An epigraphic poem introducing a chapter of Sir Walter Scott’s 1815 novel Guy Mannering sums up the desultory proceedings of the unprecedented second Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump better than any contemporary language possibly could:
But this poor farce has neither truth, not art,
To please the fancy or to touch the heart.
Dark but not awful, dismal but yet mean,
With anxious bustle move the cumbrous scene,
Presents no objects tender or profound,
But spreads its cold unmeaning gloom around.
As most attentive observers knew it would from well before its February 9 start, the trial ended in Mr. Trump’s acquittal—ten votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority to convict. Whatever truth was in it got muddled, not least by Chief Justice John Roberts’ shameful and anti-constitutional refusal to preside. (He should now be subject to impeachment.) Whatever art there may have been vanished beneath the din of video-replay violence and bold-faced lies. And for all its anxious bustle, cold unmeaning gloom is the impression left glowering: The nation’s multilayered divisions are no better for it, and may be worse.
So if the outcome surprises almost no one, why did the Democrats proceed with it?
Two rationales arose in the wake of January 6. The first was that President Trump’s conduct well before and especially on that day was so egregiously irresponsible that it could not be allowed to pass into history unremarked. The second was to force Republican Senators to go on the record not just for posterity, but, more important, so that voters could hold them accountable during coming election cycles. Were he to be convicted, Trump could never again run for national office, thus weakening him politically. But even acquittal, most Democrats believed—thanks to the manifest lying, calculated evasion, and altogether bad faith of the GOP leadership necessary to produce such an outcome—would deepen the split within, and thereby weaken, the GOP.
Taken together, these reasons rapidly created momentum, and the problem with momentum is that it tends to resist steering and the application of brakes. So when problems arose with the impeachment logic, it was too late to reverse course.
Misreadings & Miscalculations
The first problem was that it quickly became clear that President-elect Joe Biden was none too keen on the idea. He feared that a circus-like trial so early in his tenure would deflect attention from his agenda and slow down the confirmation process of key officials. Biden’s view was that lives were at stake; the public should know that all hands were contending with the worsening pandemic and the affected economy, so this was no time for political spectacle.
So Biden found himself in a bind. If he put down his foot against another Senate trial he would further divide his party and harm the appearance, if not also the reality, of his control over it. He parried by quietly exacting conditions from House and Senate Democrats as to the short length of the coming trial by video alone, without witnesses.
While some of the trial managers longed to get more politically useful revelations on the record by calling select witnesses, that would have opened up opportunities for the Republicans to protract the trial to the point of miasmic public fatigue. Biden’s Delaware ally, Senator Chris Coons, came to the rescue: “The jury is ready to vote,” he said, “People want to get home for Valentine’s Day.” Thus were the bizarre and banal added to the desultory.
So the truth is that Donald Trump was not really on trial last week; his guilt was too obvious for that (even to Republicans; a secret ballot probably would have attained a two-thirds vote, but secrecy could not have turned the political trick). Rather, it was the Republican Party that the Democrats put on trial.
The second problem for the impeachment momentum was that the GOP and Democratic Party leaderships alike expected a sharp flow of political influence away from Trump following January 6 and back to more conventional Republican manners and mien. That is why Mitch McConnell, seeking to encourage that movement, finally admitted what dozens of Republican election officials and judges had already concluded: the “stolen election” claim was a baseless Big Lie, just as former Attorney General William Barr said it was to Trump’s face using a male bovine extrusion metaphor.
McConnell waited more than a month after the election to speak out, until after the January 5 Georgia Senate runoffs, in hopes of remaining majority leader. Transactional purist that he is, McConnell changed his tune only to stay atop the pulsating post-January 6 political heap. House Minority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) did the same, as did Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and several others. The equivocation gyrations alone could have powered the Russell Senate Office Building for a month.
They miscalculated. Within a week most Republican officeholders had already smelled the populist winds blowing in their faces. Despite all that had happened, by early February 67 percent of Republican voters still believed that the election had been stolen from Trump; a majority of them believed Trump had done nothing wrong on January 6; and shockingly large numbers believed, too, that Black Lives Matter and Antifa cadres had been responsible for the attack on the Capitol—a smaller but still very big lie offered up on Fox News and related outlets by the likes of Sarah Palin and others. This shows yet again, if more proof were needed, that once someone swallows a Big Lie, little ones subsequently go down like the finest hors d’oeuvres.
