SON: The power and purpose of impeachment

On March 10, the Constitutional Court of South Korea, by a unanimous vote of 8-0, made President Park Geun-hye the first impeached president in Korean history. Citizens took to the streets of Seoul. Few mourned the fall or saw the process as a witch hunt that jeopardizes national security. Most danced, believing it was the maturation of Korean democracy, which has seen its share of coups and totalitarian oppression of protests. The president was ousted without bloodshed shed and by the rule of law. Democracy was affirmed. Some in America caught this fever and eyed President Trump as an “autocrat” and sent out tweets like: “Your move, America” and “Next to go is Trump.” Trump’s impeachment for them would not only be democracy saved, but the ultimate comeuppance, to say back to the television star who made famous the income and life deflating words, “You’re fired.”However, such flippant and frequent threat of impeachment bleeds it of its potency. One shouldn’t raise it until one is ready to use it. When I threaten to ground my son and I can’t enforce it, he catches on quickly and says yes to my order then behaves the opposite.Impeachment is important enough to be used sparingly.The U.S. Constitution modeled the impeachment process after the British system which removed immunity for crime from political positions, bolstering the rule of law. There was one vital difference: The British exempted the monarch.When the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention finalized the impeachment procedures in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, they inserted the president, so there would be no ambiguity. The rule of law is valid only if no one is exempt.American government is not a true democracy. Not every citizen can legislate. Athenians could do it because it was a city-state. Few citizens and a small bureaucracy meant all citizens could argue and make decisions over an afternoon meeting and return home for dinner. America is too complex. We leave it to the representatives. Every citizen in America cannot legislate but citizens can vote. What keeps this representative government democratic — “government of the people, by the people, for the people”— is that a person voted in can not only be voted out but ousted. It keeps every position, including the most powerful one, accountable to the people.So what are grounds of impeachment?Trump as a threat is not enough for impeachment. One cannot be impeached for what has not been committed. This is a human right coded as the right of every American citizen, “innocent until proven guilty.”For many, Trump has all the trappings of another Hitler. His rhetoric and his disdain for books — Hitler had a library of 6,000 books which he didn’t read much since he’d already made up his mind — tempts you to such comparison. A quick comparison only proves Godwin’s Law, that as a conversation grows longer, someone will compare someone or something to Hitler. It is stated as a “law” but of course it is not a mathematical study but an observation of rhetoric, that using Hitler is the easiest way to make a higher-ground moral statement without substance. As the author of the Law, Mike Godwin explains, “I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler to think a bit harder about the Holocaust.”Trumps’ inanity is also not grounds for impeachment. This one was addressed directly by the framers. George Mason wanted to ink in “maladministration,” but James Madison argued that that a “maladministration standard” would make the president a lackey of the Senate.Trump raised this issue himself when he tweeted in 2014, “Are you allowed to impeach a president for gross incompetence?” Fortunately for him, the answer to his incompetence question is “no.”The Constitution is clear on the grounds of impeachment: “treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors.” A president who abuses his power, breaks the rule, or threatens the Constitution will face the full force of the law.We must not be vindictive. At the same time, we should be vigilant. We should let Trump get situated. One should fight strategically against policies one disagrees with. But we cannot cry “impeach” for policies you think unjust or stupidly crafted. Self-control and reason is how we practice democracy. And should Trump or any other president, think about playing loose with the law, the people will be there with the power of impeachment to protect democracy.Samuel Son is a teaching pastor in Raleigh.