Arguing Impeachment Using Moral Foundations Theory

Matthew Buzard
9 min readOct 30, 2019
On August 15, 2019, President Trump speaking at campaign rally in Manchester, N.H.

In The Righteous Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt applied evolutionary psychology and anthropology to develop the Moral Foundations Theory, which ascribes six foundational principles of morality seen across disciplines, eras, cultures, and even species. The six foundations are: (1) care/harm, (2) fairness/cheating, (3) loyalty/betrayal, (4) authority/subversion, (5) sanctity/degradation, and (6) liberty/oppression. Through surveying and polling, Haidt discovered a stark difference between the conservative and liberal moral makeup.

In short, liberals generally have a three-factor morality that applies only care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression, while conservative morality applies all six foundations. Understanding humanity’s moral framework, Haidt explains, will better our ability to communicate and solve problems with those across the political aisle. Thus, when making arguments to conservatives, liberals should attempt to use all six moral foundations because using the three-factor, liberal morality will not be convincing to conservatives and their six-factor morality. If you ever wish to change someone’s mind, you must appeal to their sense of morality and values.

The liberty/oppression foundation is omitted from the graph above because the theory behind that foundation came later.

If impeachment and removal of President Trump is possible, the Democrats will need to change the minds of Republicans in Congress. Sure, Democrats might never convince twenty Republican Senators to vote for removal. But for Democrats to remove President Trump via the 2020 Election, they must convince some independent, moderate, and right-of-center voters that President Trump is inept and abusing his presidential power. To make a much more compelling case, the Democrats should apply Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory.

Before proceeding, we should summarize the relevant background facts surrounding the impeachment inquiry.

The Trump–Ukraine scandal … revolves around efforts by U.S. President Donald Trump to coerce Ukraine and other foreign countries into providing damaging narratives about 2020 Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden and about Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. Trump [allegedly] enlisted surrogates within and outside his official administration, including his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr, to pressure Ukraine and other foreign governments to cooperate in supporting conspiracy theories concerning American politics. Trump blocked payment of a congressionally mandated $400 million military aid package to [allegedly] obtain quid pro quocooperation from Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine. A number of contacts were established between the White House and the government of Ukraine, culminating in a July 2019 phone call between Trump and Zelensky.

The scandal reached public attention in mid-September 2019 due to a whistleblower complaint made in August 2019. The complaint raised concerns about Trump using presidential powers to solicit foreign electoral intervention in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The Trump White House has corroborated several allegations raised by the whistleblower. A non-verbatim transcript of the Trump–Zelensky call confirmed that Trump requested investigations into Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, as well as a conspiracy theory involving a Democratic National Committee server, while repeatedly urging Zelensky to work with Giuliani and Barr on these matters. The White House also confirmed that a record of the call had been stored in a highly restricted system. The Trump administration’s top diplomat to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, testified that he was told U.S. military aid to Ukraine and a Trump–Zelensky White House meeting were dependent on Zelensky publicly announcing investigations into the Bidens and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. Trump has also publicly urged Ukraine and China to investigate the Bidens.

For more, go here.

Ever since Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry, conservatives and liberals have argued back and forth about what is an impeachable offense, what type of quid pro quo is an impeachable quid pro quo, and whether President Trump should be impeached and removed from office.

Taking each moral foundation in turn, this article advises Democrats on how to make morally compelling impeachment arguments. On the popular progressive podcast Pod Save America, Jon Favreau asserted that pro-impeachment arguments should center on a single theme: presidential abuse of office. Having one simple, cohesive theme will help shield the narrative from confusion and distraction. Thus, each moral argument should interweave around this theme: President Trump has enriched himself by abusing the office of the presidency.


Described in short on, the harm foundation “is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.” Pretty simple to understand, one basis of our morality comes from a desire to not harm others. Haidt’s data suggests that — while both liberals and conservatives value harm — liberals generally see potential harm as nearly always relevant in their moral decision-making (see graph above).

By holding the aid to Ukraine, President Trump sought to harm the political reputation of Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. Whether it actually harmed Biden is unclear, especially with recent polling. But regardless, pushing the Biden-harm narrative will likely change no conservative minds. Conservatives, generally speaking, may not be so sympathetic for the current democratic primary front-runner, who was President Obama’s V.P., and who has the best shot to beat Trump in an election. Also and especially when the accusations about Hunter Biden (at minimum) give the appearance of misconduct.

So where should Democrats focus to best appeal to the harm foundation? The Ukrainian military is currently struggling in a conflict with “Russian-backed separatists.” This should be the focus. What was the harm to the Ukrainian military effort when President Trump usurped congressional authority and suspended the aid to Ukraine for approximately seven months? Presumably conservatives that highly value military and national defense would be sympathetic to one of our allies struggling in a battle against Russian forces. While the Ukrainian soldiers dug trenches, President Trump attempted to leverage his power to gain an electoral advantage in 2020. This narrative is a much more effective appeal to conservative care/harm morality.

