Trump Administration

Trump and Temer, the Weak Flesh Presidents

How real are the chances that Donald Trump and Michel Temer, each confronting fresh crises, will face impeachment?

FROM THE MOMENT he took office, there have been calls for him to leave — either by resignation, impeachment, or some form of divine vaporization. This statement could apply as much to Michel Temer, who has presided over a near-continuous state of political chaos since taking over from Dilma Rousseff midway through last year, as Donald Trump, who was sworn in amid the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. Over the last week, however, both presidencies have plumbed new depths. Temer's premiership is in crisis following the emergence of a tape recording in which he reportedly endorses the payment of a bribe to Eduardo Cunha, the jailed former president of the Chamber of Deputies, while Trump is reeling from numerous self-inflicted political wounds arising out of his dismissal of former FBI director James Comey. 

What are the chances Temer and Trump will be forced from office? Impeachment, in both the U.S. and Brazil, is an inherently political process. The likelihood of its materialization depends, essentially, on the levels of political support an incumbent enjoys in the legislature. For both Temer and Trump, the numbers are on their side — but the tide is turning. Members of Temer's large governing coalition have begun to desert him, and there are signs of growing disquiet among congressional Republicans, who once dismissed the notion of impeaching Trump as a liberal fantasy but are now taking the accusations against the president more seriously

Predata's signals are not designed to predict one-off events like impeachments or coups, but they can offer insight into the intensity of the public conversation around each presidency, which is a proxy for factors indirectly affecting the likelihood of impeachment. Lawmakers are naturally sensitive to the winds of popular opinion; the legislative support incumbents enjoy will always depend, at least in part, on their levels of public support. By looking at the digital debate, we can say how popular contestation of each presidency is evolving — and what that might mean for each president's levels of support among lawmakers. In Temer's case, there's also the very helpful recent example of his predecessor's own impeachment, which serves as a barometer of sorts for the volatility of digital debate throughout Brazil in times of great political stress. (Former president Fernando Collor was also impeached in the early 90s, but this was well before Predata time began.)

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It will not be until after Memorial Day that a date is set for the testimony of former FBI director Comey before the senate intelligence committee. Barring further revelations, slip-ups or whoopsy-daisy disclosures by the president of classified intelligence to foreign powers, Comey's testimony looms as the next key event in the unfolding crisis of Trump's administration. 

To understand the intensity of the digital debate about this crisis, we built a Donald J. Trump impeachment index. This index expresses not the likelihood of an impeachment — for the reasons stated above, that's not something on which Predata can offer direct insight — but fluctuations in the online discussion about the multiple political brush fires surrounding the White House. The index includes Wikipedia pages in all languages on the Trump presidency itself, as well as individual pages devoted to different controversies that have blighted the young administration: the Flynn resignation, the Lavrov disclosures, the Comey memos, and so on. The page on efforts to impeach Trump is also in there. 

The chart above shows the history of the index since Trump's inauguration. The index reached its highest level in three months late last week, largely on the back of spikes in interest in the Trump impeachment page, the dismissal of Comey, and the Lavrov disclosures. That stands to reason, of course — and reflects a simple intensification of the news flow. The fact that Trump has an impeachment page, it's also worth noting, is in no way remarkable or unique to Trump: both George Bush and Barack Obama have pages on Wikipedia outlining efforts to get them booted from office. 

The signal reached its highest level ever on February 13, the day that Michael Flynn resigned as national security advisor. The conversation may have intensified in recent days, but it's still well off the levels it reached around the time of Flynn's departure. Unlike Temer, who sits atop a fragile and loose coalition unsoldered by any sense of common party discipline or loyalty, Trump's congressional backing comes from a single, relatively unified party. Without a more robust expression of popular anger — or, to put it another way, a fresh burst of record volatility in Predata's impeachment index — it's unlikely Republican members of Congress will be moved to desert the president in sufficiently large numbers to make impeachment viable. If no longer the liberal fever dream it once was, the impeachment of Donald J. Trump remains a long way in the distance.

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Things don't look quite so good for Temer, however. Predata's sector rollup signal — a measure of country-level political volatility built from equally weighted component sectors — gives an indication of the impact of this latest wave of the now-three-year-old Lava Jato investigation on the overall digital conversation related to Brazil. Because the signal is stable in its composition across its history, we can also do credible comparisons to past signal activity. 

The chart above shows the sector rollup signal, along with the individual signals for the government and economy sectors. Focusing on the government sector signal — which reflects the intensity of debate about political issues in Brazil — it's clear that the digital conversation spiked in recent days but has yet to reach the peaks of volatility witnessed in April-May 2016, when the lower house voted to impeach Rousseff, or September 2016, when the senate approved her ouster. It's also well off the highs seen in December 2015-January 2016, when protests against Rousseff began to gather steam. At the same time, however, the crisis surrounding Temer's presidency has yet to reach any of the stages that generated these peaks: nationwide protests have really only begun to erupt over the last few days, but the digital conversation is already louder than it was at the equivalent point in Rousseff's presidency, in mid-December 2015. This is a bad sign for Temer. The temperature of public opinion is rising, it appears, far more quickly and far earlier than it did for Rousseff ahead of her impeachment. 

Of course, there's nothing to say history must repeat itself for impeachment to proceed. The impeachment of a Brazilian president can be a drawn-out affair, as was the case with Rousseff, or a quick and dirty divorce: Fernando Collor was gone in three months. Nor is there anything to say that the digital debate this time round must reach the same levels seen in 2016 before impeachment of Temer can go ahead; the bar to remove a president elected solely by the legislature (as Temer was) is arguably lower, and calls for less proof of public rage, than the bar to remove a directly elected president such as Rousseff. 

Whatever way you look at things, the signs for Temer are almost all bad: growing protests, evaporating political support, and a rapidly intensifying digital debate. The structural weakness of his position as an indirectly elected president only makes things worse. The recording implicating the president (or rather, the report of the recording; no audio or transcripts have been released) surfaced as part of a plea bargain between JBS, a meat processing company, and the federal police. JBS has been under legal pressure since March, when the police launched an investigation known as Operation Carne Fraca over the company's practice of mixing rotten meat into meat sold domestically and abroad. “Carne Fraca” means “weak flesh.” That could equally describe the vitality of Temer's political being today. ⏪

Aaron Timms is Predata's Director of Research. Contact: aaron@predata.com.