Historians Should Stay Out of Impeachment

Why was I so chagrined? A spasm of self-importance creates a terrible hangover. I have been alive many decades, and my memory is that no one, outside family members and close friends, has ever expressed the slightest interest in which presidential candidate got my vote, and I’m certain that no one had ever solicited that information from me in order to make his own decision on the subject. I should have taken this as a hint: No one cares whom I vote for.

Having taken a painful inventory of my own motives, I now know that people sign such ridiculous documents for a narrow set of reasons. As a scribbler of the third or fourth tier, far down the ranks in fame and income, I think I rather enjoyed seeing my name listed up there among writers who were genuinely accomplished and, not to put too fine a point on it, rich. I’d been invited to an A-list party! Worse, I wanted the world to know that I, too, despised Donald Trump as much as any other enlightened person. And I do—I despise Donald Trump. I want that to be clear. Have I mentioned this already? Cannot abide the man.

Anyway, it was an act equal parts self-aggrandizement and moral preening, and I’m not proud of it, and I wouldn’t mention it now except for a petition that crossed my line of sight the other day: “Historians’ Statement on the Impeachment of President Trump.” It appeared a few days before the House of Representatives went ahead and impeached Trump, and Nancy Pelosi even cited it in her own remarks on the House floor. Though impeachment is accomplished, the petition lives on, still collecting signatures. By now it has the endorsement of more than 1,500 people who identify themselves as historians, most of them professors of one rank or another, at universities of various reputation.

The thesis of the petition goes like this: “President Trump’s numerous and flagrant abuses of power are precisely what the Framers had in mind as grounds for impeaching and removing a president.”

When I first read the statement, I took that superfluous adverb, precisely, as a bad sign. No one knows precisely what the Framers had in mind when it comes to impeachable offenses, and if we did, we could be sure it didn’t involve transcontinental telephone calls, gaga theories about computer servers, Javelin anti-tank missiles, or the sovereign nation of Ukraine, none of which existed when the Framers were framing away. Trump’s abuses and the kinds of violations the Framers thought were impeachable may bear a general similarity, or fall into the same general category, but that’s a different matter. Precision, we see early on, is precisely what the historians are not after.

The sloppiness is important because the whole statement is supposed to be self-validating. It is a reflexive form of what logic-choppers call an argumentum ab auctoritate, or argument from authority. The idea is to prove a disputed claim by pointing out that some expert or other authority believes the claim to be true. It’s a bogus but very popular trick. Trump loves it, and uses it more adamantly the more outlandish his assertions get. The authority he cites most often is “everybody.” “Many, many dogs can be taught to play poker,” he will yell to reporters on the White House lawn, his hand slicing the air as a waiting helicopter whirrs away. “Everybody knows it.” The historians are not much more reassuring. Their authority for their statement is them.

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