‘Democracy can falter here’: Professors sign open letters calling for Trump’s impeachment

Yannick Davidson and Stephanie Teng

In October, a group of political science scholars issued a public statement warning that former President Trump posed a threat to democracy.

“We have seen [Trump] encourage rather than condemn violent extremist groups that want him to remain in power,” the letter read. “We cannot overstate how dangerous this is.”

Now, four months after the release of the public statement and nearly a month after the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol, the second impeachment trial for former President Donald J. Trump is about to commence.

Joining hundreds of professors at different institutions across the country, three College professors have signed open letters in support of the impeachment and calling for Trump’s removal: Assistant Professor of Political Science Mason B. Williams, Professor of American History Charles B. Dew ’58, Professor of American Civilization Mark Reinhardt, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Elizabeth Iams Wellman.

Williams signed a letter from historians and constitutional scholars condemning Trump and calling for his removal. As of this article’s publication, the letter has garnered 1,432 signatures, including the names of Pulitzer-prize winners Garry Wills, Ron Chernow, Jon Meacham, and Stacy Schiff.

“Throughout his presidency, Trump has defied the Constitution and broken laws, norms, practices, and precedents, for which he must be held accountable now and after he leaves office,” the letter stated. “No future president should be tempted by the example of his defiance going unpunished.”

Reinhardt and Wellman, meanwhile, have called for Trump’s impeachment in signing a separate letter issued by a group of political scientists.

The letter, created on Jan. 6, has since received more than 2,000 signatures from political scientists and scholars. It called for the immediate removal of Trump through either an impeachment process or by invoking the 25th amendment.

“The President’s actions threaten American democracy,” the letter read, “Our profession seeks to understand politics, not engage in it, but we share a commitment to democratic values.”

Although not calling for Trump’s impeachment, President Maud S. Mandel echoed similar ideas in an all-campus email sent on Jan. 7, in which she called for a “rededication to the basic principles of democracy.”

“It is up to all of us, at Williams and nationally, to protect and nurture [democracy], and to expand its protections to all,” she wrote.

Democratic erosion scholars highlight how U.S. democracy is at risk

This past fall, Wellman offered a course entitled PSCI 343: Democratic Erosion, which is taught simultaneously at 40 different institutions across the country and aimed at evaluating threats to democracy within domestic and international contexts.

While the course has been offered nationally since 2017, this is the first year the College has offered it. Wellman, along with Democratic Erosion instructors at other institutions, released another open letter on Jan. 8 that called on Congress to uphold democracy as a national institution and for Trump’s removal.

“It is time for action,” the letter stated. “The best interest of the nation must be put before personal interest, cowardice or political ambition. In an environment of hyper-polarization, it is absolutely vital that Republican and Democratic leaders act in unison to restore trust in our democratic institutions.”

When viewed through the lens of the course and its materials, the election of Trump and the Capitol siege are by no means “exceptional,” according to Wellman.

“One of the major fallacies is that we can pinpoint erosion to an individual,” she said. “As political scientist Nancy Bermeo has argued, we need to think of democracy . . . as being a collage of institutions that are shaped and reshaped by different actors over time. Does democratic erosion begin and end with Donald Trump? Absolutely not.”

Wellman noted, however, that while democratic erosion cannot be linked to one person, the impeachment and removal of Trump is still vital in the upholding of democracy.

“We need some degree of accountability,” Wellman said. “Democracy requires accountability — fundamentally adhering to the rules of the game and adhering to democratic rules in our Constitution. And if our leaders are violating the rules of the game or trying to subvert or ignore the rules of the game, there needs to be accountability to that.”

Trump’s impeachment, she added, holds both domestic and international importance, given the United States’ global presence as a self-declared proponent of democracy.

“The implications of us not playing that role are pretty profound,” Wellman said. “We need to be internally accountable, but also show the rest of the world that when democratic rules are violated, we follow up.”

Not only did the Capitol siege reveal the fragility of American democracy, the subtlety of its erosion, and the absolute need for accountability, it also showed that the United States is not as immune to democratic erosion as some might imagine, according to Wellman.

“Democracy can falter here, just like democracy falters everywhere,” she said.

What happened at the Capitol and what had been happening in the United States are not unique, according to Wellman. She emphasized this idea in a recent article she co-wrote with Christina Kulich, a fellow professor of the Democratic Erosion course.

“It is abundantly clear that President Trump leaving office is not the end of an era,” she wrote. “but likely the beginning of a larger reckoning about the systemic injustice and fragility of our democracy.”