The Democrats want him gone. So too do most of the Republicans. Hell, they never wanted him to begin with. The GOP did everything it could to derail his candidacy, and only climbed aboard after Trump’s runaway train was the last red line careening towards the White House. So for now they’re playing nice with the former Democrat who eschews Conservative dogma in a variety of ways and is loyal to absolutely no one save himself. But when the moment comes, they’ll gladly trade Trump in for Mike Pence, a Conservative’s wet dream.
For all of these reasons, Trump may not make it to the finish line. But there’s at least one more factor to consider: the precedent of regicide. And to understand that, we should begin by briefly recounting the demise of the Ottoman sultan Osman II.
Young Osman II ascended the Ottoman throne in 1618 at the tender age of 14. Wishing to assert himself, in 1621 he personally led an invasion of Poland, which ended with a failed siege of Chota (aka Khotyn, now in western Ukraine). In a rather unwise move, Osman blamed the defeat on his elite fighting force, the Janissaries. Afterwards, he ordered the shuttering of Janissary coffee shops, which he saw as a hotbed of conspiracies against him. The Janissaries responded with a palace uprising. In 1622 they imprisoned the 17 year old monarch and soon after killed him. Because it was strictly forbidden to spill royal blood, they strangled him to death.
I first learned about Osman II’s fate in 1992 while taking a graduate course on Ottoman history. “Something happens,” our professor warned us in a foreboding tone, “the first time an empire commits regicide.”
Of course, this was hardly the first time an Ottoman sultan had been ousted. In fact, Osman II himself became monarch after a coup against his uncle. However, our professor suggested that there was an important difference. When Osman II was murdered by his own soldiers, a new line had been crossed and a strong taboo was shattered. The precedent could not be undone. The throne upon the Bosphorous would be forever weakened; sultans would rule from a more vulnerable position. Indeed, this would not be the last Janissary revolt or the last sultan to be murdered.
Afterwards, this lesson stuck with me, and I began to wonder if I might it apply to U.S. history. However, I did not look at presidential assassinations as necessarily parallel. For example, the murders of Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley did not seem to bear the same lesson, despite both being dispatched by killers with avowedly political motives. Because it was not just the violence of Osman II’s end that is important. It’s also that he was done in by competing elements of his own government, rather than a rogue assassin.
On three occasions, Congress has made serious attempts to remove presidents from office. But instead of the royal bow string that was wrapped around Osman II’s throat, the instrument of American regicide has been impeachment hearings. Our regicides have been strictly political, not literal.
The first serious effort to impeach a president came against Andrew Johnson, who inherited the White House in 1865 after Lincoln’s death. Part of the move against him can be located in crass politics. Johnson, a Democrat from a Confederate state (Tennessee), faced a Congress thoroughly dominated by Northern Republicans. And the actual grounds upon which he was eventually impeached were likely unconstitutional; hoping to restrain Johnson, Congress had passed a bill forbidding presidents to remove their own cabinet members without congressional consent. When Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, whom he’d inherited from Lincoln, the House filed 11 impeachment charges against him.
However, there was a lot more to the attack on Johnson than just politics. In truth, while the direct justifications for impeachment were dubious, the entire episode reflected something much larger and deeper: an epic struggle for the soul of the nation.
How does one put a country back together after it has been riven by civil war? Furthermore, after the dust had settled, what would become of both newly freed slaves and former confederates rebels?
The constitution offers no clear formula for addressing such questions. Congress obviously wanted a say in the matter. However, after assuming the presidency, Johnson took the initiative, pursuing his own reconstruction plans while Congress was out of session.
Presidential Reconstruction (1865-66) was an utter fiasco. A former slave owner, Johnson was a bitter and virulent racist. He eventually came to oppose slavery, but he believed the former slaves should remain in a deeply subservient position. As president, he overtly opposed the 14th amendment (1868), which granted African Americans citizenship and equal protection under the law. He also stood by and did nothing as Southern states ran amok. The infamous Black Codes quickly replaced the old Slave Codes; state and local laws sprouted up to bypass the 13th amendment, deprive African Americans of their newfound rights, and trap them in exploitative agricultural labor practices. The KKK and other groups used violence to suppress African American political action. When blacks tried to assert their equality, they often met lethal oppression. Scores of African Americans were killed in race riots across the South. Adding insult to injury, Johnson also handed out pardons to high ranking Confederates, eventually up to and including former Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Congress was appalled and began administering its own version of reconstruction, passing a series of civil rights acts, reconstruction acts, and constitutional amendments that granted African Americans political rights and oversaw a prolonged military occupation of the South. Johnson responded by issuing more vetoes than all of his predecessors combined. But with a Republican super majority, Congress simply passed legislation and overrode his opposition. Johnson hurt his own cause with a disastrous speaking tour that turned most Northern voters against him. By the time of his impeachment trial in 1868, he was barely governing.
