In January 1973, National Lampoon featured an infamous cover declaring: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine We’ll Kill This Dog.” I was reminded of that when Donald Trump sent a similarly desperate tweet this weekend, suggesting that “If You Don’t Stop This Impeachment My People and I Will Start a Civil War.”
At least, that’s my interpretation of Trump’s tweet—which predicted: “If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office… it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.”
It is, perhaps, ironic that in seeking to clear himself of making an alleged veiled threat to Ukraine that he would hold up the country’s funding, Trump is now issuing a veiled threat to America: It’s a nice country we got here, it’d be a shame if anything happened to it!
This also shows us that Trump isn’t just 100 percent committed to self-preservation, but that he’s willing to take hostages to guarantee it.
That’s not to say that impeachment won’t be difficult—or that it won’t further inflame our already smoldering culture war. Even absent Trump’s burn-it-all-down mentality, impeachment would still be traumatic. We already have enough irritants and stressors in our lives, so it’s understandable that the public might not want to add one more.
Ironically, the threat of roiling the nation is probably most concerning to people who are temperamentally conservative or moderate—the kinds of people who crave normalcy and tranquility.
But should the fear of additional stress be a deterrent? If so, this argument could be invoked to prevent any action that might serve as a corrective.
The victim of violence who goes to the police is, in a sense, inviting more trouble. He does so, at least partly, to prevent the next person from being victimized by the same assailant.
The patient who opts for chemotherapy is, to some degree, inviting a season of chaos and pain into her life. She does so because she has decided to fight, and because she sees it as a short-term sacrifice for a possible long-term benefit.
Trump’s apologists want to scaremonger about starting a civil war, but blaming those of us who want to hold the president accountable for things he did is sort of like blaming the fire department for kicking down your door after an arsonist (who plays with matches) catches your house on fire.
But we don’t have to invent new metaphors to illustrate the flaws in Trump’s argument. Since he irresponsibly invoked civil war, it’s probably fair game to note that, from time to time, America has had to endure terrible tests in the pursuit of freedom and justice. Yes, we actually did fight a bloody Civil War to end slavery. The cost was incredibly high. We did it because it was worth the fighting for.
Happily, almost nobody really thinks impeachment will devolve into a shooting war. But it is going to get ugly. The preservation of democracy is inherently messy.
Keep in mind the “civil war” threat is a distraction from the fundamental question, which is whether Trump used the prestige of his office to coerce a foreign leader to dig up dirt on one of Trump’s political rivals—and whether that is an impeachable offense.
Since it’s pretty hard for a Trump supporter to argue that Trump’s behavior was appropriate, then he must argue something else. One such something else is: “Yeah, but impeachment will rip this country apart.”
Unlike the notion that Trump acted appropriately, this is at least a plausible argument—if for no other reason than that it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. It becomes true if Trump and his defenders decide to make it true.
There’s an old saying that goes, when you’re right, argue the facts, and when you’re wrong, argue the law. Donald Trump and his sycophants added a third component to this formulation: When you’re really desperate, threaten to shoot the dog.
Unfortunately, in this case, the dog is America.