Wednesday was a historic day. With their final push to impeach President Trump, House Democrats have heightened the real threat to American democracy: ideological warfare.

Taken out of the context of our times, it’s easy to see why some people would view Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as impeachable conduct. Using public office for private gain is about as basic an abuse of power as there is. Trump’s request that Ukraine cooperate with his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, suggests that personal rather than public benefit was Trump’s aim. If we lived in normal political times, this argument would likely have more persuasive power than it has to date.

But we don’t live in normal political times. We are in the third year of the Democrats’ unprecedented, relentless attack on Trump. A majority of Democrats thought he should be impeached and removed less than one month after he took office. Such a result can be explained only by a simple fact: Most Democratic voters don’t believe he should have been elected in 2016, and they view impeachment and removal as the proper remedy to undo that election. That view is ultimately fatal to democracy, which requires the losers to submit voluntarily to an election’s outcome.

Even this, however, understates the peril this impeachment portends for our democracy. Trump is not the only target here. Increasingly, Democratic activists and their media allies hold Republican legislators and voters complicit in what they consider “high crimes and misdemeanors.” It has thus become increasingly clear that Trump is merely the convenient target, the big boat at which to aim the missiles. The Republican voter is the real target.

Republicans feel this keenly. It may have started with Hillary Clinton’s labeling half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables,” but it goes much further than that. Republicans are frequently labeled as racists or traitors because they dared to support Trump. Indeed, a recent poll by PRRI found that 80 percent of Democrats believe the GOP has been taken over by racists. Because everyone knows Trump was elected by voters, that means most Democrats think the tens of millions of Republicans who voted for him are racist, too.

That sentiment, that Republicans themselves are beyond the pale, is one of the biggest reasons Trump is able to rally them behind him in this fight. And that makes the impeachment vote a watershed in American democracy. It will be the first time that impeachment is advanced on almost purely partisan grounds to gratify a segment of the electorate whose objection is as much about a president’s supporters as it is about the president himself.

Stirring up and intensifying these passions is a much greater affront to our system of government than anything Trump is alleged to have done. Nearly half the country views this impeachment as a naked coup, much as some Democrats viewed the attempt to impeach and remove President Bill Clinton as a coup. By moving forward with impeachment under these circumstances, Democrats are merely increasing the partisan bitterness that is dividing us into two warring camps.

That bitterness — which exists in both Democrats and Republicans — is the greatest threat American democracy faces today. Democracy cannot exist when a country is divided into two camps, each of which sees the other as an enemy rather than an adversary. Democracy relies on the suspension of partisan rancor in the interest of the nation, which in turn relies on the belief that one’s adversaries can be loyal to the country even as one bitterly disagrees with the course they plot for the country. That belief is under extreme pressure today, and an impeachment that is widely viewed as the culmination of a partisan crusade places even more pressure on our weakened political constitution.

The outcome of this particular battle is preordained. Republican senators will act as partisanly as House Democrats and acquit Trump of the charges. We, the people, will then be able to pass judgment on Trump in the election. We cannot be sure who will win that battle. But if the victor gives in to the spirit of partisan hatred that the past three years and this impeachment have heightened to a frenzy, American democracy is sure to be the loser.

Twitter: @henryolsenEPPC

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