It’s almost certain you’ve seen Rep. Maxine Waters recently.
Bill O’Reilly said her hair reminded him of a “James Brown wig” and Waters clapped back — “I am a strong black woman and cannot be intimidated.” The Internet promptly began worshipping at what Elle, a frequent chronicler of Waters’s cable appearances, called “the Church of Maxine.”
But Waters was on a televised crusade long before O’Reilly’s sneering insult raised her profile. She’s been trying to insinuate impeachment into the Washington conversation surrounding President Trump. Not many other Democrats are doing the same; none at nearly the same volume, and it has made Waters the institutional voice of the left’s angry id in the Trump era.
By FiveThirtyEight’s count of television, radio and print interviews since January, starting a few days before the inauguration,1 Waters has made at least 22 public statements suggesting that investigations into the Trump administration could lead to the uncovering of impeachable offenses. Typically, Waters, who represents California’s 43rd District, brings up what she calls Trump’s “Kremlin Klan,” asks why there are so many administration ties to Russia and says that if investigators drill down, they’re likely to find something worthy of impeachment.
It’s not as if Waters is the only Democrat to have brought up impeachment — so have Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas and Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland. All four impeachment-minded members come from strongly Democratic districts. Hillary Clinton won 78 percent of the vote in Waters’s district, 74 percent in Ellison’s, 61 percent in Castro’s and 65 percent in Raskin’s. But Waters has been the loudest, most consistent voice for impeachment, even as House leader Nancy Pelosi has tried to tamp down such loose talk: “[There] are grounds for displeasure and unease in the public about the performance of this president … that is not grounds for impeachment,” she said in February, right after Waters said that her “greatest desire” was to “lead [Trump] right into impeachment.”
“As the leader, [Pelosi] has to be concerned about all facets of her caucus,” Waters told me. “I don’t have the same responsibility.” In other words, Waters doesn’t feel burdened by restrictive politesse — she’s happy to burn bridges as a means to her ends, which is expelling Trump from the White House. This unvarnished style is why Waters has found so many new fans in the Democratic “resistance” set, particularly among younger voters.
“The millennials are relating to me,” Waters said. “It’s because I dare speak truth to power.” Indeed an “Auntie Maxine” meme has spread so widely that Waters’s office recently sent out a press release, “Auntie Maxine’s Tax Day March Open Mic Reception,” to promote an event this Friday in Washington. Waters gushes about the younger set whenever possible: “I love what they taught me to say: ‘stay woke,’” she said in a recent interview.
What her newest supporters might not know is that Waters is no stranger to controversy. She has long thrived by giving an insider voice to the outrage of the left zeitgeist at any particular time; this isn’t even her first flirtation with impeachment talk for a Republican president. In 2007, Waters lent her support to a movement to impeach George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, calling it “one of the most important efforts this country has ever seen.” In 1998, she called the moves toward Bill Clinton’s impeachment “a Republican coup d’etat.”
After winning election to the House in 1990, Waters gained national notice in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots as a voice of the black community there. The New York Times wrote that, “more than any other political leader representing Los Angeles, more even than Mayor Tom Bradley, Mrs. Waters seemed to be all over the airwaves, acting as a voice of the disenfranchised after the unrest broke out. She scared some people and angered others by focusing on justifying rather than condemning the violent reaction to the verdict.”
Waters offered not a defense of the rioters, but an explanation for their actions and bluntly pointed out that she thought the white establishment in media and government had a blind spot. “There really are expectations from whites and white journalists that we’re going to go out there and say, ‘Cool it, baby, cool it,’” she told the Times. “But that’s all they want us to do. I know how to talk to my people. I know how to get my point across and I think I did it.”
A fiery style has served Waters well but also opened her to institutional reprimand, and she has been accused of unethical behavior during her time in Congress; she was charged by the House Ethics Committee in 2010 for helping bail out a bank in which her husband owned stock. She was later exonerated. In 1994, she got in a disagreement with Republican Rep. Peter King of Long Island, whom she felt he had mistreated a female witness during the Whitewater hearings. “The day is over when men can badger and intimidate women!” Waters shouted from the podium.
“You are always out of order,” King said to her, to which Waters replied, “You are out of order. Shut up.” On CSPAN footage of the incident, a number of House aides can be seen gathering by the chair’s desk, consulting; it turns out they were looking for the Mace of The House of Representatives to present to Waters (an official punitive measure) but they couldn’t figure out where it was.
While such a high-octane style might have seemed out of place with the more staid politics of the 1990s — or at least we can look back from the perilous perch of 2017 and call them staid — the national political conversation has gradually come around to where Waters, the consummate partisan, could always be found. The year 2017 seems to be the moment Waters was destined for, and she knows it.
“I felt that this was the life I wanted to have,” she said of politics. “Where I could do something meaningful and could change some of the injustice and undermining in this country.”