The House impeached Johnson and the Senate voted 38-19 in favor of removing him. However, since a 2/3 majority is needed, removal failed by one vote. Part of the reason is that many moderate Republicans were less than enamored with Radical Republican senator Benjamin Wade, who was in line to replace Johnson. Moderates figured it would be easier to advance their agenda with a hobbled Democratic president than with a feisty fellow Republican they did not always agree with.
Thus, Johnson remained in office for a little over a year after his impeachment, largely neutered of power. A serious effort at American political regicide had taken place for the first time.
It’s difficult to measure the long term impact of Johnson’s impeachment on the presidency. He was followed by Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant, whose own presidency was fairly robust but also plagued by enough corruption that the former general’s reputation waned greatly. After Grant came a parade of weak presidents who are forgotten to most Americans, and whom most high school history students associate with little more than odd facial hair styles.
It was not until the turn of the 20th century that the presidency assumed a firmer role in government as Theodore Roosevelt and later Woodrow Wilson helped establish what historians sometimes refer to as the Imperial Presidency: strong chief executives who promoted imperial ambitions abroad and (by the standards of the time) an activist federal government at home.
After a succession of presidents dedicated to small government and laissez-faire policies, the office was again strengthened under Franklin Roosevelt, who used it to combat the Great Depression and fight World War II. By the 1970s, Andrew Johnson’s impeachment was more than a century past, and for most Americans he had been reduced to little more than an odd historical footnote and a black and white illustration in textbooks.
Then came Richard Nixon.
Like many developed nations with large Baby Boom cohorts, the United States today has a rather old population. The median age is nearly 39. That means nearly half the people, a large majority of the electorate, and an overwhelming majority of current politicians were alive when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency amid scandal in 1974 to avoid the near certain prospect of impeachment by the House of Representatives and removal from office by the U.S. Senate. I believe that this is the modern case of American regicide that has so greatly influenced the political landscape ever since, shattering the taboo and leaving every subsequent president more vulnerable to political attacks from competing elements within the state.
Space will not allow me to review the myriad twists and turns of Watergate. Suffice it to say that, unlike the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, this was not a battle for the soul of the nation and its people filtered through a flimsy, partisan impeachment and removal trial. Rather, Richard Nixon was simply a corrupt and vile politician who attempted to further his career by actively undermining American democratic institutions when his goons stole election campaign secrets from Democratic Party headquarters. And then he ordered a cover up, replete with an illegal slush fund. And then he publicly lied about it. And then he abused his office by attempting to squash investigations. And then he refused to cooperate with Congress and the courts.
In short, Richard Nixon was a felon who committed high crimes against the state, and he had to go.
However, despite the righteousness of his exit under threat of removal, the floodgates were opened. The office of the presidency had been weakened, and every subsequent president had to carry the burden. Presidents were no longer the especial symbol of American virtue. They were no longer half a step above the fray and accorded a higher degree of respect. They were now just like any other politician, subject to the dirtiest of tricks and forever within the opposition’s sites, an indelible target upon their backs.
Don’t believe me? Just check the numbers.
Through the tenure of Barack Obama, there have been 44 presidents. Only two of them have been impeached (Johnson and Bill Clinton), with one other facing the near certain prospect of it (Nixon). However, a dozen presidents have seen a Congressperson officially move to begin impeachment hearings against them, with the cases eventually going nowhere. Of those dozen, half came before Richard Nixon. The other half were aimed at Nixon and his successors.
In other words, of the 36 presidents who preceded Nixon, only six endured a motion for impeachment, and only one was actually impeached or faced serious threat of it.
After Nixon’s resignation, 5 of the next 7 presidents suffered an impeachment motion in the House, and one of them, Bill Clinton was actually impeached. In fact, every president beginning with Ronald Reagan has seen a member of Congress move to impeach him.
