Stop Calling Impeachment a “Coup”: It Is Wrong, Dangerous, and Bad for Democracy

Congressman Chris Stewart (R-Utah)did not ask many questions on the first day of the impeachment hearings, but he did make a lot of statements. And, in one of them, he echoed what seems to have become a major talking point in the proceedings. Pointing to a sign behind him depicting a nearly three-year-old tweet by an attorney for the still-sort-of-anonymous whistle-blower, Stewart said “the coup has started.”

The Congressman is not alone in this sentiment. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy accused Democrats of plotting “a calculated coup to take down the president.” In the president himself recently tweeted that the hearings represent “a COUP intended to take away the People, their VOTE, their Freedoms, their Second Amendment, Religion, Military, Border Wall, and their God-given rights as a Citizen of The United States of America!”

It is not enough to point out that calling impeachment hearings a “coup” is inaccurate, or even that it reflects an embarrassingly poor understanding of the constitution that all three men swore to protect and defend. When the leaders of a major political party publicly and continuously label a constitutional process a coup, they collapse the distinction between law and lawlessness and increase the possibility of an actual coup — with actual violence — occurring in the future.

By definition, a coup is an extra-constitutional action. It occurs entirely outside of the rule of law and replaces the law itself with force. Those who plot coups either do not care about the rule of law, or they believe that the laws and institutions of their country can no longer produce what they see as a necessary political result.

Impeachment by the House of Representatives is a constitutional process. It occurs entirely within the rule of law. Those who try to address a problem by bringing charges of impeachment are following the system that the Framers set in place. By their actions, they affirm that the laws and institutions of their country are strong enough to handle even what they see as the most difficult of political problems.

The Framers created the process of impeachment precisely because they wanted a way to remove a president without staging a coup. Benjamin Franklin advocated strongly for an impeachment clause because, without it, the only remedy for a corrupt leader would be assassination, which would propel the state into a crisis and leave the president “ “not only deprived of his life but of the opportunity of vindicating his character.”

Like most of the Framers, Franklin thought of Republics in terms of Ancient Rome — one of the few examples available at the time. After Caesar came to power, the only way that Senators could get rid of a tyrant was through assassination. When Caesar was killed, Rome was plunged into a lengthy civil war that destroyed the Republic for good and launched 500 years of imperial rule. And 20% of Rome’s emperors were removed the same way that Caesar was — by assassination. There was no other way.

Franklin and Madison — whose arguments carried the day —both believed that a viable constitution had to provide a way to remove a chief executive that was not a coup — way that dealt with serious issues but left everything else in place. Otherwise, the republic would not be able to withstand a serious challenge or a corrupt leader.

They set the bar for removal very high — so high that it has never been met with a presidential impeachment, and it will very probably not be met this time. Removing Trump would take at least 18 Republican votes, and there is no indication that they will be there. But the process itself is absolutely vital to constitutional government and the rule of law. It provides a way to address serious grievances within a constitutional framework. We cannot call impeachment a coup because the impeachment process is one of the reasons that we don’t have coups.

This is the reason that the current rhetoric of Stewart, McCarthy, and many of the President’s other defenders is so dangerous. The rule of law requires a strong distinction between constitutional processes and extra-constitutional ones. It requires leaders and citizens alike to understand the difference between following the law and discarding it. We must, at a minimum, be able to understand that holding hearings is fundamentally different than storming the seat of government and killing people.

When we start to believe that an impeachment is the same thing as a coup, we must also believe that a coup is the same thing as impeachment. If Trump is eventually removed— and we cannot dismiss the possibility that enough evidence will surface to make this inevitable — House Republicans will have coached millions of people to believe that the President was the victim of an action no different than violent insurrection.

The logical extension of this belief is that an actual violent insurrection would be a legitimate way to restore him or one of his relatives to power. In some circles, there is even a name for such an insurrection — one that inherently conflates the rule of law with the use of force and claims the Constitution as a mandate for treason. They call it a “Second Amendment Solution.”

We can disagree about whether or not Trump pressured Ukrainian officials to investigate a political opponent. We can argue back and forth about whether or not his actions rise to the level of impeachment, or whether it would be appropriate to remove a president for such actions. But let us all agree to protect the distinction between a constitutionally sanctioned exercise of congressional oversight and a violent disregard for of the rule of law. Because the future of our republic may very well hinge upon such a distinction.

Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition

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