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What might a Trump impeachment mean? Ask our neighbors in Latin America.

(Editor's note: This story was published in May 2019, before the impeachment of President Donald Trump on December 18, 2019. We're reviving it as part of our look back at the top Insights stories of 2019.)

With some Americans and members of Congress calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, our nation could be headed for partisan strife perhaps unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

Ohio State Mansfield political science professor Rachel Bowen has studied the turbulent democracies of Latin America in her book, The Achilles Heel: Judicial Autonomy and the Rule of Law in Central America. Bowen also wrote a piece in The Conversation discussing impeachment proceedings in Latin America, and what we could see unfolding in our country.

We sat down with Dr. Bowen to see what lessons can be learned from the chaotic political scenes she has observed in Latin America.

What do you see as the most striking parallels between our current political situation and the political turmoil you have studied in Latin America?

There are certainly some parallels that are stronger than others, such as the increasing division and political polarization we are seeing in the United States. If you look back historically, the level of division we are starting to see is beginning to look like the division and polarization in some of the Latin America countries.

Where we are headed as a country is not pretty.

One of the reasons I’m interested in writing about these issues is because of my concern that impeachment doesn’t necessarily fix these problems.

What would you say to skeptics who might find it a real stretch to compare a country with a strong system of checks and balances and a tradition of following the rule of law like the United States to less well-established Latin American countries?

I certainly have heard that criticism, and to some extent that is true. But we have a presidential system, which is not very common in developed democracies. Latin America also has presidential systems, whereas most European countries, for example, do not.

Countries in Latin America like Chile and Uruguay were, into the 1970s, pretty stable democracies. Political division grew dramatically, much more extreme than what we are seeing here. The military took over systems that had been strongly democratic.

So a history of democracy definitely helps, but it doesn’t necessarily prevent the worst from happening.

You write in your piece in The Conversation that “impeachment does more to punish enemies than clean up politics.” Why do you think that is?

Impeachment is an inherently political process because to do it you have to have a majority of the legislature. That’s why I don’t think an impeachment is happening in this country anytime soon, because a majority of the Senate supports the president. In theory, impeachment works to deal with egregious behaviors of the president.

But if you look at Nicaragua, for example, they put a former president in jail for gross corruption only when he was out of power. It was a partisan power play within that political system. You can have genuine wrongdoing. But if you are friends with the lawmakers in power, you can avoid being punished.

Wasn’t that really what we saw happen in our own country when President Nixon resigned and was pardoned by President Ford?

Yes, but one thing that happened after Nixon resigned was that Congress went into action. They had the Church Commission and they did the investigative work to really try to clean up some of the corruption. Those things are more important in the big picture of trying to curb corruption, although it was probably good that Nixon was no longer in office.

Where we are headed as a country is not pretty.
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Rachel Bowen, Political science professor, Ohio State Mansfield
One of the strategies President Trump uses to rally his supporters is to attack the news media and try to delegitimize news reporting. Is that a tactic you have seen in Latin America from embattled leaders?

Well, it’s a very different media environment, because in Latin America the media and the newspapers are very partisan. So there is normally a section of the media that supports the government and another section of the media that attacks the president.

There are some parallels in a much more extreme fashion in Venezuela in the 2000s when the opposition media was shut down.

We are getting a little outside of my expertise, but where you see the strongest parallels are Eastern Europe and Ukraine with involvement coming from the Russians. In Ukraine, the Russians were involved in genuinely inventing news stories that made people distrust the entire media.  

But in Latin America, I haven’t seen (presidents) accuse the media of lying. Instead, they accuse them of being partisans who support the opposite party. And they probably are. However, false reporting on social media is a significant concern in Latin America just as it is here.

How do you see this playing out in our country? What are the possible paths to impeachment if Congress does head that way?

I think there are two possible paths to an impeachment: One could help the country, and the other probably won’t.

The first one is that some revelation — perhaps involving the Russia scandal or maybe some new thing — turns enough of the Republicans against the president that they chose to impeach. I think if you had that much bipartisan consensus — that the revelations were really that bad — it could help the country. There would be a unifying quality to it. So that’s one path, and I don’t think it’s very likely.  The Mueller Report has not created that consensus.

The other path is that Democrats, who retook the House in 2018, set about impeaching the president. Some Democratic congressmen are eager to do that, and some Democratic voters are eager to have them do it. And I think they probably could achieve an impeachment, even if the Senate likely would not vote to remove the President.

However, I think there’s potential to be damaging to the political environment because it could be seen as partisan.

If it's perceived as a partisan witch hunt and the root of our problems are about division and polarization, then having the Democrats impeach the president certainly won’t help. Without a strong bipartisan component, you really could end up doubling down on those problems.

When you start discussing a partisan impeachment, it’s not hard to imagine some scenarios were things really spiral out of control. Do you worry about the possibility of another civil war or a military coup like you have seen frequently in Latin America?

There is certainly that potential. It’s easy to think that could happen, even as horrifying as that is.

I will say I think it’s very unlikely that the United States military would step in to keep a president in power — or to remove one. It’s just very hard to imagine a scenario like that because of the training and professionalism of the U.S. military.

There is some possibility — not a strong one but as long as we are spinning out worst-case scenarios — that fighting could erupt between Trump supporters and Trump opponents. We already saw some of that in Charlottesville with some of our political fights turning violent. If you spin this out and it goes further with people committing to that kind of polarized opposition, I don’t think it’s impossible you could see partisans on the political extremes fighting.

There was a civil war in Colombia that really began as a fight among partisans, a period of violence based on who belonged to what political party.

I don’t think it’s impossible, but I don’t think it’s likely beyond the occasional skirmish in Charlottesville and Berkeley. But I think there are definitely people who want to see that fighting.