- Ronald Reagan faced an impeachment motion over the Iran Contra Scandal.
- George Bush the Elder faced an impeachment motion over the first Iraq war.
- Prior to actually being impeached over the Monica Lewinski scandal, Bill Clinton faced an impeachment motion for allegedly obstructing an investigation of alleged campaign contributions from foreign sources.
- George Bush the Younger faced an impeachment motion over his version of the Iraq (and Afghanistan) war.
- Barack Obama faced two impeachment motions: one for administering the drone program in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the other for the odd combination of charges that he failed to do perform his presidential duty while also abusing his presidential powers.
All of this is not a coincidence. Rather, it marks a fundamental change in American presidential politics. It highlights a new attitude towards the presidency. This is the fallout of American regicide.
Congress did the right thing by chasing Richard Nixon from the White House. The correctness of congressional actions in that case is supported not only by almost every serious historian and political analyst who has assiduously studied the matter, but also by the bi-partisan movement against Nixon.
In February of 1974, the House of Representatives voted to authorize its Judiciary Committee to consider impeachment hearings. The vote tally? A whopping 410-4.
Later that year when the Judiciary Committee recommended impeaching Nixon on three counts while rejecting two others, it was not quite as overwhelming a vote, but it was not strictly partisan. All the Democratic committee members voted Yes on all charges, but some Republicans concurred: GOP members voted Yes a total of 15 times and No a total of 36 times on the three counts. And on the two measures that failed, all Republicans voted No, but so too did some Democrats: Dems voted No a total 18 times and Yes 24 times.
Moving to impeach Nixon was absolutely the right thing, and it may have eventually come to fruition even if Republicans held the House as the evidence against the president became ever more damning and undeniable.
Nevertheless, unintended repercussions of the House’s actions and Nixon’s flight from office are still with us. Every president is now a potential target for impeachment, particularly if the opposition party is in control, as witnessed by Clinton’s impeachment, which regardless of its actual merits, passed the Republican-controlled House on an overtly partisan vote, and then failed in the Democrat-controlled Senate the same way.
The regicide of Richard Nixon is a legacy we continue to live with. Impeaching the president is no longer seen as a gasp-inducing nuclear option demanding the most serious of circumstances. All presidents now live with the specter of impeachment. Thus, the possibility of a serious movement to impeach Donald Trump arising at some point seems all the likelier.
Furthermore, Mike Pence is no Benjamin Wade. Many Republicans themselves are ill at ease with The Donald and strongly prefer Pence.
And so, should the Democrats regain the House in 2018, it seems all but certain that Trump will face impeachment. But even if Republicans maintain their control of the House, they may yet work behind the scenes to manifest a more informal regicide.
If things continue to deteriorate, Republicans may pressure Trump to resign. Perhaps he would cite health concerns to save face, claiming a raft of phantom victories on his way out the door.
And, should things degenerate to the point that even a sizeable share of Republican voters disavow Trump, the GOP itself could begin impeachment proceedings if he failed to heed their demands and warnings. That scenario, which seems rather far fetched in the present, highly partisan moment, could become more viable should the revelations of Trump’s connections to Russia and Vladimir Putin become so clear that all rational voters can no longer deny them.
Under those circumstances, it would be vital for Republicans to get Trump out of office with enough time for Pence to assert himself as a legitimate incumbent for the 2020 election. Over a year should do it. By the time the 1976 election rolled around, Gerald Ford had spent two years as president after taking over for Nixon. It almost worked. He was able to fend off a challenge from within the party by Ronald Regan, and probably would’ve beaten Jimmy Carter had he not hanged himself with the albatross of pardoning Nixon.
The Republicans will remember this. If they need to remove Trump from office because they risk going down in flames with him, then they will move quickly so that Pence can establish himself. And if Trump’s reputation is in utter tatters by then, Pence won’t bend over backwards to rehabilitate it.
All in all, it seems some level of attempted political regicide against Donald Trump will emerge over the next four years. The details of course are impossible to predict. Whether it is the full regicide that Nixon suffered, the near regicide that Clinton endured, or the far less successful attempts that everyone after Carter has witnessed, remains to be seen. At this point, we can’t even know if it will be out in the open or take place behind closed doors, or if it will be initiated and pushed by the Democrats or the Republicans. But either way, something is probably in the offing.
The king will soon be dead. Long live the king.
This essay first appeared at 3 Quarks Daily.