Brazil, before the 2016 impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff, there were widespread, record-breaking protests—some attended by millions of people. The first calls for Rousseff’s impeachment, on the basis of perceived widespread corruption, began in March 2015. Protests began soon after and quickly grew. The Senate eventually voted to remove her from office in August 2016. Decades earlier, in 1992, Brazil’s National Congress voted to impeach president Fernando Collor de Mello, also following street protests.

Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych—who was ousted following a parliamentary vote (which actually didn’t follow the established process of impeachment)—has said he believes it was the protests that eventually led to the political actions against him, and his eventual removal from office. Indeed it was after many months of protests in 2013 and 2014 that the charges of cronyism and corruption were first discussed by the country’s legislature.

The list goes on: In 2004, the Lithuanian parliament impeached president Rolandas Paksas, voting to remove him after he refused to resign after a scandal related to privatization. His removal, too, followed widespread protests. In 2001, Indonesians stormed the country’s version of congress to demand the resignation of their first democratically-elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid, after accusations of abuse of power. He was eventually impeached. In 2000, as president Alberto Fujimori started his term in office in Peru, crowds gathered to demand his immediate removal. He was impeached and later jailed for several crimes, including murder and kidnapping. In 2017, the new president pardoned him. More protests erupted, forcing the government to overturn the pardon.

But in the United States, despite outrage on social media (and the regular media), activists have failed to organize a sustained popular protest movement. The large marches that took place immediately after Trump’s election—including the women’s march and the march for science—relented quickly, giving way instead to an institutional strategy: Trump’s opponents focused on winning the midterm elections and then on his impeachment.

Americans have never hit the streets to demand the president’s impeachment, at least not in large enough numbers to make headlines or create pressure on their representatives in Congress. Protests didn’t happen in response to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference and obstruction of justice either. And they didn’t happen after news of the the Ukraine scandal broke. There also haven’t been widespread protests in response to controversial policies like family separation or the prolonged detention and mistreatment of immigrant children. At a time where protests are erupting all over the world—Hong Kong, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Indonesia, Lebanon, Spain, all over Latin America—the United States has been surprisingly quiet.

Democrats have little hope to remove the president. But what will likely impede their goal isn’t just partisan support—it is also, perhaps more importantly, the lack of overwhelming popular support in the streets.