As things play out, one possible outcome — the Republican fantasy — is that President Trump will be impeached but not convicted. The bitter partisan process backfires on Democrats, allowing Trump to win reelection and keep the Senate under Republican control. It’s not hard to imagine what happens after that.
Emboldened by his acquittal and reelection, Trump would claim a mandate to do whatever he wants, without regard for Congress, public opinion or the law. We’ve already seen these autocratic instincts: abrogating treaties, using national security as pretext for raising tariffs, spending money for a border wall without appropriation, selling advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia without congressional approval, selling off public lands and overturning regulations without providing a scientific basis. All that will seem like a warm-up act, however, if Trump is unleashed into a second term.
If you think that, in response, young people and liberal activists and Democratic politicians are simply going to go home, lick their wounds and wait until the next election — well, think again. Strikes, lawsuits, street demonstrations and other forms of civil disobedience are the more likely response. Trump’s warning the other day that the impeachment process might lead to a second “civil war” was menacing and irresponsible, but he wasn’t wrong in anticipating a period of civil unrest that would undermine consumer, investor and business confidence.
At that point, it will no longer be possible for business leaders to get away with, “We’re with him when we agree, and not when we don’t.” For autocrats and dictators, you are either friend or foe, ally or enemy, a patriot or a traitor. Just ask Federal Reserve Chair Jerome “Bonehead” Powell, who dared to ignore Trump’s demands for zero percent interest rates, or the executives of Honda, Ford, Volkswagen and BMW, who face an antitrust investigation for having the audacity to embrace Obama-like fuel efficiency standards. For business leaders, the unpleasant choice will be to incur the wrath of the bully president for not saluting or to salute and risk losing key employees, customers and investors.
Okay, so maybe that’s not what happens. Maybe impeachment by the House weakens an already unpopular president, allowing Democrats to win the White House, and with it control of both houses of Congress in 2020. That’s the Democratic fantasy, and it would present business leaders with a different but equally challenging dilemma as the new president and Congress go about eliminating all vestiges of the Trump presidency, including the business-friendly tax cuts and industry-inspired deregulation.
To get it done, Democrats won’t hesitate to eliminate what is left of the Senate filibuster. And that’s before they take up proposals to eliminate private health insurance, impose a wealth tax and a financial transaction tax, break up the big tech companies, embark on a Green New Deal or, heaven help us, pack the Supreme Court.
If you think I exaggerate, I have only two words for you: Merrick Garland.
The decision by Republicans to steal a Supreme Court seat from a respected middle-of-the-road nominee is still a gaping open wound for lawmakers on Capitol Hill and for Democratic voters. They see it as part and parcel with Sen. Mitch McConnell’s pledge in 2010 for Republican senators to do whatever was necessary to guarantee that Barack Obama would be a failed one-term president.
Add that to three years of Trump’s lies and insults, and you begin to understand the Democrats’ appetite for revenge and retribution.
Democrats will also remember one other thing: that for most of the past 25 years, the business lobby abandoned any pretense of bipartisanship and turned itself into an arm of the Republican Party, which included financing efforts to defeat moderate pro-business Democrats. Having just run the table in the 2020 election, the chance that they will listen to reasoned arguments from business leaders is somewhere between little and none.
I take no pleasure in sketching out these scenarios. No matter whose fantasy prevails, what unfolds will be a political version of the Hatfields and the McCoys. It will be very bad for the country, bad for the economy and particularly bad for American business, which will find itself trapped in a political no man’s land between an angry, intransigent and anti-business Democratic Party on the left and an angry, anti-establishment Republican Party on the right.
Given that, the best strategy for the business community is to shift gears and use its money and influence to begin rebuilding a bipartisan center in both parties.
For starters, that would mean providing loud and lavish support to Republicans who dare to break with Trump and party leaders in Congress, not only on impeachment but in support of reasonable initiatives on immigration, gun control, infrastructure, climate, health care, universal pre-K and the minimum wage, all of which are on the business legislative agenda.
At the same time, this strategy would include providing equally loud and lavish support to moderate Democrats willing to break with their leaders and Democratic interest groups and support reasonable compromise on those issues.
It would take only a handful of well-publicized wins and defections to change the political calculus, widely embraced in both parties, that the only way to get reelected is by sticking to the party’s talking points and voting the party line.
Some might consider it naive to think that business would consider picking a fight with a president with a well-deserved reputation as a vengeful bully.
In my mind, however, what is even more naive is believing that our political system will somehow pull itself out of its current tailspin, one in which hyperpolarization and government dysfunction are feeding on each other, threatening our democracy and our economy.
In thinking about how to deal with a political system spinning out of control, business leaders should recall the wisdom of the ancient Jewish scholar and ask themselves, “If not us, who? If not now, when?”