For a brief moment on the evening of January 6th, when — after the insurrectionists were routed from the U.S. Capitol Building — the Senate reconvened to certify the election of President Biden, it looked as though the GOP might finally denounce and abandon Donald Trump. That night, Senators from both sides of the aisle condemned the insurrection, and only eight Republican Senators ended up voting to overturn the certification of the Electoral College. But that moment of reconciliation and political readjustment passed when, a week after the insurrection, only ten Republican members of the House voted to impeach Trump.
Yesterday, Trump was acquitted. After an eleventh-hour push to allow the calling of witnesses was eventually abandoned, the Senate held a final impeachment vote. The 67-vote majority threshold was not met, and only 7 Republican Senators joined all 50 Democrats in voting to convict.
None of this should be surprising. No American political party in recent history has been as tied to a single individual as the modern Republican Party is to Trump. Through global pandemic and economic collapse, the loss of both houses of Congress and the presidency, and a widespread effort to discredit the results of the 2020 Election, the GOP has tethered itself to Trump through it all. In a cult of personality as strong as Trump’s, there is no line which if crossed will lose him the loyalty of his base — even the loss of over 400,000 Americans to COVID or the storming of the U.S. Capitol.
That the line should be drawn at insurrection should not need to be said. But the Republican Party, given the opportunity to rid themselves of a political character so amoral, so nihilistic, so vindictive and so shameless that he actively incited an invasion of the U.S. Capitol — given that opportunity, the GOP has instead doubled-down, fearful of the wrath of their Trump-infatuated constituents.
Impeachment was doomed from the moment that Trump became the Republican Party, yet this impeachment, far more than last year’s, will change Trump’s legacy and historical image. Trump’s crimes, well-presented and publicized by impeachment, will destroy him in the eyes of posterity; his deceit and his role in the insurrection will disqualify him from future office, even though the Senate did not formally bar him from running again. Watching impeachment, history professor Kathryn Cramer Brownell said to The New York Times that “the insurrection would be the defining moment of his presidency.”
All this was made possible because of the effective prosecution argument from the House impeachment managers, led by Representative Jamie Raskin. Raskin’s presentation was excellent because it centered on the idea, as David Graham wrote in The Atlantic, that in Trump’s America, “nothing is sacred — not norms, not alliances, not the rule of law, not common decency.” The prosecution was persuasive, exigent, powerful, and sometimes even moving, and the fact that it changed no Republican votes and changed no Republican minds is just one expression of the single most important political issue of our time: the GOP doesn’t care about democracy.
“My dear colleagues, is there any political leader in this room who believes that if he’s ever allowed by the Senate to get back into the Oval Office, Donald Trump would stop inciting violence to get his way?” Representative Raskin asked Congress. “Would you bet the lives of more police officers on that? Would you bet the safety of your family on that? Would you bet the future of your democracy on that?”
Republican Senators know they are on the wrong side of history, and impeachment makes that reality inescapable. David Frum, a conservative political commentator, wrote in The Atlantic, “There is no defense. There is only complicity… And the House managers forced every Republican senator to feel that complicity from the inside out.”
If justice is guaranteed by some godly force, the Republican cowards who have forfeited their right to defend the union by inciting its near-destruction will pay in oppressive guilt; they will toil beneath the knowledge that their complicity will taint their name through history; and posterity will look back on this crime and these perpetrators only with shame and a resolve to never again cede the keys of the republic to such tyrants.
Out of another failed impeachment, the most important lesson learned is that “we still want democracy,” as George Packer wrote in an article for The Atlantic. And not just democracy, but vivacious democracy — a republic that defends its people and advances their interests.
Biden may be the most progressive president since Lyndon B. Johnson. His ascendence is the triumph of the left over Reaganomic neoliberalism. Steeping his inaugural address in almost religious language, Biden has the opportunity to argue that what is morally right has a place in politics — that government must help its citizens because it has a solemn obligation to do so. It is this brand of progressivism that conquered the Great Depression and defeated the Nazi and Japanese empires, that served as the political vanguard of civil rights and promoted global peace, that declared a “War on Poverty” and produced Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the National Park System.
In this vein, impeachment is a reset button: “This trial is not borne from hatred, far from it,” said Representative Joe Neguse, one of the House impeachment managers, in his closing remarks yesterday. “It’s borne from love of country, our country, our desire to maintain it, our desire to see America at its best.”
In engaging in the perilous battle to preserve the union and our republic, to save it from a political nihilism that holds nothing to be sacred, we learn that the struggle is not easy or quick but, above all, necessary.
“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered,” said Raskin, “but we have this saving consolation: The more difficult the struggle, the more glorious in the end will be our victory.”