A Ukrainian military drill takes place in Oct. 2017. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Fairness/Cheating and Loyalty/Betrayal

The fairness foundation “is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.” This foundation is pretty easy to invoke in this case. Trump wanted to target Biden because Biden has the best chance, according to polling, of defeating Trump in 2020. Trump wanted an advantage; he wanted to use his power to defeat his top opponent. Pushing this narrative should focus on the advantage Trump gained by going outside the bounds of normalcy and fairness. Cheaters should not go unchecked.

For the loyalty foundation, “This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s ‘one for all, and all for one.’”

I think appealing to the loyalty foundation, in this case, is similar to the fairness foundation. Gaining an unfair electoral advantage cannot be seen as an act of self-sacrifice. Additionally, there isn’t much patriotism in applying leverage to our allies for personal reasons. In common with the harm foundation, I think it would be beneficial to push the Ukraine military angle here, and also combine the cheating aspect found with the fairness foundation arguments.


Again according to, “This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.”

Here I think we risk muddying the overall theme. For the appeal to authority, it would be easy to start arguing about the Emoluments Clause, Trump Administration nepotism, or a general refusal to abide by constitutional norms. While those arguments invoke the authority foundation, Democrats should keep a consistent narrative around a single event: Ukraine. Additional storylines will only make it harder for the American population to follow.

I think it would be best, for this foundation, to focus on the subversion of congressional authority. Congress allocated the aid to Ukraine in the 2019 budget. Congress authorized the aid, but Trump did not respect Congress’ authority to make that decision. Honestly though, tying this to the Ukraine aid isn’t easy. To not stray too far from the cohesive narrative, I think stressing the non-compliance with congressional oversight would be more effective. The Trump Administration’s effort to ignore congressional subpoenas, decry the process as purely partisan, and the personal attacks against those testifying all suggest a general lack of respect for the oversight process. Our legislative and executive branches are supposedly co-equal, and purposefully undermining congressional authority only further erodes foundational ideas behind governmental checks and balances.


The sanctity foundation “was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants.”

As Haidt explains, the sanctity foundation is typically (but not exclusively) applied to religion. The religious theories behind sexuality, cleanliness, and purity are all appeals to this foundation. However, liberals tend to hold sacred foods, diet, meditation, and personal self-care. Further, liberals don’t see the body as a temple with certain restrictions, but rather allow for good feelings through pleasure-seeking.

Initially it seems hard to apply the sanctity foundation tto the Trump impeachment inquiry. But think of the Trump Administration as a body that has been infected with the disease of corruption. Advisors, friends, and presidential appointees have time and again shown themselves to be either fully incompetent or possibly corrupt. Trump has allowed the disease to run rampant.

Again it is easy to get distracted when appealing to conservative’s moral sanctity. For this case it is crucial to focus on Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. As we discover more information about Giuliani’s corrupt conduct and attempts to influence Trump, it will be important to emphasize Giuliani’s presence as violating the sanctity of the White House. Trump made the swamp somehow less pure, and that could be used as a sanctity appeal.


Finally, the liberty foundation “is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.”

Not shockingly, the liberty foundation is most prevalent in libertarian ideologies. Libertarians do not want government bullies invading an individual’s natural law rights. Since this moral foundation is found in both conservatives and liberals, libertarians can often find themselves ideologically aligned with either side of the political aisle. Appealing to this moral foundation will be crucial in swaying libertarian minds.

Unfortunately, the liberty foundation, in my opinion, is the most difficult moral foundation to tie into the Trump-Ukraine impeachment argument. I struggle to square Trump’s malfeasance with him invading the personal liberties of the American public. Frankly, the libertarian commentariat seem either agnostic or split about what to do with Trump impeachment. I think attempting to appeal to our values of liberty, Democrats should continue the strategy used with the authority foundation. Trump’s push to enhance presidential power at the expense of legislative authority and legitimacy could square with our dissatisfaction of bullies. Additionally, Trump seemingly feels he’s above investigation doesn’t conform with the Founder’s ideas about presidential accountability and the rule of law.

Obviously there is room for improvement here — especially with appealing to the liberty foundation — but even if you think my application of the Moral Foundations Theory isn’t perfect, we should all recognize the value. Understanding our collective morality and values is of the utmost importance when attempting to change someone’s mind. We may disagree adamantly, but that doesn’t mean the other side is evil or without morals. Once we accept this and attempt to better understand each other, we can come together and find common ground. For Democrats to convince America, they must develop a consistent, cohesive, and compelling case against President Trump. If that case doesn’t appeal to conservative values and morals, it will ultimately be futile.