By Saturday, Jim Crow had left a number of messages on Congressman Al Green's voicemail. "We’re going to give you a short trial before we hang your nigger ass," one caller grumbled. Another was harsher still: "Try it, and we'll rinse out you fucking niggers, you'll be hanging from a tree."
The calls were in response to the fact that Green was the first member of Congress to formally call for the president's impeachment last Wednesday, a few hours before the Department of Justice appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as a special counsel investigating Trump's ties to Russia. "I do not do this for political purposes," Green had said that morning. "I do it because, Mr. Speaker, there is a belief in this country that no one is above the law. And that includes the president of the United States of America."
Green, a 69-year-old Democrat from Houston, has the weathered face and solemn demeanor of a man who has endured his share of blustery bigotry, and who knows what violence can follow. He didn't blow off the threats; in an MSNBC interview on Saturday morning, moments before a town hall in Houston, Green indicated that there were "some extreme security measures" in place on site. When people say they'll lynch you for advocating that Donald Trump should be impeached, it makes sense to play it safe. But Green was unbowed and undeterred. After playing the voicemails for his town hall audience, the congressman stood firmly by what he'd said three days earlier.
It is no surprise that a member of the Congressional Black Caucus did this. Whether due to their own sense of duty to the country or as a reflection of widespread African-American anger toward the president, black representatives such as Green, Maxine Waters, and Sheila Jackson Lee have long been some of the most prominent voices on Capitol Hill calling for impeachment, even as many Democrats have discouraged such talk. Those lawmakers who are being overly cautious should stop and listen to colleagues like Green — there are good reasons why he is risking more than the average elected official to make his voice heard on this issue.
First of all, evidence of illegality is not necessary for impeachment; Richard Nixon resigned under threat of impeachment not because there was proof that he'd ordered the Watergate break-in, but because he was caught on tape trying to cover it up. And while Mueller's forthcoming independent investigation may turn up proof of crimes, the case against Trump is already made. Congress doesn't have to wait for Trump to commit actual crimes to act.
We know, because he blurted it out during an interview with NBC News anchor Lester Holt, that the president fired FBI director James Comey earlier this month to either impede or stop the federal investigation into Michael Flynn, the paid foreign agent Trump chose as his national security adviser. We also know that Trump has violated the Foreign Emoluments Clause by drawing personal profit from representatives of foreign governments who stay at his property. Trump has done, and continues to do, things that endanger the republic. Nearly half of registered voters surveyed after Comey's firing want Trump removed from office. The White House is fully aware of what's up, which is why they're reportedly researching the impeachment process.
Why give the administration more time to prepare? Perhaps in a Washington where partisanship took a backseat to public service, impeachment proceedings would have already begun. Yet not only have Republicans stuck by the president, almost to a man, but Democrats have also done their best lately to slow talk of impeachment. They say things like, "I just want to get the information," as Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland told reporters last week, or express concern that impeachment chatter fails to grasp what truly concerns their base. "Yes, Trump is hurting the country," North Carolina governor Roy Cooper told NBC News. "But the bottom line is people are worried about getting their kids through college, making ends meet, and keeping their family running. Those are the things that they focus on."
I can't speak to the kitchen tables Governor Cooper frequents, but rest assured that plenty are talking about Russia screwing with our elections and how to get Trump the hell out of the White House. By focusing primarily on economic problems and not the mechanism that is exacerbating them — a compromised election, thanks to both Russia and racism — Democrats treat the symptoms and not the disease.
“Democrats are missing a chance to reinvigorate communities of black voters who have come to believe that neither party is looking out for them.”
For a lot of Americans, the bigotry that Trump enables is an ever-present concern. His election itself was an affront to every person of color in this country, given that it was the first one in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. Restrictive laws and actions were implemented in several states prior to November 9, including Wisconsin — where restrictions made the difference between Trump winning and losing, according to a recent Priorities USA study. His own willful encouragement of voter suppression means that it’s no surprise that a president elected at least in part on the back of suppression now works to exacerbate inequality along racial and gender lines.
Since Trump's campaign began, hate crimes have spiked. White supremacists and men's rights activists throughout the country appear emboldened by Trump’s ascendance. Just last weekend, yet another hate-crime investigation was launched when a black Bowie State student, Richard Collins III, was murdered by a white assailant belonging to a racist Facebook group.
The cultural poison Trump emits isn't something that any filibuster can block. Perhaps worried Democrats think that talk of impeachment would backfire, and that they’re better off waiting for the 2018 midterm elections to stop Trump. But by failing to prove that they understand the urgency of the situation, they seem to be prioritizing their own political viability over the health of the republic. Also, they are mistaken! While it sits collectively on enough proof to impeach Trump, the party will lose the attention and dedication of many voters who already understand that the country cannot afford to wait years for Trump to be removed. Democrats are missing a chance to reinvigorate communities of black voters who have come to believe that neither party is looking out for them.
It is frustrating to learn that this Democratic reserve is also about the quixotic pursuit of Trump voters. Cooper, elected last fall to replace Republican Pat McCrory as North Carolina's governor, told NBC News that "we have to communicate with people that we know we will help. And a lot of those people voted for Donald Trump because they were frustrated that their wages were stagnant, that they didn't see their lives getting any better. And it's important for us to show them that we are a better alternative."
The fallacious "economic anxiety" excuse is bad enough when we hear it from Republicans. Democrats won't win in 2018 by wasting their time on people who cast their ballots for white supremacy last November. Black voters have been telling Democrats for generations that they don't see their lives getting any better, yet their unswerving loyalty to the party doesn't earn them this kind of fawning attention and deferential treatment. When will Democrats finally hear them?
This isn't a matter of whether Trump will be impeached. It's about whether he should be. Seeing black elected officials on Capitol Hill like Green, Waters, and Lee leading the charge for Trump's impeachment is important because with or without Russia's help, Trump's exploitation of bigotry won him the White House. Green's voicemails are just one indication that bigots want to keep him there. Democrats are softening the threat of impeachment at a time when not only is the evidence available, but the stakes also grow more dire for communities of color by the day. They don't seem to recognize that his racism is yet another impeachable offense. It is a stark reminder of how societal injustices are too often ignored until they're seen through a white lens. By then, it's usually too late.