If anything, the fortunes of institutional Republicans worsened further in the three-week run up to the trial. In late January, forty-five GOP Senators proclaimed that an impeachment trial against an ex-president was ipso facto unconstitutional. Meanwhile, in Arizona, the Republican Party censured Cindy McCain just for being Cindy McCain, the Wyoming GOP censured Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) for daring to tell the truth, and QAnon was still spreading, even to the top of several state GOP party organizations—Texas, Oregon, Hawaii, Arizona, Wyoming, and others—despite the failure of the predicted “storm” to occur, a storm uncannily parallel to the Evangelicals’ “Rapture.”
How Will the Cat Land?
It’s not unusual for a losing party in a democratic system to get more extreme, at least initially. It happened to the British Labour Party fairly recently, and in some ways Democratic responses to loss in November 2016 furnish an example closer to home. The typical pattern is for the party to eventually move back toward the center once it realizes it will never win national office again from the far flanks of public opinion.
Such a realization on behalf of Republicans depends, of course, on the extent to which Donald Trump maintains his cultic power over the rank-and-file right-wing voter. In January 2016 he boasted that he could shoot someone on New York City’s Fifth Avenue without harming his political standing. He has been proven correct so far. Instigating an insurrection against the Congress itself while in session did not separate Trump from his base, whose apparent belief in several maximally preposterous propositions illustrates the cultic character of America’s still-raging populist upsurge.
This precisely is the cauldron of uncertainty that has put McConnell and the GOP leadership in a bind. McConnell, as though trying to balance himself on top of a large beach ball, voted to acquit, but then turned with fury and declared Trump responsible for incitement on January 6. McConnell is now reduced to a hedgehog forced to imitate a falling cat by doing whatever is necessary to land himself (and his party’s electoral hopes) on his feet.
Every Republican Senator could have helped prevent the attack on the Capitol—and probably the GOP’s loss of the Senate—had they voted with Mitt Romney to convict Trump in February 2020. As several observers have pointed out, to convict him in February 2021 would have been to tacitly admit they had been wrong all along in backing Trump or trying to duck him. Politicians rarely summon such bravery, and only six of forty-nine (Romney stands apart) did.
Most Republicans legislators are afraid of their own voters, and in the face of that fear have abdicated the responsibilities of leadership. Sometimes, rarely but critically, leaders have to tell people how to protect their own civic virtue—for example, by not letting spasms of mob democracy destroy the fundaments of a carefully constructed democratic republic. Apropos of that well-appreciated danger, John Adams wrote in a letter dated December 17, 1814, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Cowardice has usually been the reason, as it is again now. We Americans have therefore come very close, and remain very close, to offing our democracy because of it.
There is only one sure way back to safety for American democracy: At next opportunity voters must hold the GOP’s cowardly elephants accountable for their failure to hold Trump accountable. There is hope on this front.
Americans are on the whole unerringly appalled by political violence. The violence attending the post-May 25 Black Lives Matter protests, and the Democrats’ failure to quickly and persuasively condemn it, generated a boomerang effect that nearly threw the election to Trump despite his abject failure to deal effectively with the pandemic. Similarly, to the extent that the video-spectacle trial has joined Trump’s name to the perpetrators of January 6 in the public eye, it may end up having a decisive effect on future voters.
As several foregoing facts attest, however, unusually large shards of the American nation are presently quite irrational. The massive ambient anxiety caused by the pandemic is surely responsible for some of it. Gustave Flaubert’s comment in A Sentimental Education (1869) on the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848 in Paris, which also involved the attack and ransacking of symbolically important buildings, stands as a warning:
For fear of an epidemic, a commission of enquiry had been set up…. The ones who’d taken no part in the actual fighting were particularly anxious to demonstrate their keenness; people were panic-stricken and blindly settling old scores against … everything that had been infuriating them for three months…. The public mind was disturbed, as though after some cataclysm. Some intelligent people remained fools for the rest of their lives as a result. [emphasis added]
Our public mind has had its fair share of disturbance. McConnell may not land on his feet after all. Even a cat can get too dizzy to sense where the ground is. Alas, greater trials await us. We may hope with all our heart for the rising success of the nation’s better angels in the months and years ahead, but the Lord of the Flies is notably heartless, and he stalks the land.
Adam Garfinkle is an editorial board member of American Purpose and a distinguished fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University. A shorter version of this analysis appeared in the Straits Times on February 18.
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