Summary: President Trump might spark a change in our politics both unexpected and (as it will seem afterwards) inevitable, making our 18th century constitutional regime more similar to modern parliamentary systems. If he continues to act wildly and weirdly, the Republicans in Congress might impeach and remove him — putting the solidly far-Right Mike Pence at the helm. Trump would be the first President removed by Congress, but not the last. The occasional impeachment of Presidents would make Congress the Federal power center the Founders intended it to be.
Get ready for impeachment.
— Maxine Waters (@MaxineWaters) March 21, 2017
A long-time concern of constitutional lawyers and political scientists has been the fundamental instability of presidential governance systems, like that of the USA. How are deep and irreconcilable conflicts between Congress and the President resolved? Worse, what happens if we get an incompetent President after he loses the confidence of Congress, the public, and perhaps even senior executive branch officers? Especially at a time of national crisis, the result could be disastrous — with no obvious remedy. For example, see “American democracy is doomed” by Matthew Yglesias at VOX.
In the early 1980s Bruce Ackerman (Prof Law, Yale) began to study the process of constitutional change in America. He found an informal method of evolution other than the formal processes specified in the Constitution, which he called “higher lawmaking” (summary here). After the great crises of the Civil War, the Great Depression, and WWII — America’s political regime bears little resemblance to its form during Washington’s administration. The Trump years might create its next great test.
Much of America’s social change since WWII results from elites’ recognition that they can break the informal social norms that govern their behavior. Doctors can practice medicine as a business and become rich. CEOs can arrange corporations to pay themselves fantastic sums and so become plutocrats. Elected representatives can arrange to become almost permanent fixtures, retiring wealthy.
All of these changes seemed impossible before they happened, until they realized that the social norms that constrained them were just paper shackles. In the next few years Congress might realize that they can impeach a President at will, drastically changing the structure of US government to more closely resemble the parliamentary governments used by almost all other republics (for good reason few nations have copied our odd structure). Trump might force this break in precedent; its effects will change America’s government forever.
To better understand this, let’s turn to someone from a nation with a longer history and who sees the Constitution more clearly (distance gives perspective, allowing a dispassionate analysis). He shows that the Constitution’s 175 words about the impeachment process give Congress a powerful tool with few limits, limited mostly by Americans’ customs — which can change.