MAGA longs to impeach Joe Biden — and un-impeach Donald Trump. It won't work

Trump's followers hope to smear Biden and redeem their hero — but desperate rewrites of history never stick

Published July 28, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Impeachment talk is in the air. As if Americans don't have real problems that need addressing, the ultra-conservative wing of the House Republican caucus is spending its time pushing Congress down two simultaneous impeachment paths.

First comes the right's longstanding desire to launch an impeachment investigation of President Biden. As loyal followers of Donald Trump, the MAGA caucus aims to throw as much dirt at Biden as possible, in the hope of sullying his reputation and damaging his prospects for re-election. Calling the tune for the House Republicans, Trump asked last week during a campaign stop in Iowa, "Why aren't they impeaching Biden? ... Why isn't he under impeachment?"

Second, many of these same MAGA acolytes want to rewrite history by taking the unprecedented and fanciful step of expunging the record of Trump's two impeachments. Last month, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, desperate to hold onto his slender majority, gave in to those demands when he announced his support for that effort.

That calls to mind a Russian saying from Stalinist times, when rewriting history to suit and flatter a totalitarian leader was de rigueur: "Russia is a country with a certain future; it is only the past that is unpredictable."

The MAGA cabal dreams of making America's past as "unpredictable" as Russia's.

McCarthy's new impeachment "inquiry" directed at Biden has encountered some resistance on the Republican side of the Senate, where more sensible members seem to grasp what makes political engines backfire: they lack the fuel of evidence.

Even Fox News host Steve Doocy said, "We've seen this movie before," and called hauling out the "I-word" again a "problem."

Speaking for House Republicans from competitive districts, Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado called McCarthy out as "irresponsible" for chasing a "shiny ball." 

For his part, Biden laughed it off. He understands that with only fabricated evidence of presidential misconduct, the effort is near-certain to turn off the American majority and dash Republican hopes of retaining control of Congress in 2024.

Politico's congressional reporter, Olivia Beavers, reported being told Wednesday by a conservative GOP House member that inside the members' meeting on the subject, "McCarthy was 'very clear'" that he didn't have the evidence needed for impeachment.

Then why do it — and why engage in a feeble effort to whitewash the history of the Trump presidency? 

On Tuesday, the day before McCarthy said he would call for an impeachment inquiry, Trump begged by video-tweet, "Congress, please investigate the political witch hunt against me."  

As CNN reported on July 21, McCarthy feels a need to "placate" Trump. The former president was furious at the speaker last month after McCarthy committed the capital offense of telling the truth. In an interview, he dared to express uncertainty about whether Trump was the best possible Republican presidential candidate in 2024. 

Hell hath no fury like a strongman scorned.

Indeed, in 2021, Trump himself paved the path toward this wishful-thinking exercise in expunging his shameful past when he launched a website that conspicuously omitted the fact, as the Guardian put it, that he was the first president "in history to twice face impeachment trials in Congress."

History tells us that attempts to erase the truth do not last long. Indeed, American history includes an eerie parallel for Speaker McCarthy's misbegotten initiative to expunge Trump's impeachments. That precedent has not withstood the test of time.

American history includes an eerie parallel for Kevin McCarthy's misbegotten initiative to expunge Trump's impeachments. That precedent has not withstood the test of time.

In the 1830s, after one Senate majority censured President Andrew Jackson for undermining the Second Bank of the United States, a successor majority later "uncensured" him. As historian Joshua Zeitz explains, historians today "remember Jackson's role in usurping congressional authority to kill the bank, and they remember Jackson as the first president to face congressional rebuke for his conduct."

"[M]uch as one cannot mend a broken egg," Zeitz added, "a congressional resolution cannot revise history." Even George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, a stalwart defender of Republican causes, has affirmed that "[o]nce you are impeached, you are impeached."

One might share Turley's assessment and predict that this "expungement" initiative will meet the same fate as Stalin's unsuccessful efforts to purge the memory of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state. Or conclude that trying to erase Trump's impeachment is as laughable as the clumsy efforts of Soviet secret police to eradicate murdered "enemies of the state" from photographs, long before photoshopping and Snapseed were gleams in an app developer's eye. 

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But that does not make the MAGA desire to cleanse history of facts any less troubling or perilous. It is a reminder of the danger posed by a political party turned into a cult of personality, especially when it controls the levers of government.

The most extreme adherents to Trump's cult, aided and abetted by the subservient House speaker, apparently don't want to borrow only Stalin's whiteboard eraser; they also seek to emulate Vladimir Putin, who has also "created his own version of history, combining Soviet myths ...  with stories from the Russian Empire before 1917." 

In 2018, Putin's officials "shut down a regional museum of Gulag history in a bid to whitewash the crimes of the Soviet secret police," according to its founder.

What is happening in the Republican-controlled House is also reminiscent of George Orwell's "1984," the dystopian fable adapted from the totalitarian reality he observed. Scholar Richard Cohen recounts that in the tale, the ruling party of Big Brother "could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened."

Underlying all this is the autocratic urge for complete control. As Hannah Arendt, the 20th-century political philosopher  tells us in her essay "Truth and Politics," "[F]actual truth must inform opinions" and is essential to democratic political life.

Historian Heather Cox Richardson has expressed essentially the same thought: An inaccurate picture of the past "means that people ... are at the mercy of those who are creating the stories." Eradicating real history, Richardson argues, is about destroying "the freedom to make good decisions about your life  ... the very things that democracy is supposed to stand for."

Preserving historical truth and American democracy requires seeing the Republican obsession with impeaching Biden and unimpeaching Trump for what it is: an autocratic fever dream. It is yet another reminder that freedom-loving Americans need to understand that giving MAGA Republicans political power puts us on the road toward ending our constitutional liberties.


By Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. His most recent book is "Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution." His opinion articles have appeared in USA Today, Slate, the Guardian, the Washington Post and elsewhere.

MORE FROM Austin Sarat

By Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

MORE FROM Dennis Aftergut

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Commentary Donald Trump Impeachment Joe Biden Maga Republicans