With the electoral votes cast and the last effort to stop a Trump presidency exhausted, opponents of the incoming administration are dusting off Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution. The emoluments clause is all the rage, so much so that the Brookings Institution has released a 23-page report examining the clause and its applicability to Donald Trump's impending presidency. Their conclusion? Unless both Trump and his children divest themselves of all stakes in the Trump Corporation, Trump will be violating the Constitution from the moment he is sworn into office.
The legal analysis here is smart and persuasive. But in the very last paragraph of the report is the one point that matters: "When this guillotine [of impeachment] might fall is a matter of political more than legal calculation." This is the most important thing to know about the impeachment process. When – whether – it happens is a matter of politics, not law.
This is a point that opponents of Trump must come to terms with. Flights of fancy have accompanied Trump's rise: a contested convention, a mid-autumn resignation, a three-state recount, an Electoral College coup. The idea of impeachment has the same seductive power, offering an easy out. But while Trump's time in office may well end in impeachment, there is nothing automatic or inevitable about the process.
The debate around emoluments and impeachment are part of a larger trend in anti-Trump thinking, one pronounced time and again since his victory: "The Constitution will save us." The line comes across as an incantation more than an argument, as though once a line is crossed – a civil liberty violated, a constitutional clause breached – the Constitution will leap to life and throw itself in front of encroaching illiberalism.
But American history is a forceful rebuttal to such wishful thinking. The 14th and 15th Amendments did not secure equal citizenship or voting rights for African-Americans, even though the words were right there. The Constitution did not come to the rescue for American citizens imprisoned because of their race during World War II. Absent political will, the Constitution falls silent.
This is not to say laws and rules and ethics don't matter. Of course they do. They are the foundation for building a political case. But opponents of Trump need to understand that politics – that is, power – determines what is possible.
Right now, what is possible is not a lot. The incoming Republican Congress will almost certainly be beyond persuasion when it comes to reining in a Trump presidency. They showed as much during the election, refusing, with rare exception, to vocally oppose the nominee. Trump's victory gave them power. They're not turning on him any time soon, especially if he gives them space to transform America into an "Atlas Shrugged" theme park.
If and when Trump's opponents pursue impeachment, they can't simply point to the Emoluments Clause. They must offer voters not only specific examples of what wrongs Trump has committed but why those wrongs matter, how they affect people's lives, how they violate shared values.
And there's the rub. The very thing that makes Trump so likely to commit impeachable offenses is the thing that will make it so hard to impeach him. He was elected president promising to violate citizens' civil liberties, to flout the Constitution, to behave badly. Convincing the members of Congress and voters who supported him to rescind that support will be an uphill battle.
Which does not mean it is a battle to be avoided. If 2016 has taught us anything, it's that political fortunes can change quickly, and in the most unexpected ways. Opponents of Trump should be vigilant and prepared. But they should also set aside hope – at least, the sort of hope that soothes the soul with promises that the future won't be that bad. Effective politics is not driven by hope but by hard, unflagging, often boring work and a clear vision unclouded by wishful thinking.
In other words, opponents of Trump should keep their Emoluments Clause close, but keep their precinct guides closer.
Originally published in U.S. News & World Report.