When penning Federalist No. 65 in 1788, Alexander Hamilton predicted that the prosecution of articles of presidential impeachment would “seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused.”
Now, for the fourth time in American history, the president of the United States is on the brink of impeachment.
Democrats have accused President Donald Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. They say he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the family of former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump’s challengers for the presidency. Trump and Republicans say the White House relationship with Ukraine followed normal diplomatic protocol and tradition, and Democrats are grasping at straws to bring down the president.
Eight presidents—from John Tyler to Ronald Reagan—have faced the threat of impeachment, but only two garnered the necessary votes in the House to go on trial in the Senate. Andrew Johnson was the first, in 1868, and Bill Clinton followed in 1998. The Senate acquitted both of them, and they remained in office. In 1974, Richard Nixon narrowly escaped impeachment by resigning.
“Impeachment is usually the product of some sort of constitutional crisis or conflict between the branches of government,” said Mark Smith, a professor of political science at Cedarville University in Ohio. He gave the example of Johnson’s tenuous hold on power following the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
“Impeachment never occurs in a vacuum,” Smith said, pointing out that Democrats have been talking about impeaching Trump since his inauguration, saying his “existence in some ways creates conflict; he’s an outsider, he’s anti-establishment.”
Adam Carrington, an assistant professor of politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan, said that Trump’s ability to weather scandals and blistering criticism comes, in part, from Americans’ lack of trust in institutions after the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s ouster.
“We don’t trust Congress, we don’t trust the presidency,” he said. “[With Nixon,] people were much more willing to see that as a betrayal and much more likely to trust Congress to correct the abuse.” Now, he noted, people don’t trust Congress to hold the executive branch accountable.
“In the best of times, impeachment is a very jarring and difficult process,” said Amy Black, a professor of political science at Wheaton College in Illinois. “We’re not in the best of times: [We’re in a] highly polarized, highly partisan era, where there is so much distrust of the other party.”
Hamilton seemed to foresee that when he predicted the effect of impeachment on the parties would “enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases, there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”
Rather than swaying members of Congress one way or the other, the evidence in the impeachment investigation against Trump—such as the summary of his July 25 phone call with Zelensky—has turned out to be like a Rorschach test of someone’s party loyalties.
“I think we’re going to see more and more actions like this between Congress and the president,” Smith said. “[Once] we got into the late ’60s … it’s more common to have different parties controlling different parts of government, making it more likely these things will happen. This is our third very strong impeachment movement in the last 50 years.”