As the United States Senate convenes Tuesday to begin trying Donald Trump for the second time, the vast majority of Republicans will not defend the disgraced president's attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Instead, as they did last time, they will charge that Democrats are "trying to achieve regime change through impeachment."
But is that true? And is regime change always undemocratic?
Progressives usually say yes. As foreign policy, regime change represents a forced political transformation, often by assassination, supporting a belligerent faction, or covert intervention in civil society. Regime change was a critical Cold War strategy by which the United States, the Soviet Union, and eventually China, created spheres of influence without risking direct warfare between nuclear superpowers. Reflecting on this, and the tinkering with other nations' governments that the US has engaged in since 1989, has led one scholar to conclude that regime change "rarely succeeds."
Arguably, Trump's second impeachment is an intriguing parallel. It seeks to purge a despotic figure, one that his own party is unwilling to disavow, from political life. Although he is out of office, a former president usually continues to wield power as the de facto leader of the party. A successful impeachment would decapitate the GOP politically, leave the party rudderless, and cripple its fundraising capacity for 2022.
Regime change also implies an attack on a nation's laws and constitutional government. Indeed, Republicans who support Trump have seized on the fact that the Constitution is silent on the question of impeaching a president after he leaves office: in the words of Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the Senate trial is "blatantly unconstitutional."
But let's think about regime change another way: what if we're seeing not an effort to topple another group, but a Democratic party renewing its commitment to justice?
More positively, regime change can refer to an institutional transformation that alters the political system. Democrats have much to account for in the compromises they made with conservative economic and governance theories in the 20th century. With the rest of what Occupy Wall Street famously called the 99 percent, Trump's white populist base was impoverished by these decisions, his donors enriched by them.
When, in his 1996 State of the Union, Bill Clinton announced that "the era of big government is over," he was announcing the triumph of a Democratic party consensus that had adapted to Reaganism. Now the party of a "new, smaller government" that would "work in an old-fashioned American way," Clinton Democrats embraced what became known as "neoliberalism": cutting taxes, eliminating social programs, encouraging self-reliance, getting tough on crime, and reducing regulations.
Many of these policies had a particularly devastating effect on Black communities that organized around making Barack Obama, a community organizer, the first Black president. Their success was a stunning form of regime change: electing a Black president of a historically white supremacist nation, but also one who promised to steer Democrats back to progressive, New Deal, and proudly "big," governance. Urging him forward as vice president was one of the Senate's staunchest liberals, Joe Biden.
Now, Biden seeks to complete a regime change within the Democratic party that, backed by a Democratic Congress, could create an ideological change in the political system that Republicans dread. While the president's inaugural address is remembered for its call to national unity, he also argued for the New Deal liberalism, refreshed and improved, that Clinton displaced. It is a vision of government doing big things: curing disease, fighting extremism, rebuilding the middle class, and delivering racial justice.
Is this regime change? You bet it is, and part of what that requires is demonstrating forcefully that the old bipartisan consensus, the one that brought Donald Trump to power, was a corrupt one. Successful or not, putting that information out in public is the most important job that impeachment does. Which is why Republicans fear it.